Truly Bad Films

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Not to Praise Lenin, But to Bury Him

A few days ago I heard a piece on NPR talking about a new push in Russia to bury Lenin. I checked around the web, but couldn’t find any word on the Pot the Despot, or Plant the Potentate initiative. But today Red came through with a link to the New York Times.

Word is, according to Red's commenters, that Lenin’s mummy is rudely pushing up mushrooms right there in sight of the Kremlin. The nerve!

All this talk of unacceptable behavior on the part of dead bodies reminded me that I read a great book on the subject just a few years back. The book is called The Mummy Congress by Heather Pringle.

According to The Mummy Congress, Lenin’s Mausoleum has it’s own laboratory, staffed with biochemists and DNA researchers whose main responsibility is to inspect the body twice a week to detect and reverse any sign of deterioration. Every 18 months Lenin is taken off display to be treated with "secret formulas" and given a new suit.

Lenin’s wife never wanted him to be made into a secular relic and Lenin himself was "frankly contemptuous of those who made dead revolutionaries their idols." According to the book, "shortly after her husband died from a stroke in January 1924, she wrote a letter to the Soviet newspaper Pravda. She demanded that her husband be given a plain burial in a simple grave."

But it was winter, and because of travel conditions, it took weeks for dignitaries to arrive in Moscow for the burial. Lenin started to brown like a banana, waiting for the important people to arrive. So Stalin, who was busy destroying all the genuine Orthodox relics within reach, had Lenin pickled and put on display.
With no one else to turn to, the committee [to preserve Lenin] reluctantly handed Lenin’s body over to a pair of untried morticians, biochemist Boris Zbarsky and anatomist Vladimir Vorobiov. Vorobiov had a local reputation in the city of Kharkov as a preparer of anatomical specimens for medical classes. He flayed, incised, and chemically treated human corpses to reveal the minutiae of their anatomy. His cadavers were instructive for medical students, but never very pretty. Zbarsky, on the otherhand, was a cocky young Jewish biochemist eager to make his way in the new Soviet system. He had never worked with the dead before, but he had persuaded himself that with his knowledge of chemistry, and Vorobiov’s grasp of anatomy, they could preserve Lenin for decades just as the Kremlin wanted. Zbarsky was willing to risk everything on this belief. He knew failure would lead directly to the firing squad.

The work took four months, including many days demanding round the clock efforts from the pair. Zbarsky never fully recovered from the strain. "He had a recurring nightmare: in his dreams, he told one reporter, he saw a fly buzzing inside Lenin’s sarcophagus."

The book is absolutely fascinating. It goes on to relate stories of the pickled mummies of Stalin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh, not to mention hundreds of other morbid mummy monographs. The professional Mausoleumists once devoted to Lenin alone are no longer supported by the State and must hawk their specialty to wealthy Mafia families and Texans. Their recherché profession swallowed up some of the best minds in the hemisphere for over half a century, but without funding and new talent, it seems the time for Lenin to feed the worms may have come.


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