Russian Orthodoxy and Lenin’s Tomb

Published September 14, 2011

The Catholic Difference

Almost forty years ago, an aging Anglican clergyman told me a story about his first trip to Paris as a boy – perhaps in the 1920s. His grandfather had called him in, told him that he had a gift to be used in the French capital, and then gave my friend a small pocket mirror. The boy, puzzled, asked his grandfather what the mirror might be for. The following dialogue ensued:

“You are going to Paris, I understand?”

“Yes, Grandfather.”

“I suppose they’ll take you to see where they’ve buried the little monster” (meaning Napoleon, in Les Invalides).

“Well, when you get there, you’ll see that things have been arranged so that Englishmen must bow their heads when looking down at him” (Napoleon is buried in a huge red quartzite sarcophagus on which one does, in fact, look down when entering Les Invalides).

“Yes, Grandfather.”

“Well, my boy, you are to stand with your back to him and, if you must see his tomb, hold the mirror over your head and look at the tomb through it.”

“Yes, Grandfather.”

I hadn’t thought of this story in decades – until I read this past summer that the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow was urging caution in the face of pressures to remove Lenin’s mummified corpse from its granite mausoleum in Red Square and bury the remains. “It is obvious that the condition of Lenin’s body does not fit into Russia’s cultural tradition….but we should take into account the opinions of various social groups and avoid making decisions that entail social upheavals,” said the Russian Orthodox spokesman for “relations between Church and society,” Archpriest Vsevelod Chaplin.


Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known for over a century now by his Bolshevik nom-de-guerre, Lenin, was one of history’s greatest mass murderers. In the course of his ruthless efforts to impose communism on Russia and its neighbors through brutal force, terror, and extra-judicial homicides in the millions, he became one of the greatest persecutors of the Christian Church in two millennia. Lenin’s minions killed more Christians in a slow week than the last of the great Roman persecutors, Diocletian, did in years. All this is thoroughly documented – to the point where Russian Orthodoxy considers many of Lenin’s victims as martyrs and saints and celebrates their feasts in its liturgical calendar.

And yet today’s Russian Orthodox leadership cannot bring itself to say that this monster’s mummified corpse should cease, immediately, being an object of curiosity or veneration?

It is true that there are “various social groups” in Russia who would object to shutting down Lenin’s mausoleum and burying his corpse, because they still regard Lenin as a hero. In the face of such moral imbecility, however, surely the role of Russian Orthodoxy, as one guardian of the truth of Russia’s history, is to explain in detail why no morally sane person would want to honor Lenin. As for those 30% of Russians who are said to want to keep Lenin’s mummy just where it is, because it’s a major tourist attraction and thus a source of income, the Church might well explain that some things are not worth making money from, and that tourists should not be encouraged in their disordered desires.

A senior Catholic official deeply involved in ecumenical affairs once said, of Russian Orthodoxy, that “they don’t know how to be anything other than chaplain to the czar – whoever the czar is.” The martyrs of Orthodoxy under communism belie that wholesale dismissal, although the centuries-long entanglement of the Moscow Patriarchate has created very few models for a Russian Orthodox Church capable of speaking truth to power in 21st century Russia – a country where authoritarianism of an increasingly brutal sort has quickly followed a brief flirtation with genuine democracy. But surely a minimum of self-respect – and respect for its martyrs – ought to compel the Russian Orthodox Church to lead, not oppose or hinder, any move to demythologize Lenin and put an end to his obscene tomb, home to a mummified mass murderer and maniacal persecutor of the Church of Christ.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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