Moscow — THE quiet courtyard in central Moscow had been cleared of any sign of what had happened there. A few young people in the playground, rocking two old-fashioned baby carriages, acknowledged that I was in the right place.
“They already took it away,” said one of the mothers.
“How?” I asked.
“They used an excavator. Scooped him up. He was heavy.” She made it clear she did not want to talk further. Her friends, too, turned their backs to me.
The body in question belonged to Lenin. The Bolshevik leader had stood in this courtyard for nearly 100 years. Back in the 1920s, residents of the two apartment buildings nearby had taken up a collection to erect the monument. Judging from the scant photographic and documentary evidence available, the statue had little artistic value. The city had not assigned it any landmark or historical status. The name of the sculptor was unknown. The material he used could not be definitively identified, because the sculpture was caked over with so many layers of paint. All that remained of it last week was a crude brick pedestal, about six feet tall, which had also been painted black many times over the decades.
Lenin’s headless body was found lying on the ground next to the pedestal on the morning of June 7. Nailed to a tree next to the scene of the apparent crime was a note with a drawing of a clothes hanger, three commas, the drawing of a striped sailor’s undershirt and five more commas. It played on a visual-verbal riddle convention well known to Russians: Each comma stood for a letter to be removed from the words denoted by the images, and the letters that remained created a new word or phrase.
In this case, the solution seemed to be the Russian word for “hangman.” Whoever brought down Lenin may have been calling him an executioner. The riddle may also have been a signature: Rope was found on the ground next to the pedestal — it was probably the tool used to dismantle the monument. Lenin seemed to have lost his head during the fall. It turns out his body had been hollow.
It is very rare to see a Lenin toppled in Russia. A quarter-century after the end of the Soviet Union, thousands of Lenins large and small stand proudly in public squares or, as in this case, in quasi-private courtyards. Lenin himself — that is, his pickled body — still lies in a glass coffin in a granite mausoleum in Red Square. A 70-foot-tall statue of him in Kaluzhskaya Square is one of the largest monuments in the city (others include Peter the Great; Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space; a monument to World War II; and the famous Worker and Kolkhoz Woman). Moscow has generally preserved its Communist-era monuments: Even the few that were toppled in August 1991 have now been lovingly restored and are displayed in a sculpture garden in the city center.
Some former Soviet republics, on the other hand, have brought down many of their Lenins. The effort has probably been most thorough in Ukraine, where roughly 100 monuments to him have been removed in the last couple of years, starting with the destruction of a Lenin in Kiev during the protests that ultimately overthrew the Ukrainian government of President Viktor F. Yanukovych in 2014. As in other former Soviet republics, such topplings are generally anti-imperial gestures, symbols of these countries’ break with their Soviet past and affirmations of their right to self-determination.
Not so in Russia under President Vladimir V. Putin. With ever-increasing enthusiasm, Russia claims to be the heir to the Soviet Union, and attacks on bronze, granite and plaster Lenins in Ukraine have generally been interpreted here as anti-Russian. The Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, reacted to a recent Ukrainian law on “de-Communization,” which mandates changing Soviet-era city and street names and removing Soviet-era monuments, by calling the members of Ukraine’s Parliament “ignorant zombies.”
Russia’s Soviet past has been reglorified in recent years. Even Stalin’s public image is being largely redeemed: His likeness has gone up on posters around the country, and he has been praised as a great military and industrial leader. Lenin, as a historic figure, had always seemed to be beyond criticism, and residents of the neighborhood where his statute was destroyed last week have already asked that it be restored.
Who would have even thought to topple it? The police are investigating the incident as an act of vandalism. Some bloggers are blaming Ukrainians. But it’s employees at the state public utilities who, in answer to journalists’ questions, best captured the general disbelief that anyone in Russia these days would want to bring down Lenin: They claim he was blown over by the wind.