Time has been unkind to Lenin, whose remains here in Red Square are said to sprout occasional fungi, and whose ideology and party long ago fell to ruins. Now the inevitable question has returned. Should his body be moved?
Revisiting a proposal that thwarted Boris N. Yeltsin, who faced down tanks but in his time as president could not persuade Russians to remove the Soviet Union's founder from his place of honor, a senior aide to President Vladimir V. Putin raised the matter last week, saying it was time to bury the man.
"Our country has been shaken by strife, but only a few people were held accountable for that in our lifetime," said the aide, Georgi Poltavchenko. "I do not think it is fair that those who initiated the strife remain in the center of our state near the Kremlin."
In the unending debate about what exactly the new Russia is, the subject of Lenin resembles a Rorschach inkblot test. People project their views of their state onto him and see what they wish. And so as Mr. Poltavchenko's suggestion has ignited fresh public sparring over Lenin's place, both in history and in the grave, the dispute has been implicitly bizarre and a window into the state of civil society here.
First came a rush to second the idea, from figures including Nikita Mikhalkov, a prominent film director and chairman of the Russian Cultural Foundation, who shares Mr. Poltavchenko's distaste for the relic.
"Vast funds are being squandered on a pagan show," Mr. Mikhalkov told Russian journalists, saying that Lenin himself wished to be buried beside his mother in St. Petersburg. "If we advocate Christian ideals, we must fulfill the will of the deceased."
Then came the backlash. Gennadi I. Zyuganov, leader of Russia's remnant of the Communist Party, lashed out at proponents of moving the remains, insisting that Lenin had no wish to be buried elsewhere.
He also made a pre-emptive strike against any suggestion of relocating other deceased Soviet leaders, who are buried under a lawn behind Lenin's mausoleum. There, along the Kremlin wall, are the remains of Yuri V. Andropov, Leonid I. Brezhnev and Konstantin U. Chernenko, as well as those of Stalin and Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police.
At a news conference on Friday, Mr. Zyuganov described those who would dare move those Communist figures as people "who do not know the country's history and stretch out their dirty hands and muddy ideas to the national necropolis."
His position has only hardened. "Raising this issue smells of provocation and illiteracy," Mr. Zyuganov said Tuesday in a telephone interview, during which he accused President Putin of hiding behind an aide to test the idea in public. "It seems unlikely that Poltavchenko would come out with a proposal of such desecration of Red Square without approval from the highest power."
Lenin, who led the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, died in 1924 at the age of 53. A near theology rose around him in the ensuing decades.
Depending on who is speaking about him now, he is either a hero or a beast, a gifted revolutionary or a syphilitic mass murderer. (By some accounts he died not of strokes, the official cause of death, but of an advanced case of sexually transmitted disease.)
Some still see in him the architect of a grand and daring social experiment. Others describe an opportunist who ushered vicious cronies to power, resulting in a totalitarian police state. "It is time to get rid of this horrible mummy," said Valeriya Novodvorskaya, head of the Democratic Union, a small reform party. "One cannot talk about any kind of democracy or civilization in Russia when Lenin is still in the country's main square."
She added: "I would not care even if he were thrown on a garbage heap."
Others propose moving Lenin on religious grounds, combining words and ideas rarely associated with the man. Setting aside the matter of Lenin's atheism, Svetlana Orlova, a deputy speaker of the upper house of Parliament, told the Interfax news agency on Tuesday that his followers should consider "Lenin's soul, which has been searching for peace."
Informal polls conducted Monday by the radio station Ekho Moskvy found that 65 percent of people who called in, and 75 percent of people who contacted the station via the Internet, said that not just Lenin but all of the Soviet figures should be evicted from Red Square.
But the polls were hardly scientific, and for every Ekho Moskvy listener there often seems to be another Russian who still believes. "The name of Lenin is quite sacred," said Nikolai Kishin, 51, a clerk from the Siberian city of Irkutsk who emerged from the mausoleum on Tuesday, having paid his respects.
Such opposing views cannot be bridged any time soon, but on one point all agree: Lenin, the central symbol of the Soviet period, has survived Russia's transition and found an enduring place in public life.
His once ubiquitous statues may have mostly been torn down in Eastern Europe, but they scowl at passers-by from the Russian Pacific to the Baltic, and it is not hard to find him on pedestals, murals or plaques in nations that have made great show of shaking free from Moscow's reach, including Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine.
He loiters even in Grozny, the destroyed capital of Chechnya, the region in southern Russia where separatists have waged war against Moscow for more than a decade. While he is loved by a dwindling number of followers and hated by many, he is tolerated for reasons that mix nostalgia, resignation, political expediency and ennui.
Where Mr. Putin stands is now the central remaining question of Lenin's future address.
Mr. Putin said in 2001 that he did not want to upset the civic order by moving the founder's remains. "Many people in this country associate their lives with the name of Lenin," he said. "To take Lenin out and bury him would say to them that they have worshiped false values, that their lives were lived in vain."
Dmitri Peskov, a spokesman for Mr. Putin, said Tuesday that the president's position was unchanged and that he was not allied with Mr. Poltavchenko and others who have embraced his idea. "He is not supporting those who are insisting on removing the body immediately," Mr. Peskov said.
But Ms. Novodvorskaya and Mr. Zyuganov, two politicians who agree on almost nothing, both say the president is testing the reaction.
Ms. Novodvorskaya suggested that the president could find it useful, at a time when he is being portrayed as an autocrat, to lead a catharsis of the Lenin phenomenon. "He is trying to be taken as a democrat in the eyes of the West," she said. "He is also very fond of playing his comedies of national reconciliation."
No matter what Mr. Putin decides, there already are indications that time may ultimately do what no politician has yet achieved. The youngest Russian adults barely recall the Communist times, and some show little interest in looking back.
"Lenin," mused Natasha Zakharova, 23, as she walked off Red Square on Tuesday, admitting that she was not quite sure whose body she had just seen. "Was he a Communist?"