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Lenin Makes a Comeback in Berlin

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Lenin returned to Berlin on Thursday. Well, just his head, but it weighs almost 4 tons, so the exhumation was no small event.

Even as Ukraine is busy eliminating Soviet symbols and renaming streets, the culture department of Berlin's Spandau district succeeded in unearthing the head, which had been buried since 1991, along with other dismembered parts of the 62-foot monument. Try to bury history and it eventually finds its way out.

The Berlin Lenin is the work of Nikolai Tomsky, one of the most decorated Soviet artists, a Hero of Socialist Labor. He sculpted more than a dozen seriously big Lenins, and most are still standing. Although sculptors in Tomsky's day didn't have much leeway in depicting the Soviet Union's founder, some of the figures worked great as centerpieces of urban landscapes. The Berlin monument, in the middle of Leninplatz, was one of those.

Putting it there was the idea of Walter Ulbricht, one of the leaders of East Germany from its post-World War II inception until the early 1970s. He'd been invited to Moscow for the unveiling of a colossal statue of Karl Marx in 1961 (locals called it "the bearded fridge"), and he wasn't to be outdone. The Lenin monument opened in 1970 to commemorate the revolutionary leader's 100th anniversary. Residents of the surrounding high-rise apartment blocks got used to it. In 1991, they even formed a citizens' group to protest its removal from the square. Some cultural figures, leftist politicians and even Tomsky's grandchildren joined the protests, but Helios Mendiburu, then mayor of the Friedrichshain district, pushed through the decision to dismantle the giant statue. Mendiburu had it in for Lenin: He had spent two and a half years in East German prisons for organizing protests.

After the Friedrichshain district council voted, the statue's head was lifted off with a crane. The rest of the figure was sawed into 129 bits. The pieces were trucked to a forest near the Mueggelsee, a lake on the southeastern edge of the city, and placed in a pit that was covered with tons of sand.

It was a stealthy operation because the authorities didn't want to encourage "Lenin tourism." They got it anyway.

In the mid-1990s, a Berlin-based independent filmmaker, Rick Minnich, was traveling around the former Soviet bloc looking at Lenin statues. A postcard seller on the former Leninplatz told him he knew where the granite Lenin was buried. Minnich went to the woods and unearthed the head. Others followed, digging up a finger or an ear. 

The quest for Lenin fragments became popular thanks to the 2003 movie "Good Bye Lenin!" In one memorable scene, the the top half of the statue can be seen gliding over Berlin, borne by a helicopter. 

In 2009, officials in Spandau decided to use a disused warehouse in the district's 16th century fortress, the Spandau Citadel, to exhibit displaced monuments. The organizers of the exhibit had gotten hold of Stalin's ear and mustache -- all that was left of a huge bronze statue that adorned the avenue once named after Lenin's successor. And they wanted Lenin's head.

It took years to determine who could claim ownership of the statue. Then it emerged that a rare species of lizard had made its home over the burial site. The Green Party in the Koepenick district council didn't want the lizards disturbed. In the end, corridors to a new habitat were built for them at a cost of 12,000 euros ($13,600) and workers had to reveal Lenin's head the old-fashioned way, with shovels, before it could be lifted out and taken to Spandau. 

Some countries -- such as Lithuania and Russia -- have long had museums and parks dedicated to displaced Soviet statues. Berlin, which has removed all signs of its Nazi past, has had a more ambivalent attitude toward its Communist heritage, perhaps because the successor party to the East German Communists still sits in parliament and leftist traditions are strong. The Soviet victory memorial in Treptow Park is lovingly maintained and the Stalin quotes etched in its marble are always freshly gilded. Lenin was less lucky, but now he is back.

I will take my daughters to see Lenin's head in Spandau. It will be a good way to show them that bit of my life, and Berlin's. There's a reason it couldn't stay buried: Curiosity will always eventually triumph over anger and hurt. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net