An appropriate birthday gift on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.
April 22 marks the birthday of the architect of that cataclysmic “proletarian” revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known to the world as Lenin.
These century-old events continue to dominate the news in modern-day Russia, where leaders grapple with how to deal with one tangible legacy of the Marxist past. After his death in 1924 at the age of 53, Lenin’s corpse became the centerpiece of a gargantuan, pyramid-shaped mausoleum in Red Square, where he still lies in artificially preserved repose. Today, many would like his body, and his legacy, buried.
If Christians are eager to bury Lenin, it is less an act of spite than of reciprocation. His decree of October 26, 1917—one of the first acts of the atheistic Bolshevik regime—ordered the seizure of all church and monastic property for redistribution to “the whole people.” The great famine of 1921–22 that killed five million people due, in part, to Lenin’s collectivization of farmland during the time of “war Communism” would give him the excuse he needed to seize property.
In a letter to the Politburo on March 19, 1922, Lenin wrote:
With the help of all those starving people who are starting to eat each other, who are dying by the millions, and whose bodies litter the roadside all over the country, it is now and only now that we can—and therefore must—confiscate all church property with all the ruthless energy we can still muster. This is precisely the moment the masses will support us most fervently, and rise up against the … religious conspirators.
“Think of how rich some of those monasteries are,” he wrote. “We must have those hundreds of millions (or even billions) of rubles” to consolidate Soviet strength. The theft, he urged, should take place with “the sort of brutality that they will remember for decades.”
The Bolsheviks seized at least 2.5 billion rubles of gold from Russian churches and spent one million rubles on grain in 1922. The same year, Orthodox Church records show that 2,691 priests, 1,962 monks and 3,447 nuns were murdered. Having been deprived its property and the people of their means of self-defense, the church entered a period so typified by persecution that it created an entire class of “New Martyrs” to commemorate the victims. The number of Orthodox churches plunged from as many as 50,000 before the revolution to 500 by 1940, and other faith communities suffered similar decimation.
Reappropriating church wealth paralleled the way the Bolsheviks despoiled the Russian people as a whole. “The present system arose,” former Russian politician Yuri Vlasov would assess in 1989, “entirely on the suppression of the individual, the powerlessness of each of us, and as a result, our defenselessness.”
William Faulkner wrote—appropriately enough, in Requiem for a Nun—that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But in this case, the detritus of a nation’s past can—and should—be buried in ignominy, denying Communism the capacity for a resurrection that it so fiercely denied.