EVERYTHING that can possibly be said on the Russian revolution, 1917, has probably been already said. I do not hope to report anything new.
I would instead like to draw attention to a rather low-key poem by perhaps one of our most formidable poets, one of that breed of legislators who would still remain unrecognized, Ahmed Sofa that is. Ahmed Sofa should need no introduction, but sometimes there happen stranger things than we can put outside in the writing machine. Barely two years before his own untimely death, Ahmed Sofa (1943-2001) boldly put to print one very modest poem quite unceremoniously named ‘Lenin Ghumabe Ebar’ or ‘Lenin now goes to bed’. In my own opinion this poem contains a wise, wholesome evaluation of the whole experience of the event we know as the Russian revolution. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a sane evaluation of the poem in any of our newspapers or literary reviews, either here, or in India, or for that matter elsewhere.
The poem itself appeared in 1999, in Chittagong, between the covers of a slim volume bearing the same title. It addresses the contested issue of disposing off Lenin’s mummified body for a background. Ahmed Sofa wrote this poem, in flowing prose, and called for a dignified disposal of Lenin’s remains according to his will and the will of his family. In his will, as is well-known, Lenin expressed the desire to be buried next to his mother’s (and brother’s) grave in Petrograd or St Petersburg. That was also the wish of his family.
But as the legend goes Joseph Stalin, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in early 1924, desired otherwise. ‘He forced his will through the Politburo,’ as one historian puts it, ‘against the objections of Trotsky, Bukharin and Kamenev.’ Lenin died on January 21, 1924 and his body after due processing was first placed in a wooden crypt, later to be replaced by the granite mausoleum which exists today — by the Kremlin Wall on Red Square. It was opened to the public in August 1924.
After Gorbachev came to power in 1985, a debate was ignited if Lenin’s body were to be re-buried or not buried according to his will. After 1991 the question accrued no little acrimony. Public opinion was broadly divided. Authorities too did not dare bury it despite much provocation to the contrary. It was in one of those moments that Ahmed Sofa offered his grave poem to the world. Before I turn to the poem itself I must visit some origins, at least, of the question.
IN APRIL 1970 the well-known historian Arnold Toynbee gave a cursory talk on the occasion of Vladimir Lenin’s centenary at Chatham House (or the Royal Institute of International Affairs), London. ‘Everyone has been speaking or writing of Lenin recently,’ noted the historian. ‘[A]nd there is very little that I can add,’ he just hastened to add. Perhaps because of himself Toynbee would soon be repeating the same old question: ‘Has Lenin really changed the course of Russian history?’ Lest one miss it, the historian reiterated: ‘Has not Lenin’s revolution merely reproduced the previous Imperial Russian régime in a more extreme form, more authoritarian, more autocratic, more ruthless, but still unmistakably Muscovite?’
The English historian, well known for his ready wit, was probably having a very good time at the cost of the Russian revolutionary. Lenin might have claimed to have transformed ‘a nation of peasants into a nation of urban industrial workers,’ Toynbee interposed, ‘but this was happening at a high speed in Russia before the First World War and before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.’ Lenin was, in Arnold Toynbee’s judgment, rather a misfortune for Russia; he perhaps even working as an inbuilt depressor, ‘a retarding factor’. In the Englishman’s opinion the process of Russian industrialization ‘might have gone faster if Lenin had not intervened’.
The remainder of Toynbee’s talk had remained a polished after-dinner fare for cold-warriors of the day. He attributed Lenin the credit of reviving ‘an intolerant, dogmatic, religious faith.’ Not a simple faith, though. ‘Because,’ Toynbee wrote, ‘Communism is a religion,’ and, moreover, a religion of a particular family: ‘it is a religion of the Jewish-Christian-Muslim family, call it Judaic family if you like. It is very thinly disguised.’ ‘A centenary view of Lenin,’ as Toynbee chose to call his talk, did not falter in reminding us without so much as a disguise that Lenin was the new Vladimir.
‘Notice also that Saint Vladimir, the Christianizer of Russia,’ according to Toynbee’s old pedagogy, ‘was the first person to impose an ideology on Russia by force.’ Toynbee’s wisdom is at its apogee here: ‘Vladimir was converted to eastern Orthodox Christianity when the Byzantine Empire was apparently on top of the world. It is rather interesting that it was apparently, but not really. It had a crash almost immediately afterwards, just as our Western civilisation had a crash, immediately after Lenin’s career, as a result of the cumulative effect of the two world wars.’ Interesting, to say the least!
LENIN died on January 21, 1924 and the state he helped found, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, too was no more by year end 1991. Since 1991, Russians and non-Russians alike are engaged in a process of detailed re-examination of Russia’s revolutionary experience. One symptom has been apparent in all this so far: it seems there is an ‘often unseemly rush into resurrecting fallen idols of the old regime, into rehabilitating dishonoured figures of the past,’ and a plunge into ‘a wave of misplaced nostalgia for the symbols and totems of the historically bankrupt tsarist social and political order’. ‘The return of the imperial double-headed eagle as Russia’s national symbol, the renaming of St Petersburg in 1991 (known as Leningrad since 1924), the rise of Russian nationalism, the upsurge of Orthodox Christianity, and even the renaissance of Romanov-monarchist sympathies in the ex-USSR’ all are symptoms of a new revisionism of history.
It seems that the old Toynbee is vindicated at (not so) long last. As the gospel according to Toynbee, vintage 1970, has it, Lenin, i.e. the new Vladimir, has been just an armed saint with the difference that he failed to hold Russia in his thrall for long. ‘I think,’ as Toynbee put it in April 1970, ‘that in all ages since about the year 1,000 — Vladimir was converted in 989 — Russia had been Orthodox in her own eyes, and from this it follows inevitably that all the rest of the world ought to follow Russia’s interpretation of Orthodoxy, or else it will be convicting itself of being heterodox. Russia is always the sole depository and citadel of the new faith.’ ‘Lenin, I think,’ continues the English savant, ‘could not have repudiated Orthodox Christianity (he was brought up as a child as an ordinary Orthodox Christian), if he had not replaced Orthodox Christianity by orthodox Marxism.’ Apparently history could not change Lenin much; he is today anything but an Orthodox Christian saint, thinly disguised.
After winning the cold war, Russian and non-Russian detractors of the revolutionary experience has now reached the acme of their reappraisal. Nicholas Romanov, the last tsar, has been officially canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church in the year 2000. It means, the ruler who was reviled by his subjects and subject peoples as ‘Bloody Nicholas,’ the butcher of ‘Bloody Sunday’ (i.e. of Sunday, 9 January 1905), is now revered as ‘Saint Tsar Nicholas’, martyr and member of the canon of saints according to the Russian Orthodox Church.
‘The writing of Russian history, long accustomed to the role of handmaiden of the state,’ the Russian historian V P Buldakov justly puts it, ‘now appears as prostitute walking the streets of political pluralism.’ Exhumed remains of Nicholas and his family members, executed in 1918, had been solemnly interred earlier in a special side-chapel in the Peter and Paul cathedral in St Petersburg. Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Federation and who attended the services of committal, ordered demolition of the house in which the last tsar was executed. Sanctification is closely followed on by sanitisation. Interesting, to say the least!
WHATEVER happened to Lenin’s memory, as Orthodoxy returned, is beyond measure. Anything goes, from sensible re-evaluation to downright abuse, vilification and rancor. There was no shortage of howlers describing Lenin as ‘a criminal psychopath of minimal intelligence’. Even before 1991, rumors and reports circulated on Lenin’s mummified corpse, on public display ever since August 1924 in the mausoleum. These reports claimed that Lenin’s body should be ejected from the mausoleum and buried near his mother’s in St Petersburg. This would be a symbolic move indeed but no government so long dared make the move. In 2017, at the hour of this scribbling, it is not apparent that such a move in the offing.
Ahmed Sofa in his poem gives out call, in my best take, for not throwing the baby along with the bathwater. Lenin wants to take bed along his mother’s, but he wants to be born again too. He reiterates the need both of demythologising and de-demonising the leader of the world’s first democratic socialist revolution. Lenin would admit of his mistakes, no doubt but there is no point attributing him the liabilities for the misdeeds of criminals and rogues’. ‘The crimson dreams of revolution,’ Sofa writes, ‘have no death to meet’. Lenin, Sofa claims, would like to be born again as ‘the ultimate depository’. Ahmed Sofa refers to the tradition of Buddhism when he says that Lenin the man will be born again and again as a little Buddha in the future.
I take it that for Ahmed Sofa the signifier or the symbol called ‘Lenin’ insists in the unconscious called the people. Lenin cannot thus be marginalised as a result of imaginary popular emotions or ephemeral political trends. Sofa I would like to believe will not disagree with this comment of a contemporary British historical writer that follows: ‘It is no good looking at the Revolution through the distorting lens of Stalin’s terror of the 1930s, or the stultifying effects of the Soviet Communist Party’s dead-grip on historical research. In properly condemning the grim aftermath of the 1917 Revolution, its detractors must be careful not to interpret or willfully ignore the misery and degradation, as well as the genuine aspirations and ideals of the Russian people, that [has been] its driving force.’
- Alan Wood, The Origins of the Russian Revolution: 1861-1917, 3rd ed. (London: Routledge, 2003).
- Arnold Toynbee, ‘A Centenary View of Lenin,’ International Affairs, (Royal Institute of International Affairs, London), Vol. 46, No. 3, July 1970, pp. 490-500.
- Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924, 100th anniversary ed. (London: The Bodley Head, 2017).
- আহমদ ছফা, ‘লেনিন ঘুমাবে এবার,’ আহমদ ছফার কবিতা (ঢাকা: শ্রীপ্রকাশ, ২০০০), পৃ. ৯-১১।w