The instrumentalization of the memory of deceased chiefs can initiate a cult. And this requires also some exceptional architectures, knowing how to carry a political message in stone. Above all, the skillful manipulation of space and symbols remains essential to creating a lasting pilgrimage of secular origin.
Long ago, in ancient Egypt and China, large burial complexes helped to establish the semi-divine nature of the reigning dynasties. During antiquity, the satrap Mausoleum in Halicarnassus gave his name to a new type of funerary, between tomb and memorial. Rome modified these precedents, with the emperor’s deification. Augustus and Hadrian left in the Roman panorama mausoleums monumentalizing the old tumulus type. Then, the Middle Ages combined place of worship and royal necropolis, like the French basilica of Saint-Denis. During the Renaissance, Pope Julius II demanded Michelangelo make an impressive tomb for him in his new St. Peter's Basilica. For Philip II in Spain, Juan de Herrera incorporated a crypt in the Escurial Monastery, housing the kings’ bodies. The modern age continued this tradition of religious facilities with majestic royal tombs. With clear morbidity, in Austria-Hungary, the Capuchins crypt thus shelters a collection of imperial tombs. In Russia, Tsarism also used the Baroque cathedral in the Peter and Paul Fortress as a monarchical burial place. The median dimension of this sanctuary made it necessary to add around 1900 a Grand-Ducal mausoleum.
This recent precedent could have led to a damnatio memoriae when the Revolution broke out in 1917. However, if certain ornaments were eliminated, the tombs of the tsars were not desecrated – the Communist leader Lenin having quickly established after his seizure of power a decree almost protecting heritage. In 1924 the site became a museum – year of Lenin's death. His will, moreover, recommended that the overly violent Stalin should be removed. But Stalin was immediately able to divert the funeral ceremony of the Soviet Union founder to his own advantage. While winter still allowed relative preservation of the deceased, Soviet scientists urgently searched for biochemical means to embalm the Leninist relic. Stalin in no way envisioned mummification like that of the Egyptian pharaohs, guaranteeing their passage to the other world, sheltered in their pyramids. For Lenin, the former seminarian turned dictator thought more of certain medieval saints, with apparently preserved remains, visible in a reliquary shrine. It allowed its permanent presentation to believers communing in the communist faith.
Thus, as soon as Lenin's death was announced, the architect Aleksey Shchusev (1873-1949) was summoned to the Kremlin at midnight and was granted the six-hour marathon deadline to design a provisional framework for the body exhibition. Having built several churches for the imperial family, serving the new regime since 1918, between the experience of sacred architecture and political opportunism, this inspired technician appeared providential to stage the almost canonized remains of the great revolutionary leader. The widow opposed the process, imploring the Party to avoid post-mortem worship. In vain: her execrable relations with Stalin made her only a vox clamantis in deserto.
Shchusev made three successive versions of Lenin's Mausoleum, gracefully placed in the center of Red Square, along the Kremlin ramparts. Since this place has long been Moscow strategic heart, this contributed to the ceremonial effectiveness. If his first essay was barely a planks box, the second building – still in wood, the material of the first Russian churches – refined both proportions and symbolism. The third and last Mausoleum is, therefore, twelve meters high – a third of the Senate tower, and a sixth of that of the Savior. This organically links the monument to its environment. Above all, the materials for the very bare walls were carefully chosen. Marble and red porphyry are obvious allusions to the color of the Communist flag. However, the use of porphyry is tacitly reminiscent of Roman and Byzantine imperial purple. The pyramidal silhouette allusively evokes the Babylonian ziggurats, while the tribune surmounting the entrance fulfills a ceremonial use worthy of the Byzantium ambons. This platform became a cardinal symbol of the USSR, where Stalin, his entourage and their successors attended the regime major parades. Presence making tangible the cleverly orchestrated connection between symbolic and political ordering of the world.
The interior spaces continued this subtle appropriation of sacred reflexes. The half-light of the crypt leads to the funeral vault, where Lenin rests in a glass sarcophagus, around which the Marxist pilgrims circle in silence. This reliquary with a crystalline modern design was designed by the constructivist Konstantin Melnikov (1890-1974). De facto, the academic Shchusev modernized its forms almost to the point of supremacist abstraction; the innovator Melnikov reinvented a medieval heritage. These august precedents come together here to serve both a political and a religious dimension. Their work ardently synthesized immemorial sources and contemporary abstraction, sanctuarized Red Square as a Soviet place of worship. This perpetuated the recent revolutionary past as a solemn object of veneration. The Mausoleum attracted pilgrims from every territory of the USSR, and even from all over the world. This is like the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, in long queues to contemplate the creator of socialist power. This sacralization of the site culminated when Shchusev added in 1937 red stars (electrified at night) to the top of the Kremlin towers, replacing the Orthodox crosses with the Marxist symbol.
In 1941, this powerful synthesis between political celebration and memorial sanctification has also guided Turkey in the competition for the Ataturk Mausoleum in Ankara. The jury included the German Paul Bonatz (1877-1956) and the Swedish Ivar Tengbom (1878-1968) – creators who knew how to link monumentality and modernity. Among the best competitors: the Italians Adalberto Libera (1903-1963), Arnaldo Foschini (1884-1968), Giovanni Muzio (1893-1982), the Austrian Clemens Holzmeister (1886-1983) – already author of key monuments of the new Turkish capital – or the French Auguste Perret (1874-1954) and Paul Bigot (1870-1942). All of them sent projects between quotes from antiquity and modern rationalism, synthesized as true funerary temples.
Finally, the Istanbulite Emin Onat (1908-1961) conceived the Anıtkabir. Taking advantage of an eminence clearly visible from the capital, justly desired by the deceased chief, a processional alley leads to a large memorial esplanade, then dominated by the climax of the massive funeral sanctuary with stripped pillars. Another example of a geometric simplification of the classical heritage, which gives a severe majesty to the tomb room. Soviet communism and Turkish nationalism, same monumental liturgy? Lenin like Atatürk founded a new state, severely restricting the place of religion in society. However, post-mortem, both were placed in monuments mixing patriotism and piety.
Meanwhile, Lenin’s mummification-veneration aroused emulators in the communist bloc. Bulgarian dictator Dimitrov died in Moscow in 1949 and was also entitled to a mausoleum. Decision was taken as soon as the death was announced, the Sofia dignitaries did like their Moscow counterparts: fast selection of the architect and extremely short deadline for the monument construction. The chosen one, Georgi Ovcharov (1889-1953) had previously developed a modernized national style. His initial project envisioned Doric columns; the Party demanded him to find inspiration in Lenin's already canonical Mausoleum. Ovcharov bowed to the Party's dictates. If the work was carried out with full speed in a week – costing his life to a worker – the Sofiote Mausoleum was nevertheless incomplete when the body of its recipient returned. During the funeral, hangings hid the unfinished cornice! Plan and tribune showed a clear dependence on the Russian model, albeit with a more massive square pavilion with pilasters. In short, a copy having less aura than that of the radiant Red Square sanctuary.
When Stalin went to meet his maker in 1953, also embalmed, he joined Lenin in the crypt. Shchusev having designed a monument of modest scale, this post-mortem coexistence of the first two leaders of the socialist paradise posed various spatial or symbolic problems. So, the USSR initiated a competition to build a Soviet Pantheon, intended both to collect venerated mummies and the remains of other great revolutionary names. The aim, therefore, was to create an authentic place of global celebration, glorifying the Soviet leadership on the scale of a true cathedral of communism.
Several great architects of the Stalinist Era proposed a true holy of holies. Among them, Ivan Joltovski (1867-1959) or his disciple Grigory Zakharov (1910-1982) each proposed very similar solutions: raised on a plinth, a temple with a circular colonnade in tholos, topped with a lowered Roman-style dome. Their formula has also guided many other competitors, including Lev Rudnev (1885-1956) and Arkady Mordvinov (1896-1964) – two of the most influential Stalinist skyscraper builders in Moscow. As for Aleksandr Vlassov (1900-1962), he was clearly inspired by the Roman Pantheon. In a completely different spirit, haloed by their recent Ministry of Foreign Affairs skyscraper, Vladimir Gelfreich (1885-1967) and Mikhaïl Minkus (1905-1963) sought to merge the Halicarnassus Mausoleum and the Pantheon. A variant envisioned large arched bays, illuminating the sanctuary.
Coming from a generation then in full rise, Mikhaïl Posokhine (1910-1989), Boris Mezentsev (1911-1970) and Sergei Speransky (1914-1983) were more ambiguous. Seemingly faithful to the Stalinist emphasis, their respective projects in fact sought to renew the formal canons of Soviet glory. Posokhine – soon the favorite architect of the Kremlin new masters – prepared an elegant tholos on two floors of colonnades. Mezentsev – until now mainly an author of stations, including the so Stalinist one of Vitebsk – opted for more formal abstraction. On a mound, reminiscent of the Central Asia burial kurgans, he established a solid square sanctuary. A first-level deployed massive pilasters; above would have been a blind block. Between primitivism and classicism, this revived a refined monumentality. Attempt to reform Soviet Pharisaism? Speranski hesitated between solutions in either circular or square form, side by side with a tapered bell tower. His references mingled ancient or medieval quotes, all under a sculptural formal mannerism. Despite its epic brilliance, such an assemblage marked the amphigouric drift of Stalinist worship.
Spells of paper, all disowned. Soon, the de-Stalinization initiated in 1954 made such architectural sacralizations almost heretical. The mandarins who contributed to this project experienced a kind of ex-communication from the Soviet scene. By survival reflex, the youngest quickly converted to the modern revival in the USSR. Finally, in the final act of this major doctrinal change, Stalin was ejected in 1961 from the Red Square Mausoleum, and relegated to a more banal grave near the Kremlin.
Nevertheless, the cult of the first leader was maintained. In addition to this Muscovite quasi-sanctification, the USSR multiplied the Lenin statues. From modest plaster bust to colossal cement effigy in Stalingrad, to various large bronze statues in many large cities. In his hometown itself, it was erected only in 1940. Simbirsk was renamed Ulyanovsk upon his death, adopting the initial surname of Lenin. The Soviet topographical propaganda fever was an immediate form of sanctification frequent in the USSR.
With the city calling for a Soviet pilgrimage similar in spirit to that of Muslim Mecca, an ambitious memorial center was included in reconstruction plans after WWII. Project abandoned following the most pressing economic necessities. Then, several competitions for celebrating the centenary of Lenin's birth were based on a paradoxical program – combining a commemorative area and the creation of a monumental complex glorifying the Communist prophet memory. On the one hand, the environment in which the leader was spiritually formed was to be preserved as "historical reserve" as much as possible, and on the other, the buildings should vividly signify the path of light marked out by Lenin.
For lack of a convincing answer, this casuistic balance between patrimonial Charybdis and propagandist Scylla was then automatically entrusted in 1965 to specialists from the Central Research Institute for the experimental design of spectacular buildings and sports facilities. There, the team led by Boris Mezentsev drew up an inspired global plan to transform the plateau overlooking the Volga into the Soviet equivalent of an acropolis.
Standing among other civic buildings, the Lenin Memorial literally served as a Parthenon attracting the worshipers attention. Strange monument, indeed. Perched on stilts, encircling the supposed (sic!) birthplace of Lenin, like an evil forest of pillars suffocating the revered vestige, the whole appears oppressive by mistake. Did Mezentsev realize that it could conjure up the Russian legend of the witch Baba Yaga and her hen-footed hut? However, its source was rather the already iconic Villa Savoye, erected in 1928 by Le Corbusier (1887-1965). It had just been heritageized during the very lifetime of its creator, transformed in extremis into the patriarch of modernity. By making its Memorial a hypertrophied homage to the celebrated Corbusian residence, a minori ad majus Mezentsev created a machine to sanctify! The massive proportions change everything, bringing behind the apparent formal stripping of the stone-clad walls an ideological sermon. A bust hangs from the facade – enlivening the Corbusian horizontal frame of a reference inherited from the white Gothic cathedrals. However, no exterior balcony, like those of the Italian Casa del Fascio – where the Duce could occasionally chant his pompous speeches.
The interiors continue this curiously modulated diatonic antiphon. The rooms are adorned with large mosaics, pious statuary groups, ex-voto offerings to Lenin's funeral mask and a photo of his Muscovite Mausoleum. The whole between epic majesty and votive contemplation. This path of veneration ultimately leads to a square room configured like a chapel, with a statue of Lenin in place of the altar. There, the walls colored marble cladding irresistibly recalls the demonstrative opulence of Italian Baroque churches. Except that here, between scarlet and gold panels, the canonical motif of the sickle-and-hammer Marxist emerges, which conveniently replaces the Catholic beams of glory. Even the illusionist rays of the ensemble seem a tribute to the scenographic talent of Bernini (1598-1680), for example, in the Vatican basilica. Finally, the zenithal glass roof of this self-proclaimed choir appropriately illuminates under its shimmering stained glass the effigy of the Soviet saint: fiat lux!
Tacitly, this memorial made it possible to reconnect with the almost liturgical meaning of Stalinist commemorations. The monument was a first break with the Khrushchevite policy of de-Stalinization and its ex-communication from the Stalinist cult of personality! This way, Leninist veneration once again became a major credo of the USSR, in an almost Mephistophelic alliance between Communist ideology and Christian theology.
A member of Mezentsev's team in Ulyanovsk, Harold Isakovich (1931-1992) then designed in 1973 the mausoleum of Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. The sober Hanoi monument pays direct homage to Shchusev's work on the Red Square, however with a higher portico. These precedents drove in 1976 China's leaders to celebrate Mao's embalmed remains in a colossal shrine on the similarly ritualistic Tiananmen Square. Several members of the design group, such as Yang Tingbao (1901-1982) and Fang Boyi (? -?), were survivors of the inquisitive Maoist Cultural Revolution, while Xu Yinpei (1937-) was among those one entering a traumatized architectural scene. The result of their debates also mixed Chinese traditions with modern elements. The Leninist example had spread, generalizing a Communist cult.
Beyond their differences, these mausoleums turned into memorials all share the same message: the almost religious glorification of the Marxist leaders as messiahs announcing the brave new world. This by hiding in stone how the dictatorial drift of the fraternal utopia could also become hell on earth.