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.