Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2012


He has lain in silence for 88 years - the preserved corpse of a man who refuses to die.
Lenin: a very long sleep
The mould is regularly wiped off his face and the body is given the occasional bath in a glycerol solution to prevent it from rotting.
The preservation of Lenin’s body provides a fascinating insight into the early Soviet Union and the development of the cult of personality. It is also an extraordinary testimony to the dedication of a small team of expert scientists.
As he was before the glycerine bath
When Lenin died on 21 January, 1924, his widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, wanted him buried in the plot next to his mother. ‘Do not put up buildings or monuments in his name,’ she said.
But Lenin’s Politburo colleagues strongly disagreed. Felix Dzerzhinsky, chairman of the Lenin Funeral Committee, said: ‘If science permits, Lenin’s body must be preserved.’
But this posed a real problem. There were many known techniques for embalming a body in the manner of the ancient Egyptians, but none that could be guaranteed to preserve Lenin’s life likeness.
Egyptian embalming: not a great likeness
When the distinguished Soviet pathologist, Aleksei Abrikosov, was asked if it was possible, he replied that ‘science today has no such means.’
Others disagreed. Vladimir Vorobiev, a professor of anatomy at Kharkov University argued that ‘many anatomical compounds can be preserved for decades; this means we can try and apply them to an entire body.’
Embalmed in mud: the bogman
In the early days following Lenin’s death, his corpse was placed in a freezing wooden crypt near the Kremlin. But as spring approached and temperatures rose, the body showed the early stages of putrefaction. It was decided to permanently freeze it by placing it in a giant, specially made freezer.
But this had to be ordered from Germany and time was against the steadily decaying corpse. It was decided to summon Professor Vorobiev to Moscow and give him the weighty responsibility of saving Lenin’s from ruin. He was aided in his work by another expert, Boris Zbarsky: both men knew they’d be killed if they failed.
Dead but not yet embalmed
Lenin's blood, bodily fluids and internal organs were removed as part of the initial embalming. The whereabouts of his heart remains a mystery to this day: it seems to have been lost shortly afterwards. His brain is still kept at a Moscow institute but it was long ago dissected into many pieces in an attempt to discover the source of Lenin’s ‘genius’.
But the rest of what is on display in Red Square is genuine Lenin. His eyebrows, moustache and goatee are his original hair. And his genitals, too, were left in situ (although it goes without saying that they’re not on display).
Once the internal organs had been removed, the corpse was immersed for many weeks in a special solution that contained glycerine and acetate. The dark, mould-like spots that had appeared on the body were removed with acetic acid and hydrogen peroxide. It was very important to keep the eye sockets from collapsing: artificial eyes were made to replace the original pair and inserted into the holes.
Prof Vogt studies Lenin's brain
The body rapidly attracted vast numbers of Communist faithful, as well as quite a number of curious tourists. Lenin had to be hastily removed from Red Square during World War Two when Nazi bombing of Moscow endangered his continued survival. He was moved to the town of Tyumen, some 1,200 miles east of the capital, transported in a refrigerated wagon.
But Lenin was back in Moscow in the spring of 1945. The only change was that he was no longer wearing the traditional military field jacket. Now, he was dressed in a three-piece suit. Every ten years or so, he is given a new set of clothing.
Lenin's final resting place? The Moscow mausoleum
For many years the corpse was supervised by Yuri Denisov-Nikolsky. When asked about his macabre job, he confessed that although he never talked or sung to the body, he did have shaking hands when he first touched it.
‘Not every expert is allowed to restore such treasured historical objects, like a Raphael or a Rembrandt. Those who do it, we tremble. I feel a great responsibility in my hands.’
Boris Yeltsin was the first senior political leader to suggest that Lenin should be buried. He said that following the collapsing of the Soviet Union, it was no longer appropriate to keep the corpse on display.
But neither Vladimir Putin not anyone other senior figure seems inclined to remove from display what must surely rank as one of the most macabre tourist attractions in the world.
So there he lies, marble white, wrinkled and on occasions a little mouldy. A human corpse is an animate organism that’s bursting with life.
So long as he remains on display, Lenin will continue to be the corpse that never quite died. 
UK paperback
I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit

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