Brendan McGeever is Lecturer in the Sociology of Racialization and Antisemitism in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at the University of London, Birkbeck. He’s the author of several articles exploring antisemitism, racism, revolution and the socialist movements. His most recent article is “The Bolsheviks and Antisemitism” in Jacobin. His book The Bolsheviks and Antisemitism in the Russian Revolution will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2018.
Fugazi, “Waiting Room,” 13 Songs, 1990.
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“Lenin” and “Death”
these words are enemies.
“Lenin” and “Life”
are comrades . . .
–Vladimir Mayakovsky, 1924
Vladimir Ilich Lenin turned 139 last month making him the oldest living person on Earth. However, Lenin does not live like his eulogizers had imagined. When some mourners proclaimed that “Lenin has ceased to be an individual-Lenin belongs to the millions,” or that “Lenin has not died. Lenin lives. There is not a corner in the world . . . where Lenin is absent,” they imagined a transhistorical Lenin, whose spirit marched through time and space. His body may have died, but his essence continued to haunt the world. “And when Ilich was no more, we still had Lenin,” declared the Bolshevik jurist Peter Stuchka. And this transfiguration of the spiritual Lenin from the corporal Ilich even defied the empirical sensitivity of the human eye. “This metamorphosis went on before our eyes imperceptibility,” the jurist added. Yet, this metaphysical Lenin met his demise years ago. No longer does his spirit serve the “world proletariat” as source of inspiration or defiance. Yet, ironically, while Lenin is dead, Ilich still lives.
Perhaps it is wrong to say that Ilich lives. It might be more correct to say that he straddles the line between life and death. Ilich’s mummy state makes him undead. He is, as the wiki definition of undead states, “deceased yet behave[s] as if alive.” Granted, Ilich doesn’t wonder the streets of Moscow, attend restaurants, shits, pisses, or fucks. He hasn’t added to his oeuvre. “Better Fewer, But Better” remains the last article penned by his own hand. Ilich simply lies in state, motionless, in an eternal state of sleep. Mummy Ilich patiently waits for a time when science would revive him, and his two bodies, the corporal Ilich and the spiritual Lenin, would be a reunited whole.
There is, however, one way Ilich lives just like the rest of us. Every few years he’s given a new suit.
Or, he usually gets a new suit. Thanks to the economic crisis, Ilich’s attendants can’t afford to furnish him the threads he’s become accustom to. Lenin is supposed to get a new suit every three years, though his handlers admit it’s more like every 8-10 years. “There are hardly enough funds for the preservation works,” says Yuri Denisov-Nikolsky, deputy head of the Russian Institute for Healing and Aromatic Herbs. “Since 1992, the mummy has been sponsored by charity funds alone. And now we’ve got this crisis.” There is no doubt that Ilich’s suit costs a hefty buck. It’s tailor-made in Switzerland out of lustrine, a soft silky fabric that Lenin preferred when he was more mobile. And if Ilich does rise again, he’ll be in fashion. His suit is a modern cut, which Pravda says “is still popular nowadays in men’s fashion.” But alas, he will remain in the suit, though recently steam cleaned and pressed, he was fitted in 2003. Perhaps this is a testament to capitalism’s true universalization. It even dogs the indefatigable, albeit undead, Lenin.
One might say that the fact Lenin doesn’t acquire a new suit himself is a sign that he is indeed gone. After all, if Lenin truly lives, couldn’t he put in the order to the Swiss himself? Couldn’t he just say, “Bah! Suits are for the bourgeois. Their self worth is always wrapped in fine threads to mask their internal wretchedness and degradation. Give me something simple. Like a tracksuit.” But the truth of the matter is that if there is one constant in Lenin’s life and Ilich’s undeath, is that he rarely picked out his own clothes. Someone else always did it for him.
“[Lenin] was no dandy,” writes his biographer Robert Service. “While wanting to remain tidy, he did not enjoy shopping for clothes; he got others to do this for him–or rather he wore his clothes until such time as one of his relatives became sufficiently exasperated to buy a new suit or a pair of shoes for him.” Indeed, a read through Lenin’s correspondence shows that his mother and sisters were always furnishing his wardrobe. In 1896, in letter to his sister Anna, Lenin wrote, “You can put a few clothes in there, too-an overcoat and suit, a hat. The waistcoat, frock coat and rug that were brought for me can be taken back.” Or to his mother in 1901, “If I have to spend the next winter in these parts [i.e. Munich] I shall write for a quilted coat. Without it you either have to wear a woolen jersey or put on two sets of underclothes (as I do).” In another letter from 1897, Lenin reassured his mother that he had enough winter clothes. “As far as my winter clothes and other things (which you ask about) are concerned, I have ample. I have already bought many winter things in Minusinsk and will buy some more.” Lenin appeared somewhat frustrated with shopping in Minusinsk. In the same letter he complained that there “was practically no choice” in the village shops. “It is difficult for one accustomed to city shops to find anything in them,” he complained. Though he made a promise to rid himself of these “big city habits” when it came to shopping, he still thought in “the St. Petersburg way.” That is, “you have only to go into a shop and get what you want . . .”
Despite, his apparent love for Swiss lustrine, Lenin was never much of a flashy dresser. A lover of hunting, he tended to wear mountain boots, sometimes with a sheepskin coat to protect him from the cold. A 1970 photo of his clothes on display in the Lenin Museum shows that the Bolshevik leader at one time owned a bowler hat, suit jacket, and half boot shoes. Lenin was apparently somewhat vain. His early baldness concerned him, so much that he even asked his sister Maria if there was a way to reverse the process. He kept his beard and remaining hair trim and neat. According to Service, Lenin was a bit of a neat freak. “He hated untidiness–and he admonished family members if they failed to keep their buttons neatly sewn and their shoes repaired.”
Lenin left his own dress in other people’s hands. One such person was Karl Radek. During the journey from Switzerland to join the Revolution in Petrograd, Lenin and his entourage stopped in Stockholm to meet the city’s mayor, Karl Lindhagen. Also present was a reporter from the newspaper Politiken who was writing a profile on the émigré revolutionaries. The incident wouldn’t have been significant, except that it was Lenin’s first audience with an important politician, and perhaps more importantly, the first time his photograph was published in a newspaper. Having a keen eye for the importance of image in politics, Radek recognized that Lenin couldn’t present himself to the public in the shabby clothes. Radek recalled,
Probably it was the decent appearance of our solid Swedish comrades that was evoking in us a passionate desire for Ilich to resemble a human being. We cajoled him at least to buy new shoes. He was traveling in mountain boots with hug nails. We pointed out to him that if the plan had been to ruin the pavements of the disgusting cities of bourgeois Switzerland, his conscience should prevent him from traveling with such instruments of destruction to Petrograd, where perhaps there anyway were now no pavements at all.
Radek quickly rushed Lenin to a department store and fitted him with a new suit and shoes. Now properly dressed, as Service sardonically writes, “he was judged appropriately dressed to lead the struggle against the Russian Provisional Government.
Lenin’s dress markedly changed after arriving in Russia to lead the “proletarian” Revolution. Gone were the worn, heavy mountain boots. He often donned the suit purchased in Switzerland, but added the worker’s cap to his attire. The cap actually wasn’t the one popular among the Russian working class, but rather the cover worn by turn of the century painters. Regardless, Lenin’s suit and cap combo became his signature. It was a class statement that “distinguished him from [other politicians] and their solemn Homburg hats.”
The suit and cap also complimented his wild oral gesticulations. Lenin had a habit of rocking when he spoke. He shoved his thumbs in his waistcoat, and with his left foot forward and the right slightly back, he would bend his body back and forth as if in some Talmudic trance. When beads of sweat tickled down his brow, he would pull out a white handkerchief to dry his shiny dome, giving an almost Pentecostal flare to his theatrics. In his hagiography of Lenin, Lev Trotsky relayed this description from an eye witness:
[Lenin] got up on the platform. He was wearing a dark, I think, a black suit, a short with a turn-down collar and a tie, and a cap on his head. He pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his bald head. I do not remember what he said. I was really paying more attention to how he was speaking. Sometimes he kept bending down quite low from the platform, stretching his arms in front of him; he had his handkerchief in his hand and often wiped his forehead. He often smiled. I was watching his face, his nose, his lips, and his small beard. His speech was often interrupted by clapping and shouting. And so I also shouted.
While Lenin’s cap and rousing sermons skillfully distinguished him from the “bourgeois” politicians, after the Civil War, his suit distinguished him the style of ardent Bolshevik. The latter was a lover of the leather jacket, military tunic, cap, and jackboots. The leather jacket in particular was a sign of an “iron Bolshevik.” For example, the writer V. F. Panova noted in her memoirs that beginning of the 1920s, her husband, a youth from the intellectual family, “forged” himself as an iron Bolshevik. Like other young militants of his time, he spoke with a echoing base, worked at a furious pace, and his main compliment to these was a leather jacket. The iron Bolshevik was a fashion ascetic who considered neckties symbols of the hangman’s noose or a reminder of the slavery of a bygone “bourgeois” era. Many Bolsheviks of Lenin’s generation mocked this fetishism of the leather jacket as “faux proletarian” and a symbol of “communist arrogance,” though there are scattered photos of Lenin in such militarist dress. Despite the ridicule from Bolshevik moralists, the style of the iron Bolshevik persisted throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s where it experienced a revival under Stalin. In the end, Lenin’s conservative and proper tastes contrasted with the Stalin generation, who, though not completely opposed to suits, were more comfortable in their military tunics.
When the Lenin Mausoleum opened on 1 August 1924, mourners passed by an iron gated courtyard of flowers and bushes as they approached two guards standing with fixed bayonets at the entrance. The tomb’s opening was fortified with lacquered wooden beams with a huge sign that read LENIN in black letters above it. Lenin’s new home was decorated in somber communist regalia. A red carpet lined the stairs to his chamber. The walls were covered with a red and black geometric pattern. The ceiling was painted red with a large hammer and sickle in the center. The sarcophagus was padded with red fabric, perhaps velvet, and covered with glass.
Inside was Lenin lying peacefully with his hands crossed above his waist. His lower extremities were covered with black and purple satin. And what was the leader of the proletarian revolution wearing, this so-called symbol of “Marxism in action” as one slogan claimed? Lenin was not dressed in his signature Swiss made suit. Nor did his legendary Lenin cap cover his shiny dome. Rather, Lenin was dressed in the old Bolshevik style: a khaki military tunic with the Order of the Red Banner and the badge of the Central Executive Committee pinned to his breast. And perhaps in an ode to Lenin’s supposed vanity or maybe his obsession with order and cleanliness, Ilich looked as natural as could be. As the American journalist Walter Duranty noted, “The embalmers have even contrived to impart a smile to [his] face.”
Clothes, it is said, make the man. And though afoul to his personal tastes, Ilich would wear his khaki military tunic until the outbreak of WWII. It was then, according to Denisov-Nikolsky, “someone decided that the uniform symbolized Lenin’s militant character and totalitarian policy, and he was immediately dressed in civilian clothes.” A new Lenin for a new era. He has been wearing the same style ever since. But not the same suit. He currently awaits another one not unlike he did when he penned those letters to his mother and sisters requesting clothes. Perhaps proves more than anything Vladimir Mayakovsky’s verses that “Lenin even now is more alive than the living.”
V. I. Lenin, Collected Works.
Robert Service, Lenin: a Biography, Papermac, 2000.
Lev Trotsky, Lenin, Capricorn Books, 1962.
Nina Tumarkin, Lenin Lives!: The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia, Harvard University Press, 1983.