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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Uneasy Rest on Red Square for Soviet Icons

Under Ivan the Terrible's rule from 1533 to 1584, Red Square was used as a site for the public executions of the tsar's opponents, whose bodies were then unceremoniously dumped in a ditch surrounding the Kremlin.

In the 20th century, the area became a burial ground again, but this time it was the country's most revered leaders who were laid to rest, with the highest honor, next to the Kremlin wall.

Now, with the end of Soviet rule, Red Square is no closer to the image of a peaceful resting place than it was in Ivan the Terrible's times. The Kremlin burial site has come under attack from many sides, and the graves of nearly 400 Politburo members, army commanders and scientists - not to mention Vladimir Lenin, whose death 76 years ago was commemorated Friday by hundreds of communists lining up to lay flowers at his mausoleum - risk being removed from their prestigious locale.

The Communist Party once led the fight to keep their graves in their original place. Now, however, it is the relatives of those buried there who have taken up the cause. Lenin's niece, Josef Stalin's grandchildren, the widow of cosmonaut Yury Gagarin and the daughter of Soviet spacecraft designer Sergei Korolyov, among others, have united to, in the group's words, "secure the graveyard's inviolability from political and religious discrimination."

"We're fighting for our dignity, that's all," said Andrei Brezhnev, grandson of Leonid. "We have experienced lawyers and good connections in the Interior Ministry and the United Nations, and together we have a chance to win."

Heated arguments over removing the cemetery from the heart of Moscow have been ongoing for years. In 1997, then President Boris Yeltsin expressed the need to remove Lenin's mummified body from his granite and marble mausoleum, and proposed holding a nationwide referendum on the issue - a suggestion that was never carried through.

Last August, the discussion was renewed with force when Patriarch Alexy II, who had previously called for the cautious handling of the problem, spoke for reburying those lying next to the Kremlin wall in a more peaceful place.

"The graveyard should be away from the stage," he said, referring to rock concerts and rallies staged around the square. In a confidential letter addressed to Yeltsin, the patriarch proposed pulling down the mausoleum and erecting a monument to Tsar Nicholas II in its place, said Alexei Abramov, head of the Lenin Mausoleum Foundation.

The patriarch forgets that Russia is not the Vatican but a secular state," Abramov, who refused to speak to a reporter, wrote on his web site. "With his public statements the patriarch is giving his blessing to the outrage against the graves of the great sons of Russia, the symbols of the eternal struggle of poor laborers for happiness in their earthly life, and thus goes against Christ."

The group picketed Alexy II's offices after his statement, said Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, Stalin's grandson, in a telephone interview from Tbilisi.

"I'd like to see them try to ruin Red Square," Dzhugashvili said. "It would be like firing a shot that will wake up the Russian Ivan who will raise his cudgel to fight them. They could quietly pull Lenin's body out of the mausoleum and rebury him somewhere else, but they're afraid to do it because people's love for Lenin and Stalin is still alive."

While the country's older generation tends to view the grave site as a place of semireligious veneration, opponents argue that its removal, like the 1998 burial of the remains of Nicholas II and his family, is a vital step toward purging Russia of its painful past.

"In order to purify ourselves and move forward, we need to repent - and make a bold act as a record for the future," said Igor Bondarenko, deputy director of the Moscow Research Institute of Architecture Theory and Urban Planning. "If we pretend to forget and continue living on a rotting dump, it'll keep poisoning us. It's necessary psychotherapy."

While the patriarch argues for reburying the men in accordance with Christian tradition, historian Roy Medvedev pointed out the questions that will arise should such a decision be made. "What priest will agree to officiate at the burial ceremony of a man who was not only an atheist but a militant atheist?" Medvedev said. "Where and how should Stalin be buried?"

Meanwhile, the descendants of those buried at the Kremlin insist that Red Square should be preserved.

"Rock concerts - those Satanic games at the nation's sacred grounds - must be stopped. Why should we take historic monuments away from Red Square for the sake of some touring rock stars?" the outraged daughter of Soviet Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, Natalya, told the Sovietskaya Rossia newspaper.

Bondarenko disagreed. "We should set apart history and modern life of a big city," he said. "Monuments should be documented and preserved at museums, but the land needs be cleared to let the city develop.

"Wherever you stick a shovel in the ground in central Moscow, there are bones," said Bondarenko, who authored a book on the architectural history of Red Square. Still, he believes Stalin's grave on the site is a "glaring outrage."

He argues that human remains should be taken away and the site marked with memorial plaques instead. There have been proposals, he added, to relocate the mausoleum or turn it into a branch of the nearby History Museum after Lenin's body is buried at a regular cemetery or taken "to a laboratory, if it's so precious to some."

Bondarenko's views are not shared by many of his high-ranking colleagues in city-planning circles. The process of returning pre-Soviet names to Moscow streets and pulling down statues of Soviet leaders was recently halted for the sake of civil accord. For the time being, Red Square and its on-site cemetery may enjoy similar protection.

"Only barbarians, only people without honor and conscience can tear up Red Square," said Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, laying a wreath at the door of Lenin's mausoleum on Friday.