First attempts to organize a museum named after V.I. Lenin were made by the Moscow City Council, and then by the Institute of Party History (Istpart) during the lifetime of Lenin, in 1920 (shortly after his fiftieth birthday). According to the memoirs of contemporaries, the head of the Soviet government, upon learning about the initiative, became angry and said that this was “indecency.” He absolutely did not want to hear about any museum of his name. Colleagues immediately recognized the idea as unsuccessful and all activity around this topic quickly curtailed.
In August 1923, a few months before Lenin’s death, when seriously ill head of the Soviet state lived and was treated in Gorki, at the suggestion of Istpart, a corner of Ulyanov-Lenin was opened on the territory of the All-Union Agricultural and Handicraft-Industrial Exhibition, which became the first independent exposition about the first leader of the country of Soviets.
In a short time, 993 exhibits were collected for the corner, the vast majority of which were printed publications and photographs. At the same time, the exposition included 35 paintings, painted by artists “deliberately” for the exhibition. The themes for the paintings were developed by the members of the Corner Organization Commission. Visitors could see Lenin working on a subbotnik, receiving peasants together with M.I. Kalinin and even fleeing from the spies. The Petrograd Bureau of Istpart presented to the exhibition the coat, in which Lenin left Petrograd on July 11, 1917 for Sestroretsk, where he lived at the Razliv station during the last underground period. The exposition was very successful – only during first two weeks it was visited by 30 thousand people.
However, the official date of the foundation of the Museum of V.I. Lenin is considered to be May 31, 1924. On this day, at the 13th Congress of the RCP (b), the Lenin Institute was inaugurated, which shortly before was recognized as the only state repository of all Lenin’s handwritten materials and all documents related to his activities. The Congress instructed the Central Committee of the Party to establish a museum department at the V.I. Lenin Institute, open to the broad working and peasant masses.
Lenin’s relatives and friends – his wife N.K. Krupskaya, sisters Anna and Maria and brother Dmitry – provided invaluable assistance in creating the museum and adding to its exhibits.
Some of the museum’s exhibits were presented in copies. One of the most famous is a copy of the Kremlin study of the leader, which was made in the workshops of the Bolshoi Theater under the direction of architect Ivan Rerberg and chief administrator of the Theater Feodor Ostrogradsky.
During first ten years of its existence, the museum was constantly moving. First, it was located in the building of the Lenin Institute on Bolshaya Dmitrovka (today – the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History), then – in the premises of the Museum of Revolution on Tverskaya, then again on Bolshaya Dmitrovka. In January 1932 after the director’s T.N. Plyusnina appeal to the Central Control Commission under the Central Committee of the CPSU (b) with a request to protect the museum, she headed, from unjustified compactions and reorganizations, the collection was placed in the exhibition hall of the Marx and Engels Museum, located on Bolshaya Znamenskaya Street.
In September 1935, Politburo of the Central Committee of the CPSU(b) adopted a resolution on the creation of the Central Museum of V.I. Lenin in Moscow. Despite the fact that the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Party I.V. Stalin was not present at the meeting, it was his hand that made the most important amendments in the document: on the allocation of the former City Duma building to the Museum at 2 Square of the Revolution, and on the reduction of the budget for the creation of the museum from five to three million rubles. By the time this decision was made, dozens of Soviet institutions were located in the Duma building: branches of the Centrosojuz and the Moscow Union of Consumer Societies, a Bakery Trust, the Moscow Food Transport Administration, the publishing house of the newspaper “Pravda” and many others. Nevertheless, by order of the Secretary General, all organizations were resettled in 70 days, and the building was completely re-equipped for the museum’s exposition. Control over the reconstruction of the premises was entrusted to the NKVD and personally to its leader N.I. Yezhov. However, the large-scale redevelopment affected only the interiors. Built in 1890-1892 according to the project by architect D.N. Chichagov, the Duma building has preserved the original volumetric-spatial solution and the pseudo-Russian façade decoration, that is, its memorial value.
On May 15, 1936, the Central Museum of V.I. Lenin (CML) received visitors as an independent central institution in the system of Leninist museums created in the country. On the same day, newspaper “Pravda” published an article of a new management of the museum, in which it proudly reported on the fulfillment of the task of beloved Stalin and said that “the main material displayed in the museum is – Lenin’s manuscripts, numerous documents in which Lenin’s handwriting is intertwined with Stalin’s one.”
Since that time, a fundamentally new stage began in the life of the museum. Every year it became more and more rigidly integrated into the system of ideological institutions of the party, fulfilling a certain political order. Its exposition, like the exposition of any historical and revolutionary museum of the USSR in 1930-1940, was based of the Stalinist periodization of the history of the Bolshevik Party, in accordance with the chapters of the “Short Course of the History of the CPSU (b)” and served to promote the idea that “Stalin is Lenin today.” Therefore, it is not surprising that, after visiting the museum in 1938, K.I. Demidov, Komsomol member and Stakhanovite, wrote in the visitors’ book: “After visiting the museum, there was the impression that Lenin did not die, but was alive, only changed his name to Stalin”. However, this did not save the management and some members of the museum staff from stigma of the enemies of the people. The first Director of the CML, N.N. Rabichev, unable to withstand the persecution, shot himself in 1938 in his own office.
The process of overcoming the cult of Stalin’s personality, which began after N.S. Khrushchev’s revealing speech at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, affected the museum’s exposition. Texts and quotations from the “Short Course of the History of the CPSU (b)”, many of Stalin’s works, a dozen of large commissioned art canvases, painted “from the position of a cult of personality” were deleted from it.
The CML maintained constant scientific contacts not only with branches, but also with the memorial Leninist museums and the museums of V.I. Lenin, created on a voluntary basis (by the end of the 1980s, there were already about a thousand of them in the country).
Special attention was paid to cooperation with the museums of Lenin abroad. It became a rule for General Secretaries of the CPSU Central Committee, party and government delegations to visit them during foreign trips.
Since 1936, the Central Museum of V.I. Lenin has been repeatedly reconstructed and expanded. If in 1936 there were 2553 exhibits on display, in 1959 there were already six thousand. In 1959, by the decision of the Ideological Commission of the Central Committee of the CPSU, the museum’s exposition was significantly expanded due to the sections devoted to the construction of socialism and communism in the USSR, the leading role of the CPSU in socialist society.
In 1970, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of V. I. Lenin, the last large-scale reconstruction in the history of the museum took place. Under the scientific supervision of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism under the Central Committee of the CPSU, the exposition was rebuilt and its artistic design was changed. During the reconstruction of the first floor of the museum, they tried to move away from the stereotypical design techniques of the first expositions and to ensure a variety of halls with the unity of the artistic image. This was a difficult task, considering that the most part of the exposition at that time was represented by copies of Lenin’s manuscripts (1500) and first publications and editions of his works in the languages of the peoples of the USSR and the world (6945). The centenary of the birth of the founder of the USSR, celebrated as a state holiday, attracted special attention to the Central Museum of V.I. Lenin. Although for the sake of truth it is worth saying that the museum has never suffered from the lack of visitors. Over the years of its existence, it has been visited by about 70 million people.
In addition to the main form of activity – lecture propaganda, the museum became famous thanks to mass political work. Solemn admittance to Pioneers, Lenin’s readings for propagandists of the political education system, meetings with veterans of the party, revolutionary movement, war and labor – all that was somehow included in the everyday attributes of the life of thousands of Soviet people, was strongly associated with the Central Museum of V.I. Lenin. For success in this activity in May 1974, the museum was awarded the Order of Lenin.
Almost forgotten is the fact that on the eve of the centenary of Lenin’s birth the Central Committee of the CPSU adopted a resolution on the design and construction of a building in Moscow specially for the Central Museum of V.I. Lenin. In November 1971, a competition “for a sketch-idea of a new museum building” was announced. Its participants were invited to create in the center of Moscow, not far from the Kremlin, “a unique architectural structure reflecting the greatness of Lenin and his immortal teaching.” However, these plans were never realized. Either the task turned out to be too difficult, or in the center of Moscow they could not find enough space for a tourist attraction of this scale.
August 1991, rich in political convulsions – the State Emergency Committee (putsch), decrees “On the suspension of the activity of the Communist Party of the RSFSR”, “On the property of the CPSU and the Communist Party of the RSFSR” – could not but affect the further fate of the museum, which existed for decades under the auspices of the Central Committee of the CPSU and functioned on party money. This period marked the return of the museum to its original function – the custodian of historical values. The main exposition was reduced to 18 halls (out of 34), and ended with a mourning hall. The pompous halls of modernity, designed to demonstrate the vitality of Leninist ideas, were replaced by strictly documentary exhibitions on controversial and obscure issues of the leader’s biography. The free exposition areas became exhibition spaces, and the cinema hall began to be used as part of a public free cultural center. Considering that by the late 1980s a rapid process of liquidation of CML branches began, by the early 1992 the Central Museum of V.I. Lenin remained virtually the only Lenin museum in the country.
Since 1991 the museum has not been funded, while free admission has been maintained. Voluntary donations from citizens could not cover the costs. In order to preserve the team and maintain the exposition and collection at the proper level, free areas were leased, including to the structures of the notorious “MMM”. On November 12, 1993 by order of the President of the Russian Federation B.N. Yeltsin the Central Museum of V.I. Lenin ceased to exist as an independent historical and cultural institution. Some of the buildings in which the museum was housed, its collections and property were transferred to the operational management of the State Historical Museum. It happened just before the 70th anniversary of the museum. In December 1993, a branch “Museum of V.I. Lenin” was established within the State Historical Museum, currently transformed into a Department of the collection of the Lenin Museum funds.
The museum lost its exposition, but retained the main thing – a unique collection of about 100,000 items. It presents authentic personal belongings of Lenin and members of his family, relic materials related to the activities of the proletarian leader, the best works of painting, graphics, sculpture, folk art about Lenin, a collection of political posters, personal belongings of Stalin, gifts to Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and other communist leaders and much more. Considering the historical value of the materials collected over the seventy years of the museum’s existence, the collection entered the State Historical Museum’s funds as an independent and indivisible one. Thanks to the consistent and principled position of the SHM management, which was supported by the staff of the branch, it became possible to preserve in the historical and cultural space of Moscow the building of the former City Duma, which in the post-perestroika times was planned to be transferred to the Moscow City Hall. Currently, it houses the Exhibition Complex of the State Historical Museum. In 2015, in these exposition areas the exhibition “Myth of the Beloved Leader” was opened, which became a kind of report that the collection of the former Central Museum of V.I. Lenin was not only preserved, but it is constantly replenished with new exhibits.