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Lenin's head to be 'resurrected' in Berlin

AFP · 23 Jul 2015, 08:19

Published: 23 Jul 2015 08:19 GMT+02:00

The Soviet leader will gaze again on the people when the 3.5 tonne piece is resurrected from its current grave -- a sandpit under a pile of rocks home to a colony of lizards.

The goateed head of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, alias Lenin, is to be unearthed, trucked across Berlin and displayed in a line-up of historical sculptures marking the end of an odyssey that started in the Cold War.

"Lenin was always set to be part of the exhibition because it's a special statue, given its size alone," said Andrea Theissen, curator of the Citadel Spandau hosting the exhibition from September. 

A similarly oversized bust of Lenin starred in the award-winning 2003 comedy-drama "Good Bye Lenin!", showing the Russian revolutionary leader suspended from a helicopter, unceremoniously carted over the roofs of a reunited Berlin.

That scene never actually took place, but the real-life journey of the statue has been no less dramatic.

People power

Once upon a time, the 1.7 metre (five feet) high head was part of a Lenin statue carved from Ukrainian pink granite that towered 19 metres (62 feet) above East Berlin, framed by Soviet pre-fab apartment tower blocks.

It was designed by Nikolai Tomsky, then president of the Soviet Academy of Arts, and its massive stone blocks were hauled to the socialist brother-state in a convoy of trucks.

The statue was inaugurated before 200,000 people on April 19, 1970, three days before the 100th anniversary of Lenin's birth, and stayed there for 31 years, dominating a square named after the Bolshevik revolutionary.

After a wave of people power brought down the Wall and the Iron Curtain, sending Lenin and Marx statues toppling across eastern Europe, the Berlin icon too became a lightning rod for public anger.

It was at "the heart of citizen protests and of debates in the Berlin government assembly", said Theissen.

The first mayor of reunited Berlin, the conservative Eberhard Diepgen, ordered its removal in late 1991, wanting to rid the city of an icon of a "dictatorship where people were persecuted and murdered".

The statue was painstakingly disassembled over months as workers cut through granite, concrete and steel beams inside, splitting Lenin into about 120 parts.

The pieces then were trucked to a secluded forest in Berlin's far southeast and buried in sandy earth, a location chosen for reasons that are now lost to history.

Politically sensitive

For long it seemed Lenin's head would remain buried in the sand, despite city pledges to send it to the Spandau exhibit.

As recently as August 2014, the Berlin government claimed no-one knew exactly where it was and that excavating it would be too costly anyway.

"That's when I contacted the Berliner Zeitung (newspaper) and I told them, I know where it is," laughs Rick Minnich, a Berlin-based US documentary filmmaker.

The Californian, together with a German friend, had used shovels to unearth the head back in the early 90s and filmed the scene for a "mockumentary", since posted on YouTube.

"Last summer, someone decided the head would not be excavated, and it was the huge press reaction that put very heavy pressure on the local government to fulfil the promise it had made," he told AFP.

Berlin's administration admitted it had dragged its feet on the matter.

"To the question of whether this is politically sensitive, I think we should say yes," said Petra Rohland, Berlin city spokeswoman for development and the environment.

"It has been 25 years since the fall of the Wall and we naturally thought: is it wise to have Lenin pass through the city and exhibit him in a museum?"

Story continues below…

The exhibit organisers finally convinced the city administration to go ahead. But then Lenin's return ran into another unexpected obstacle -- the lizards.

Endangered lizards

In January, a local Greens Party politician warned that a colony of endangered sand lizards had found a home above Lenin's buried head.

Excavation plans were halted and a biological field study kicked off amid lengthy discussions with environmental groups. An agreement was finally reached to respect both nature and history.

Once the lizards' hibernation period was over, and before their summertime mating began, the critters would be plucked off their rocks and transferred to a new habitat before the earth-moving equipment arrived.

Now Theissen is looking forward to the arrival of Lenin's head for the exhibition titled "Unveiled. Berlin and its Monuments". It features some 100 original works dating back to the 18th century, in the Spandau Citadel in western Berlin.

"We will show the monuments as they were found," she said.

As for Lenin, "he is not shown as a heroic figure ... What we expect is to present him like he was underground."

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