The following is reprinted from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Treasury
More people have seen Lenin's mummy than any other mummy in history. It's a tourist attraction, a cultural artifact, and as you'll see, a political gimmick. How did this weird monument - denounced by Lenin's official historian as an "absurd idea" - come into being? Here's the full story.
Lenin's tomb in Moscow's Red Square is the best-known landmark in the Soviet Union, as well as the spiritual center of Soviet political ideology. Some 150 million people have visited the mausoleum since it was first built ... There are always long lines, but you should expect to be descending the gloomy stairs into the tomb within 20-30 minutes. Without stopping, you walk around three sides of the glass case in which Lenin lies, stubbly and ashen-faced, wearing a jacket and a polka-dot tie.
- Travel Guide to the Soviet Union
DEATH OF A LEADER
At 6:50 p.m. on January 21, 1924, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin [wiki], first leader of the Soviet Union and father of his country, suffered a stroke and died.
No one was sure how to handle it. Lenin had asked for a simple funeral. He wished to be buried next to his mother and sister in the family burial plot. But when Soviet leaders met to discuss the matter, they came up with another idea - turn the funeral into a "propaganda event" that could help legitimize the Communist regime. They decided to embalm him so he could lie in state for a while.
Then, only three days after his death, the Politburo began discussing the idea of saving the body "a little longer." Lenin's relatives balked at the idea ... but Joseph Stalin insisted. As Dmitri Volkogonov wrote in Lenin: A New Biography, Stalin "came to see [preserving Lenin's body] as the creation of a secular Bolshevik relic with huge propaganda potential." A short time later, the Politburo issued the following orders:
1. The coffin containing V.I. Lenin's corpse is to be kept in a vault which should be made accessible to visitors;
2. The vault is to be formed in the Kremlin wall on the Red Square among the communal graves of fighters of the October Revolution. A commission is being created today for the construction of a mausoleum.
A burial vault was dug along the Kremlin wall, a wooden hut was built over it to keep out the elements, and Lenin's body was placed inside the funeral.
The first Lenin Mausoleum in 1924 (Photo: Lenin Mausoleum)
The second Lenin Mausoleum (wooden structure, lasted 5 years)
(Photo: Lenin Mausoleum)
CORPSE OF ENGINEERS
Meanwhile, the secret police were rounding up the country's top scientists to put them to work figuring out how to embalm Lenin for eternity. A streetcar was towed into Red Square and fitted with beds, hot plates, and washbasins; it served as the terrified scientists' home for the rest of the winter.
But restoring Lenin to his former glory was not so easy. Illness had ravaged him in the final years of his life, leaving him frail-looking and emaciated. And since permanent, lifelike embalming had never been attempted before, research on how to accomplish such a task had to begin from scratch. In the meantime, the body continued to deteriorate.
Lenin's cadaver was packed in ice to slow the decay, and by June the scientists finally succeeded in "stabilizing" the body. By then, however, it was a mess. "In those four and a half months," historian Robert Payne writes in The Life and Death of Lenin, "remarkable changes had taken place: he was waxen gray, wrinkled, horribly shrunken." Nonetheless, by August 1924, Lenin's body had been cleaned up enough to put on public display.
Lenin's body in the Mausoleum
STAYING IN SHAPE
Work on improving Lenin's after-death appearance would continue for more than 25 years. The task was handled by the Research Institute for "Biological Structures" (a Soviet euphemism for cadaver) and its Lenin Mausoleum Laboratory - both of which were so secret that the West did not learn of their existence until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Part of the routine that was worked out over the years:
• To prevent Lenin from decomposing, the temperature in the mausoleum is kept at precisely 59 F. The humidity is also kept constant.
• Every Monday and Friday, the mausoleum is closed and a senior official of the institute's "body brigade" (most of whom log 20 years or more on the job before they are allowed to touch the corpse) removes Lenin's clothing and examines the cadaver for any signs of wear and tear. Any dust that has accumulated is carefully brushed away; then a special preservative ointment is applied to the skin. The corpse is then re-dressed and put back on display.
• Every 18 months, the cadaver is bathed in preservatives and injected with chemicals, which displace both water and bacteria in the cells and prevent the tissues from decomposing. Which chemicals are used in the process? Hardly anyone knows - even today, the "recipe" is as closely guarded a secret as the formula for Coca-Cola. Only the eight most senior members of the institute know the precise formula. When the process is completed, the cadaver is given a brand-new, hand-tailored suit.
KEEPING THE FAITH
As of 1996, more than five years after the collapse of the Soviet empire, Lenin's body was still on display in Red Square. Keeping the mausoleum open is no empty gesture - the corpse requires constant attention and a lot of money to keep it in good condition. But for many, it has become the political shrine that Stalin envisioned ... and the Russian government fears that giving Lenin a regular burial will create a political backlash. Seventy-two years after he died, Lenin is still - literally - a political presence to be reckoned with.
Lenin Mausoleum today (Photo: Richard Seaman)
• Wasted effort. Soviet scientists continued perfecting their embalming techniques until the 1950s ... just in time for the death of Joseph Stalin. He, too, was embalmed, then laid to rest alongside Lenin. But that turned out to be a waste of time. Eight years later, Nikita Khrushchev ordered Stalin's body removed and buried in a more modest grave along the Kremlin wall.
Stalin's mummy, next to Lenin's (Photo: Pictorial Parade at Stalin & Soviet Union)
• Mummies for sale. Budget cuts brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union have forced the Research Institute for Biological Structures to make its services available to the public. The mummification process takes a full year, requires the removal of all organs, and cost around $500,000. "The precise cost depends on the condition of the body," an official explains. "But our work is the best." The $500,000, by the way, only covers the cost of the embalming - you still have to build a mausoleum with temperature and humidity controls, which the institute estimates will cost as much as $5 million ... not including the cost of staffing it forever.
• No-brainer. In 1924, Lenin's brain was removed and handed over to the Soviet Brain Institute - an organization founded specifically to determine whether the leader's brain was superior to other human brains. Not surprisingly, they reported in 1936 that the brain "possessed such high organization that even during Lenin's illness, it continued to function on a very high level." Alas, it was just propaganda. In 1994, the Brian Institute's director admitted that "in the anatomical structure of Lenin's brain, there is nothing sensational."
Is the body on display in Lenin's Tomb really his body? The official word is yes. But throughout late 1920s, and 1930s, rumors spread that the embalmers had actually failed in their task. According to the story, the body in the mausoleum is a wax dummy.
This rumor is so widely accepted that the Soviet government opened an official "investigation" into the matter and invited a German doctor to participate and report his findings to the world. But the inquiry only heightened suspicions. As Payne reports, the German doctor
was not permitted to make more than a cursory examination. He reported that he had observed frostbites on the skin, felt the cheeks, and lifted one of Lenin's arms ... He inquired about the techniques and was told they were secret but would be fully revealed in three or four year's time when they had been proved effective; and nothing more was ever heard about the secret formula.
Even after the fall of communism in Russia, no one (except for the government) knows for sure whether the corpse is real.