I found this interesting piece in Life News about a rather morbid topic – the mummification of V.I. Lenin. The author is a man named Evgeny Antoniuk. Here is a summary of his piece, including some of my own commentary.
On 21 January 1924 Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, after a prolonged illness, died. Lenin was not just the leader of the ruling Bolshevik Party and first Soviet head of state. He was also the leader of the world proletariat, as a self-conscious class. Due to this role, the last couple of years in which he clung to existence, Lenin’s life, and even his own body, did not truly belong to him any more. When he died, forces external to his own family decided not to bury Lenin, at least not right away. Instead, his body was to be placed on exhibit, so that the proletarians of the Soviet Union, and even foreign countries, would have a chance to say good-bye to their departed political leader.
Lenin himself never asked for such veneration; in fact, it is generally accepted that he would have been horrified. Lenin’s wife was also adamantly opposed to this display of her husband’s body. As were the majority of other Bolshevik Party leaders. Nonetheless, despite all of this opposition, Lenin in death was subjected to this treatment. His body was mummified and placed in a specially built mausoleum.
Antoniuk points the finger at Stalin. Even when Lenin was still alive, but already dysfunctional (autumn of 1923), and it was crystal clear that he would die soon, Stalin brought to the discussion of the Politburo, what should be done about Lenin’s body. This sounds impolite, of course, but connoisseurs of Soviet history know that the factional struggle within the Bolshevik Party was already heating up: The succession war (a type of proletarian Game of Thrones) was underway, and it wasn’t just Stalin vs. Trotsky, there were a lot of players in this game. You had a very opinionated group of know-it-all intellectuals, each one of whom thought that he should be Lenin’s successor. In any case, Lenin’s mortal coil, even before he shuffled it off, was just another card in the deck of this game. On the surface, the struggle was over who controls Lenin’s political legacy. Just one layer below the surface, there were many other even bigger issues at stake. Issues of war and peace, domestic reforms, and the direction the country should take after Lenin’s death.
So, Stalin’s notion, which he proposed to the Politburo, was to NOT bury Lenin in the normal manner, but instead to preserve his body for future generations to see. Stalin backed his argument by citing requests from provincial comrades. “Provincial” meaning some very “Asiatic” and even “backward” parts of this vast country.
Stalin’s proposal horrified the Old Bolsheviks. One has to recall that these people were, on the whole, a highly educated and elite group of European intellectuals. They were cosmopolitans, many of them Jews, Marxists, atheists, they did not believe in God or an afterlife. As materialists, they believed that we ARE our bodies; when the body dies, the person is gone. The notion of going all “oriental” and setting up some new cult of the dead — was simply abhorrent to them. Lenin himself would have never wanted this, he sneeringly referred to religion and all cults as a type of “worshipping of the dead”. Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, was also opposed to the idea of embalming, and one would think that her wishes would prevail. A majority of Politburo members also spoke out against Stalin’s idea – influential men such as Kamenev, Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Bukharin. They called Stalin’s plan “barbaric madness” and compared it to the Catholic worship of relics.
His proposal shot down by the majority of his comrades, and this was at a time when the rules of “democratic-centralism” still prevailed in the Politburo and Central Committee of the Party — namely, people debated, shouted, screamed, voted, and then shut up and abided by majority decision — Stalin temporarily dropped his idea of embalming Lenin. Only to bring it up again later, when Lenin actually passed away. Immediately a State Commission was created, whose job it was to organize the funeral. Felix Dzerzhinsky who also happened to be an ally of Stalin’s faction, was put in charge of the arrangements. And this time Stalin prevailed, with logistics and certain geographical realities being on his side.
Lenin’s funeral was to be attended by delegations from all corners of the Soviet Union; and by delegations from foreign Communist Parties. Air travel was not always an option. For some of these delegations, it might take days, and even weeks, to reach the capital. Once again, the views of these “provincial comrades”, who looked to Stalin as their new leader, needed to be taken into account. And once again the issue arose, how to preserve the body long enough for everybody who wanted to, to see Lenin one more time and say good-bye.
[to be continued]