Lenin was a mushroom: Kuryokhin’s TV mystification
In May 1991 many Soviet people’s notions and beliefs collapsed. Not because the Soviet system was crumbling little by little, but because they suddenly found out that Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Great Socialist October Revolution and the founder of the USSR, was in fact a mushroom. They saw it on TV, so it had to be true.
Behind this televised hoax were journalist Sergei Sholokhov and musician Sergei Kuryokhin.
They produced an episode that was broadcast live on the Soviet TV programme ‘The Fifth Wheel’. In this episode Kuryokhin presented the audacious and absurd thesis that “the October Revolution was led by people who had been consuming hallucinogenic mushrooms for many years. The mushrooms, as they were being consumed, were little by little displacing the consumers’ personalities, who were becoming mushrooms themselves. I just want to say, that Lenin was a mushroom”.
Then for about an hour the presenters were manipulating the audience by creating an illusion of logical reasoning, supported by numerous references to literature and material evidence.
One of their arguments, for instance, “explained” Lenin’s choice of pseudonym: the presenters claimed that “Lenin” is “ninel” in reverse, that is a French dish prepared with mushrooms. Kuryokhin also claimed that he saw the early sketches of Vera Mukhina’s monument ‘Worker and Kolkhoz Woman‘, and that initially the figures were holding in their hands not a hammer and a sickle, but a mushroom and a knife.
But my favourite argument is that the root system of a fly agaric mushroom and Lenin’s famous armoured car (‘bronevik‘), which he stood on to address the crowd, are almost identical in sectional view:
Some people say that Kuryokhin stole the idea from a 1963 Japanese horror flick Matango (or Attack of the Mushroom People), in which people stuck on an island eat local mushrooms and start turning into mushrooms themselves. However, I am not sure that Kuryokhin back then had access to this rather obscure piece of Japanese cinema, which even today is not so easily available.
Others say he was definitely familiar with the underground cult book ‘The sacred mushroom and the cross‘ written by John Marco Allegro. The author claimed that Christianity began as a mushroom cult, and Jesus Christ is a symbol of a fly agaric mushroom. This would make Kuryokhin’s TV joke a very clever political irony, quite well-timed for the era of “twilight of the gods”.
Whatever the case is, Kuryokhin and Sholokhov became the creators of a first media virus in the USSR.
At the time of the programme’s original broadcast many people did not recognise it as a hoax. Soviet people in general were accustomed to see media as a source of absolute truth, and the 1990s was a time of great confusion for many of them – in this atmosphere practically everyone was ready to believe that Lenin was a mushroom, Stalin was Super Mario and Khrushchev was Princess Toadstool.
The hoax worked, and it could work only in the historical context of the 1990s, in “the open” as it is defined by Zizek. For Zizek, “the open” is a phase of a historical situation, “when the former Master-Signifier, although it has already lost the hegemonical power, has not yet been replaced by the new one”. In our case – when the media was neither tightly controlled by the Soviet government, nor dictated by new market rules of the new Russia.
Parts of the original programme were subtitled in English, so you can relive the experience of perestroika madness right here and right now: