Lenin’s Tomb (A Halloween Post)
Here is a perfect story for Halloween: the story of how I got to see Lenin’s mummy on the occasion of being inducted into the Young Pioneers.
I had the unexpected privilege to be among the few “superior” third-graders to be inducted before anyone else. To this day, I suspect I have some clerical error to thank for this: I was, after all, from an inherently suspect semi-Jewish bourgeois background, and I took piano lessons (which was tolerated, but considered not truly Soviet).* Whatever the reason, I was ecstatic – because besides the official recognition of ideological and moral perfection, First Group members could expect truly sublime delights: a breakfast of tea and danishes, an exclusive induction ceremony at the V.I. Lenin museum (now Moscow City Hall), a tour of the Red Square, a lunch of caviar canapés and a trip to the Mausoleum, where we were to be let in ahead of the line.
You can still visit Lenin’s Tomb today. It is, nowadays, a minor stop on the tourist itinerary, attracting only moderate interest. From what I hear, you can simply walk up to the place, and walk in. But back then, before the fall of the Soviet Union, no tourist spot was harder for Soviet citizens to get into — apart, perhaps, from the Armoury — than the Mausoleum. On a typical day, the line stretched for more than a mile. Most of the year, one would have to endure the ravages of the northern Russian weather for four hours or more before finally getting to see the Leader’s earthly remains. During Russia’s brief summer, the line would get so long, it was hopeless. So this truly was a treat.
The day when I walked up to the school in my new, immaculately starched uniform, clutching a bouquet of mutant roses, was perfect: dark, rainy and gray. This is the kind of weather in which Moscow, with its glistening boulevards, unyielding Stalinesque behemoths and a profusion of warm lights, is at its most beautiful and inviting. And so it was with a soaring heart that I chatted with a dozen or so giddy, equally lucky friends as the Icarus bus took us to the Kremlin on that somber last day in October in 1985. That’s right: I was inducted as a Young Pioneer on Halloween Day.
Vladimir Lenin died in January of 1924. When the idea of preserving and displaying his body in perpetuity was first floated, it met with bewildered and somewhat outraged opposition, for its inescapable allusions both to ancient Near Eastern practices and Catholic cults of saints. Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, was a particularly staunch opponent. But the winter of 1924 was an extraordinarily cold one. In the first three days after Lenin’s death, while his body lay in state in the unheated building of the old nobility clubhouse, more than a million mourners filed past, many people waiting for hours in unspeakably freezing temperatures to get a glimpse of him. After those three days, Lenin had an official funeral, but his body was not interred. It was placed on display in a specially constructed wooden structure abutting the Kremlin Wall, to take advantage of the cold and give more citizens the opportunity to view him. Two months went by, with crowds hardly diminishing. This was sufficient to change most big wigs’ minds (though not Krupskaya’s) about the wisdom of Lenin’s mummification.
The process was, of course, complicated by the fact that Lenin’s body had been frozen and then had to be thawed (thus destroying the cellular structure) and that many of his blood vessels had been cut during the autopsy (thus preventing conventional embalming). Still, Russia’s top morticians persevered, boldly experimenting with unheard of techniques and ushering in a new chapter in corpse preservation – thus, doubtless, fulfilling one of humanity’s most pressing needs. The goal, ultimately, was to conserve the body’s lifelike appearance and flexibility.
The Soviet State spared no expense in caring for Lenin’s meat shell. During the Great Patriotic War, a special train transported the body and the team of scientists caring for it to Tuymen’ under heavy guard for temporary storage. At its height, the Research Institute for Biological Structures – a scientific organization devoted solely to Lenin’s mummification – employed dozens of chemists, biologists and morticians. People with the most impressive scientific credentials had to work for the Institute for a minimum of twenty years before being allowed to touch the body. This was a top-clearance job. The Institute’s techniques, protocols and procedures were a matter of state secret.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the funding to the Institute was abruptly cut. The Mausoleum and its tenant survived (sorry) on private donations until, in 1996, the successor Russian state partially restored the funding. Calls to dismantle the Mausoleum and bury Lenin never cease; but the country’s current leadership shrewdly reasoned that doing so might trigger a backlash among old school communists, sufficient to destabilize the regime. And, as time goes by, the mummy’s historic and anthropological significance is displacing the ideological one – which means that, the older Lenin’s mummy gets, the less likely it is to ever be buried.
Even today, the process by which Lenin’s mummy is being preserved, and its ingredients, are a closely guarded secret and a perpetual subject of rumors. By now, it’s a commercial secret as well as a national one: to supplement its budget, the Institute offers comparable mummification services (though not the subsequent upkeep) to anyone willing to pay.
Here is what we do know. The mummy is missing all its internal organs, including the brain. Some of its irreparably decayed joints, patches of skin and hair have been replaced by realistic-looking plastic, silicon and other artificial substitutes. Underneath its smart business suit, Lenin wears an all-over body glove that constantly bathes him in a chemical preservative. Areas of skin exposed to the light are covered with a protective ointment. The glass sarcophagus that encloses Lenin reportedly creates an anaerobic environment that inhibits the growth of bacteria and fungi. The tomb is closed two days a week, at which time the body is undressed and carefully examined for damage and signs of decay or fungal growth (which is remarkable, actually – Lenin’s flesh has been impregnated with various inorganic compounds for so long, I’m astounded there is still something left that bacteria or fungi might be interested in). Every 18 months, the tomb is shuttered, and the mummy transferred to the Institute’s laboratories for a months-long process of rejuvenation, which involves the body being bathed in and injected with preservatives, cleaned, massaged, etc. While Lenin is on display, the temperature, humidity, illumination and “bioactivity” within the tomb are carefully controlled by teams of scientists working round the clock. Photography within the Mausoleum is strictly prohibited. Official publicity photos of Lenin’s body post-mummification probably wouldn’t number half a dozen – and all that I’ve seen appear heavily manipulated.
Despite the Soviet Union’s overt hostility to religion, I always thought the 1929 permanent granite Mausoleum looked distinctly Egyptian or Mesopotamian, with its resemblance to both ziggurats and step pyramids. Its massive portals, its severe angles – all of its architecture was ancient, foreign, mysterious and otherworldly.
As I stepped inside, I found myself in complete darkness, animated only by the shuffling of feet and very loud, persistent hissing.
“Shhhhhh! Shhhhhh! Shhhhhh! Shhhhhh!”
Disoriented, I instinctively looked about me for my friends and the two teachers who accompanied us, but saw nothing. The hissing came from all directions, as if I had stepped into a snake pit. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I noticed Honor Guardsmen stationed every few paces on both sides of the slowly moving throng. They were leaning forward and hissing at visitors. Even though I was silent, one of them leaned towards me almost close enough to bite me and hissed with all his might:
As we moved slowly through the dark, cavernous space, the hissing put us in a sort of trance. It grew fainter as we reached the burial chamber – the only place that had a single source of illumination in the entire tomb. There, in the center, encased in glass and bathed in light, lay the body of Lenin.
I must say, at that moment, I was kind of jolted out of my trance-like state and felt a twinge of disappointment. I had read Erich Zeren’s The Crescent and the Bull, and a bunch of books about Egyptian mummies. Somehow, though it seems ridiculous, I expected Lenin to look like a real mummy: greenish-brown, desiccated and naked, except for a loin cloth. Now that I am older, I realize I wanted, needed to see death and decay in him: because that would make him real; it would make him human; it would allow me to feel some sort of bond with him, maybe even reverence.
Instead, the thing that lay under that glass cap looked like a plastic doll. Its flesh was so pink, supple and flawless, you only see skin that perfect on a healthy toddler. Its cheeks were flushed, like it was slightly excited, or maybe embarrassed, or maybe in love. It had eyelashes. Its serenely folded fingers looked young and supple. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the mummy’s appearance was its shine. Its face actually reflected the light – probably because of the protective varnish applied to the skin; but the appearance immediately called to mind the rumors that have persisted since the very first days of the Mausoleum, that the body on display was, in fact, a wax dummy.
When we emerged into the gray light of day, the bewildered look on the faces of my companions told me they were feeling something similar. The teachers breathed a sigh of relief. Then the exchanged uncomfortable looks; I think they agonized over the amount of time that would be appropriate to wait before bringing up the subject of lunch. One of them came up with a brilliant idea: an unscheduled visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which would make a perfect buffer between Lenin’s corpse and the caviar canapés.
I never visited Lenin’s Tomb again after this. Should you? I don’t know, it’s kind of underwhelming. The Armoury, on the other hand:
*Studying music was considered quasi-bourgeois (notwithstanding the rich Soviet tradition of ideological and patriotic compositions), while pursuing sports was considered more Soviet. The Soviet state had an obsession with physical perfection that was disturbingly similar to the Nazis’. Anyway, on this point I once had a hilarious argument with an older Pioneer “mentor” who, concerned for my ideological purity, tried to get me to quit music school and sign up for … fencing. Fencing. Is there any sport more overtly aristocratic than fencing? Dressage, maybe. Maybe polo. Anything having to do with horses. Except, of course, fencing, unlike horse-related sports, embodies the traditional militaristic raison-d’etre of the aristocracy; its role as the keeper of law and order and the coercive mechanism by which it preserved an oppressive power structure. All of which I explained to my dumbfounded “mentor”.
“You really think emulating Comte De La Fère from The Three Musketeers would make me more Soviet than playing piano?” I asked.
The “mentor” gave me a long look and stumbled away. In retrospect, I hope I didn’t get the fencing teacher in any trouble.