(Photography by Olga Filonenko, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Man or mushroom?

Gorbachev’s search for the real Lenin planted some far-fetched—and funny—ideas.

“We grew up with an idea that Lenin was sacred.” So said a former secretary of the Soviet Young Communist League to Alexei Yurchak, an associate anthropology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Called “Andrei” in Yurchak’s 2005 book, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton University Press), he explained his outlook as a young adult in the 1970s: “I assumed that all problems were caused by the later distortions of Lenin’s policies, Stalin’s perverse and bloody rule, and by that moronic Brezhnev.” But during the 1980s Andrei’s perspective shifted. “The idea that Lenin knew all the answers was changing for me drop by drop. At first I read something, then there was something on the television, then on the radio.”

Using Andrei as a starting point, Yurchak expanded on this Perestroika-era “break of consciousness” in his May 9 talk at the Logan Center. When Mikhail Gorbachev launched his reforms in 1985, the goal was to erase canonizations of Lenin’s ideas and achieve a true understanding of the theorist’s thought, said Yurchak. This aim, expressed in “endless” speeches and articles, unleashed an intense search for the authentic Lenin, for insight into his true essence. Party officials and reporters didn’t stop at examining his writings but investigated his injuries, bloodline, diseases, and death.

The findings produced confusion and opposing interpretations. For example, Communist Party publications outlined Lenin’s final illness from 1922 to 1924, including his almost complete loss of speech. They argued that he made important and insightful observations in spite of—or perhaps thanks to—his limited vocabulary, revealing a “pure, natural genius” untainted by “political manipulations and linguistic distortions.” But some in the mass media and general public said the aphasia revealed a nature “flawed, corrupt, afflicted by disorders.”

By the early ’90s, one thing was clear: Lenin had become unknowable, no longer a sacred holder of truth. And when the ideal of Lenin fell, the Soviet Union fell along with him. The ill-fated quest Gorbachev launched, noted Yurchak, produced ironic works from Soviet artists and intellectuals. The most memorable piece, a May 17, 1991, Leningrad TV hoax likened Lenin to a mushroom. Musician and intellectual Sergei Kurekhin earnestly told a reporter his bogus theory: Lenin, he said, often went mushrooming in the forest with his revolutionary comrades. Showing diagrams and weaving in scientific data, Kurekhin asserted that Lenin’s regular consumption of hallucinogenic mushrooms caused his personality to morph.

“Eventually,” said Yurchak, Kurekhin “led his scientific investigation to its famous conclusion," asserting he had “absolutely irrefutable evidence” that the 1917 insurrection known as Red October "was carried out by people who for many years had been consuming certain mushrooms. And these mushrooms had been displacing their personality—in other words, I simply want to say that Lenin was a mushroom.’”

The artist’s act dazzled and befuddled viewers, many of whom failed to recognize it as parody. Kurekhin’s point, said Yurchak, was not to ridicule Lenin but to make apparent the paradox in which the Soviet Union found itself. The performance, he said, showed that in the attempt to find the authentic Lenin, “The true Lenin had been displaced into biological facts, medical symptoms, ethnic compositions.” The leader "lost his status as the unquestionable truth of the Soviet project, which undermined the very source of the party’s legitimacy and blocked any possibility of continuing the Communist project at all.”