Criminal or mad? Russian film and TV debunk 'Lenin myth'

Marina LAPENKOVA
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Statues of Lenin are still everywhere in Russia and a 2017 poll showed a majority of Russians have a positive image of him

Who was the real Lenin -- a blood-thirsty criminal, a bowler-hatted opera lover, a person suffering from mental illness or all three?

As Russia prepares to mark the 102nd anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution on Thursday, a new Russian TV series and feature film aim to show its leader in a new light, far from the dusty Soviet-era cliches.

A documentary series to be shown shortly on state-run Channel One aims to "finish off the myth of Vladimir Ulyanov," scriptwriter Igor Lipin told AFP, using the revolutionary's real name.

The makers of the 12-part series titled "Lenin," spent four years delving into the archive of the FSB secret service, the successor to the KGB.

Its research team was led by the FSB former chief archivist, General Vasily Khristoforov.

"It turns out that the legend of good Lenin versus the bad Stalin is absolutely false, because it was Lenin who started the Red Terror," said Lipin of brutal purges after the 1917 revolution of those in ideological opposition.

The documentary shows a letter Lenin wrote in 1918 calling for the "death" of two million prosperous peasants known as "kulaks", who were targeted with bloody repressions.

A month later, he began building concentration camps to isolate members of the "hostile classes."

- Mentally ill? -

The series' creators say they will also show documents revealing that Lenin had mental health problems.

His mother in 1898 wrote to police of her fears about his mental state in prison and warned of "several cases of a serious illness" in her family, an attack of which she said led her brother to commit suicide.

The tone of the series promises to be very different from the reverent treatment of the Bolshevik leader over 70 years of the Soviet era, following his death in 1924.

In the Soviet Union, Lenin was the subject of a quasi-religious personality cult, with most seeing him as a Soviet deity.

Celebrated in songs, films, poetry and painting, with his sayings painted on walls and taught to school children, Lenin was ubiquitous.

One popular joke talked of the launch of a three-person bed, because "Lenin is always with us."

Communist propaganda depicted Lenin as leading an austere lifestyle and as altruistic and humane, in contrast to Stalin, whose mass purges were partially denounced by his successor Nikita Khrushchev.

With the end of the USSR in 1991, Lenin largely disappeared from public discourse but still kept a certain popularity.

A survey by Levada independent pollsters in 2017, a century after the Revolution, found 56 percent of Russians had a positive image of Lenin.

Four out of five Russians oppose the pulling down of his statues, which are still found across the country. The question of removing his embalmed corpse from the Mausoleum on Red Square has never reached a consensus.

Under President Vladimir Putin, the figure of Lenin has been pushed into the background with much more focus on Stalin, particularly his role as wartime leader against the Nazis.

"Lenin has been forgotten, passing in the shadow of Stalin," said film director Vladimir Khotinenko, whose latest film "The Lenin Factor," came out in late October in Russia.

The film shows he looked like a typical member of the petite bourgeoisie while living in Zurich before the Revolution, decked out in a bowler hat and bow-tie and swinging a cane as he strolled to see Wagner operas.

It focuses on Ulyanov's exile in Switzerland as the leader of a small revolutionary party and his return to Russia in April 1917.

- German money -

His train trip across Germany while it was still fighting World War One with Russia would not have been possible without permission from the German Kaiser.

Six months later, the Revolution ended the tsars' rule and in March 1918 the Bolshevik leader signed a peace treaty with Germany, abandoning Russia's international allies.

One of Russia's top stars, Yevgeny Mironov, plays Lenin in Khotinenko's film and does not take a kind view of his character, especially given suspicions that he funded the Revolution with German money.

"Lenin wasn't fond of Russia and didn't like Russians at all -- they were 'lazy peasants,'" Mironov told pro-Kremlin Izvestia daily.

"For him, the country was just the first step in a plan whose aim was the whole world."

The spokesman of the Russian Communist Party, Alexander Yushchenko, lamented what he called attempts to "discredit Lenin" just as economic and social inequalities are pushing people into the streets in Russia and other countries.

This "shows that Lenin's ideas are still winning over the masses and rousing them to outrage against the world of capital," he said.