Paul Foot

Icon, icon in the wall ...

(15 July 1989)

From Socialist Worker, 15 July 1989.
Reprinted in Paul Foot, Articles of Resistance, London 2000, pp. 22–24.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

What makes an icon out of an iconoclast?

Perhaps the greatest iconoclast of all time was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. He was an incurable atheist before the Russian Revolution and after it. He went to extravagant lengths to make sure no one in the new revolutionary leadership of Russia was worshipped while alive or when dead.

He observed how hierarchical class society indulged in unashamed ancestor worship. Ruling class mandarins became infatuated with the terror of death. Many could not believe that they would ever die, but they compensated for their mortality by fantastic rituals after death.

Their religions reassured them that in some way or other their soul or spirit would live on in even greater glory than on earth. To make sure of it they embalmed, buried or entombed each other’s dead bodies in grandiloquent ceremonies.

As the acknowledged leader of revolutionary Russia, Lenin insisted on living the life of an ordinary citizen, wholly unadorned with pomp or ceremony. He wrote and spoke often about the importance of a secular approach to life and death and castigated the very notion that the dead were in any way at all more important than the living.


When he died in 1924, a furious argument broke out among his followers about what should be done with his body. The immediate, Leninist reaction was published in Pravda: ‘We must not venerate the corpse of Comrade Lenin, but his cause.’

This was the standard Bolshevik view argued vociferously by Trotsky and Bukharin. Lenin’s widow, Krupskaya, pleaded: ‘Don’t make an icon out of Ilyich.’

It seemed for a day or two that this conventional Leninist view would prevail. But the Communist Party had already slipped into the hands of Stalin and his allies. They unleashed an orgy of adoration for the dead hero.

‘Under no circumstances can we give to the earth such a great and intensely beloved leader as Ilyich’, argued one leader in the Moscow newspaper Rabochaya Moskva. ‘We suggest his remains be embalmed and left under glass for hundreds of years.’

Stalin agreed. As Lenin’s will proved, Lenin himself had been extremely suspicious of Stalin in the early 1920s. Above all, Lenin was disgusted by Stalin’s religiosity. Stalin loved ornaments, symbols, icons. He believed people should worship their leaders.

He set to work with consummate skill to turn the Russian people’s love and respect for Lenin into post-mortem corpse worship. He set up a body, horribly entitled the Immortalisation Commission, which threw up a makeshift mausoleum into which Lenin’s embalmed body was moved only six days after his death.

In 1930 it was moved into the great granite monstrosity where it has been ever since (except for a break during the war when, in fear of invasion, it was moved with great difficulty and expense to a safe hiding place in the Urals).


There, millions of people from all over the world have come to pay their respects to the mummified and petrified body of a man whose whole life was dedicated to the ending of mummification and petrification. Only a handful of ‘splitters and sectarians’ were suitably disgusted.

Now that more and more Russians are beginning to think for themselves, one or two people who imagine that glasnost means what it says have expressed doubts about the whole ghastly business, and even suggested that poor old Lenin might be afforded the humble burial or cremation he would have wanted.

Not many weeks ago Mark Zakharov, director of the Leninsky Komosol theatre, went on an increasingly popular late night television show called Vzglyad. No matter how much we hate or love a person,’ he said mildly, ‘we don’t have the right to deprive him of burial.’

How did this very moderate and unsuperstitious idea go down with the unsuperstitious moderates who, we are told, run Russia today? It was immediately ostracised and denounced in terms of which Stalin would have been proud.


A former political commentator, Georgi A. Zhukov, asked: ‘Why is our state television tolerating such statements?’ The party leader in Vladimir, Ratmir S. Bobovikov, described any argument at all about whether to downgrade Lenin’s body to the miserable status of that of any other mortal as ‘simply immoral’.

However much ‘freedom’ is being introduced into the Russian system, its rulers know perfectly well that the icon Lenin is of much more use to them than the iconoclast Lenin. They need Lenin as a symbol of hierarchy and immortality more than ever before.

For them the great advantage of having Lenin embalmed and worshipped is that it deflects his adorers from reading him, understanding him and, worst of all, acting on his advice.

Last updated on 30 June 2014