The phantom head of totalitarianism (the public sphere, part V)

Once upon a time there was a country of non-existence. A thin strip of land, where the soil seemed to have been manured with totalitarianism for so long that even today out of a dozen diverse seeds you plant in spring, when fall comes you seem to harvest only potatoes. Each tuber in turn appears perfectly identical to its comrades in the field in both shape and taste, whether boiled or fried. From above the City Hall Square the marble gaze of the immortal mass leader, Lenin, runs through you towards the better future, still yet to come. Some day. Some other day. It is that very Lenin, whose dead body has been preserved in a transparent tomb on the main square of the capital of our former Motherland and has not found its peace till now.lenin-mausoleum

I would suggest that Lenin’s Mausoleum can be fruitfully examined within the framework of Claude Lefort’s view on totalitarianism. The latter (together with democracy) is defined by Lefort as a historic mutation characterized by the emptiness of the locus of power, which earlier was occupied by the figure of prince/monarch. Therefore, one could consider Lenin’s Tomb as functioning as a replacement of the absent agent of power that preserves the wholeness of the social body. The Mausoleum was designed as a heterotopian container, which should have accommodated the relics of the Soviet history in order to create the narrative and symbolize the continuity of power. Stalin, Lenin’s successor, nourished this idea of setting up the myth-history for decades: The mausoleum had been rebuilt twice before the final version was eventually erected five years after Lenin’s death. Moreover, when World War II was unleashed, the body of the mass leader was evacuated to the safest possible place – far-away Siberia – and returned only after the war ended.It means, that Lenin’s body was treated as a sacred object of totalitarianis m, not to mention the distinct flavour of mysticism attached to the word mausoleum. An obvious fact seems to escape us so far: from the very beginning Lenin was not supposed to be the only inhabitant of the spacious mansion on the Red Square. Recently, about a year ago, inside the Mausoleum an empty columbarium was found right above the Lenin’s Tomb. It means that Stalin did not simply use Lenin as an image of the divine god in order to become a substitute of the decapitated Russian tzar himself.

Stalin’s idea aimed beyond his self-interest: the Mausoleum was assigned to immortalize the ideology  as a continuity by preserving t he multiplicity of the same in time, rather than to exalt a certain egocrat  in particular, be it Lenin or Stalin. By ‘multiplicity of the same’ I mean the equation of the following type: ideology is Lenin and then Stalin and then every other person, whose ashes were supposed to be kept in the columbarium. That is, on the one hand, ideology still equates Lenin; on the other hand, the extended equation results in continuity of idea. The Soviet ideology should have abandoned its trait paradigm: one idea – one leader – one people – one day. The Mausoleum could have constructed multiplicity of temporal dimensions and the totalitarian ideology could have gained immortality functioning as the narrator of history. It is the tradition of sameness, detached from its primary bearer, that should have been floating within the walls of the Mausoleum, gradually soaking into the collective consciousness.

However, a series of historic misfortunes distorted the initial mission attributed to the Mausoleum. After eight years, during which Lenin had to share the Mausoleum with his deceased successor, the body of the Generalissimo was removed from Lenin’s tomb as a result of Khrushchev’s policy of ‘de-Stalinization’. One autumn day in 1961 the body of the ‘comrade-in-arms’ was quietly buried outside the Kremlin walls. It is curious that Lefort also refers to the existence of the external enemy as an obligatory condition of the totalitarian society. To be more precise, it is the externalization of the internal enemy that is a trait of totalitarianism: be it kulaks (repressed farmers), political prisoners in the Gulags, or, ironically, Stalin’s body itself.

Since the image of the enemy was grounded in difference as opposed to sameness, the former was labeled as hostile.  It is not only that difference and sameness were counter-forces on the level of ideology, there was no place for difference in the realm of public sphere at all. That hypocritically manifested the absence of difference as such. Is it possible to name the space of staged illusionary interaction the public sphere? Obviously, one cannot even think of a totalitarian invariant of public sphere in Habermasian terms, since his definition of public sphere is deeply grounded in the difference of opinions, which is capable of defining a better argument and reaching consensus.Whereas totalitarianism does not need a consensus to establish a better argument, because only one argument has a right to exist a priori, that is the argument of the Party. The public sphere was the arena of propaganda, and space for identification, where the subject of the regime was equated with the item of ideology. At this level, the multiplicity of the same was functioning very well: citizens of the Soviet Union were to become little Octobrists at the age of seven, then pioneers when they were at most fifteen, after that they would enter Komsomol and finally they gained the membership of the Party.

Identical to the Ancient Greek public sphere, described by Hannah Arrendt, or to the realm of public in a democratic state, as it is criticized by Nancy Frazer, the totalitarian public sphere is also centered around the notion of parity (equality of conditions is a democratic alternative of sameness)  grounded on difference and exclusion. What distinguishes the totalitarian public sphere is the fact that though difference was the corner stone of it, this would have never been admitted officially. On the contrary, the “shadowy realm of the household” was not annihilated by the Hellenes;  it was Socrates himself taught Meno’s slave boy geometry. Likewise, alternative publics in a democratic state are necessary constituents in the process of the public opinion formation. In case of the totalitarian state counter publics were not opposed to each other or the public sphere of majority, they directly faced the state apparatus. The latter would make the difference literaly disappear without a trace. More than 40 million people were repressed for political reasons inbetween 1923 and 1951 years.

Since Stalin’s body was removed from the Mausoleum, Lenin’s exclusive right as a sole tenant has never been put into question. Lenin’s Tomb no longer preserved the  multiplicity of the same. Time seems to have been swallowed by ideology. Lenin’s body wasn’t signifying the starting point of the Soviet totalitarian tradition anymore, it remained an overpowering symbol of ideology. With the hasty collapse of the Soviet Union, fifteen new-born independent states were at a loss with no social structure since the time of Octobrists and pioneers was gone for good. And there was no continuity of ideology on the level of history, only frozen temporality of Lenin’s everlasting slogan: “You are hitting the right road, my comrades!” The sacred Mausoleum, which was designed to nourish the tradition of continuity, was secularized to the cabinet of curiosities with only one object exhibited. Metaphorically speaking, the head of the social body became a phantom. A phantom head which is not really there, but still hurts. Something is rotten in the former Soviets. Is it the locus of power that stinks?lenin-toppled-lenin-statue-euromaidan-ukraine-protests-politics

Poor Iliyich  (it is a patronymic of Lenin)! A few months ago in Kiev anti-government protesters toppled the monument to Lenin and smashed the granite remains of the dictatorship of the proletariat with sledgehammers. The citizens of the Post-Soviets are trying to set themselves free from their all-absorbing past. So far they resemble Don Quixote fighting windmills, or, I’d better refer to an allusion from the Old-Russian folklore: we are struggling against a three-headed dragon – Gorynych, bearing in mind that when the beast is decapitated, three new heads, identical to every single head that is cut, will grow on its place. We are multiplying the same, dreaming of manifesting the difference.

Once upon a time, in a country that does not exist, there was a presidential election. How could it have happened? Unfortunately, even the second elected president of this paradoxical state, who is known to be a wise man with multiple academic degrees must be occupied with the same riddle and does not seem to come an inch closer to the clue. That very person during the election campaign was accused of homosexuality and, alas, was forced to make a public statement, which said: “I am an orthodox Christian of normal sexual orientation”. Though it is a completely different story, or, I am confused, is it multiplicity of the same?


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