Monday, April 24, 2006

Lenin's Mausoleum.Cleaning the Review Stands.

Face to Face with Vladimir Lenin

On a bright morning in early March, I had 10 hours to fill in Moscow and, like most visitors to the city, I headed directly to Red Square. St Basil’s Cathedral was exquisite in the early morning light and so, after photographing to my heart’s content and thawing my frozen fingers over a breakfast of tea and blini with a local friend at a quiet cafĂ©, I headed toward Lenin’s Mausoleum, which overlooks the area.

Red Square is cordoned off in the mornings until the mausoleum closes at 1:00, we learned. That translates into walking about ten times farther than necessary to reach the entrance to the mausoleum. But that, dear comrades, is another story.

Lenin wanted to be buried next to his mother in St Petersburg, they say. It wasn’t his idea to be placed in a glass coffin, his mortal remains on public display for the next 80-plus years. But since his death in January of 1924, thousands have filed past the body of this man who so influenced the world.

Lines are considerably shorter nowadays and on the day of my visit, only handful of us were there. I was totally fine with that. Once inside the mausoleum, it was quiet, dark and chilled. The narrow corridor was lined with black, granite-like stone leading to the steps down into the tomb. In the semi-darkness, only the face of a soldier was visible and he stood under a single light at the end of the corridor. His gloved hand was held chest-high and pointed to the right. So I went that-a-way. At the end of that corridor was the same sight, an expressionless face lit by an overhead light, a gloved hand pointing right. So I shuffled along in the dark, trying to anticipate the steps.

What I saw next reminded me of a phrase of a beloved hymn, Low in the grave He lay. There was the body of Vladimir Illyich Lenin. Very quiet, still and cold. No surprise there. A walkway surrounds the glass sarcophagus on three sides and I paused to view the body that had been there for decades already. The face was almost translucent, like fine porcelain. A guard approached me.

Lady, you must keep moving.
Well, okay, I thought. But I’m the only one in here at the moment, save for those ever-so-watchful guards. I’ll keep moving but it will be slow enough that I can soak in details. See, a person can walk around that coffin in a heartbeat and that’s the end of it. From there,  another dark corridor leads outside. There are no displays and no memorabilia. No photographs and no plaques. All is very solemn, quiet and dignified. And very black.

I was itching to jot down the details quick-like before I forgot. I stepped out into the sunlight, reached for my notebook and started scribbling notes. I needed a place to sit and write. What better place than those stone benches that flank the mausoleum. Before brushing off the snow to sit down, I walked over to the guard for permission.
Nyet, he said semi-apologetically.
That’s understandable, I figured. Those are the review stands from which dignitaries watch official parades and such. But nobody was there; it wasn’t as though I would be taking anyone’s spot. But I understand. The place was to be sacred versus common.
So, how about if I just stand here and write, I bartered?
Nyet, you’ve got to keep moving.
All-righty then. I can walk verrry slowly and keep writing. As I neared the end of the review stands, another soldier there was watching. It was a slow day on Red Square and his full attention was on me.
Zdrast-vwee-tye, I greeted him formally and nodded. His eyes widened slightly, hearing a foreign accent.
Lady, why are you writing? What is it that's of interest to you here? He took at my notepad and I imagined he might confiscate it.
Everything is interesting. I want to remember all these details. And if I don’t write it down right away, I’ll forget it. I wanted to add, And furthermore, in about 30 years when you’re 50, you’ll understand perfectly.
Well, lady, you must remember what you see and write it down after you leave. You may not write while you’re here.
Welcome to modern Russia, I said with more of a smile than I felt.
Da, he chuckled. Welcome to modern Russia.

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How about you, dear Blog Reader, have you visited Lenin's Mausoleum? Please do share. . .