Today continuing this piece from Life News by reporter Evgeny Antoniuk, about the death and mummification of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. Full disclosure: I have never personally understood the need to see bodies after death. Some years ago I attended the wake of a dear friend who had died in a car accident. Viewing her body just lying there in the coffin was very upsetting to me. I didn’t feel a sense of closure at all, just more sadness and the horror of death. In other words, I don’t get it. And neither did that group of Old Bolsheviks in the Politburo who opposed the idea of preserving Lenin’s body. Perhaps this is the normal reaction of people who don’t believe in the afterlife. But atheists like us, admittedly, are in the minority among humankind.
Because apparently this is some universal human need. Every culture has customs, sometimes elaborate and bizarre, in regard to Death and dead bodies. Along with graveyards, monuments, mausoleums, and so on. Catholics are famous for their worship of bones and relics. In many “primitive” cultures, it is the job of the women to clean and prepare bodies for burial. In other cultures death is a “vibrant” business, pun intended. For example, the funeral business in America, and all its various technologies to embalm and preserve bodies. The “practical” reason being, of course, to keep the body in sufficient shape to last through the wake and funeral. Which might take several days. After which, normally, the body is either placed in the earth or burned, and then preservation is not an issue any more. Unless you happen to be an ancient Egyptian.
Yesterday we discussed how the Old Bolsheviks, with the exception of Stalin, wanted to just put Lenin in the ground and be done with it. It is what Lenin’s wife wanted too, not to mention Lenin’s own wishes. If he had been allowed to write his own Living Will. But, alas, there were people and forces out there, in this vast country, which had very different ideas and customs. The debate over Lenin’s imminent death was maybe the first real sign that the Communist intellectuals of European Russia were starting to lose their grip on Russian society; and that Stalin had a better grasp of how to take the reins of this wild horse. Citing the “provincial comrades” who needed several travel days to make it to the funeral, Stalin won the first step in the debate. Namely, that the body would be “preserved” in some fashion. And after that it was all, well, just, slippery slope from there to our present state. Where Lenin’s body remains in the care of a new “regime” whose leaders despise his very existence and attempt to cover over his mausoleum during public holidays.
The very next day after Lenin died, the architect Alexey Shchusev was summoned to the Kremlin and commissioned to build a temporary wooden mausoleum to house Lenin’s body. Shchusev has an interesting biography. The new Soviet leaders were certainly very lucky to acquire the talents of this brilliant artist, who could have just as easily become an emigre. Born in 1873 Shchusev enjoyed a successful career long before the Russian Revolution was even a gleam in anybody’s eye. An expert on Old Russian art, Shchusev also studied the art and architecture of many cultures, include Central Asia and North Africa. His particular talent was to design modern structures which fit seamlessly with structures of an older style. For example, in 1908 he designed the “Martha-Mary Convent” in Moscow, which fits in beautifully with the medieval Novgorod style. Always a vibrant mind ready to try out new ideas, Shchusev experimented with different trends such as Art Nouveau, neo-Classicism, and eventually Soviet-era Constructivism. For the design of Lenin’s tomb, he combined Constructivist elements with, as the wiki page notes, elements of the Egyptian Step Pyramid and the Tomb of Cyrus. The result was a brilliant, if morbid, structure which blends in perfectly with the existing architecture of Red Square.
Recall that Lenin died on 21 January 1924. Less than a week later, Shchusev had the mausoleum built. Granted, not the permanent one that we see today, built of marble and granite; but its wooden prototype. Lenin’s funeral on 27 January was attended by all the leaders of the Party except for Leon Trotsky. Trotsky at the time was #2 in the Party hierarchy, just behind Stalin, the General-Secretary. As Antoniuk notes, the crafty Stalin scored a major point against his rival, Trotsky. The latter was quite ill himself, at the time, and had gone to the Caucasus for medical treatment. (Which, in those days, might have just consisted of taking the mineral baths, or something like that.) Stalin, who managed the day-to-day affairs, logistics and schedules for the Party, made sure that Trotsky got wrong information about the date of Lenin’s funeral. As a result, Trotsky missed this hugely important event! A fact which was later used against him in the ensuing power struggle. Trotsky should have been there, along with the other Politburo members, carrying the coffin to its resting site on their own shoulders. But he wasn’t there; and evil tongues were able to whisper that, “Well, Trotsky and Lenin never really got along, anyhow…” This was the beginning of the meme that Trotsky had always been just an outsider among the real Bolsheviks, and that Lenin never liked him.
After the carrying of the coffin, came the speeches. Party leaders, many of them known for their public speaking skills, tried to out-do each other. Again if Trotsky had been there, and the man was known for being a virtuoso of an orator, he no doubt would have delivered a corker of a speech. But he wasn’t there, and the Oscar went to Stalin. Stalin’s speech was amazing, and he came up with the brilliant idea of the “Lenin Oath”. I found this English translation of Stalin’s funeral oration. Stalin punctuates each moving and emotional passage of his speech with the words “We vow to you, Comrade Lenin, that we will continue to….!”
Stalin ended his speech with this stirring passage:
You have seen during the past few days the pilgrimage of scores and hundreds of thousands of working people to Comrade Lenin’s bier. Before long you will see the pilgrimage of representatives of millions of working people to Comrade Lenin’s tomb. You need not doubt that the representatives of millions will be followed by representatives of scores and hundreds of millions from all parts of the earth, who will come to testify that Lenin was the leader not only of the Russian proletariat, not only of the European workers, not only of the colonial East, but of all the working people of the globe.
DEPARTING FROM US, COMRADE LENIN ENJOINED US TO REMAIN FAITHFUL TO THE PRINCIPLES OF THE COMMUNIST INTERNATIONAL. WE VOW TO YOU, COMRADE LENIN, THAT WE SHALL NOT SPARE OUR LIVES TO STRENGTHEN AND EXTEND THE UNION OF THE WORKING PEOPLE OF THE WHOLE WORLD — THE COMMUNIST INTERNATIONAL!
Ignoring for a moment that less than one year later, Stalin would abandon the notion of global revolution, castrate the Comintern, and adopt the official state policy of “Socialism in One Country”, this conclusion of Stalin’s speech alludes to the practical reason why Party leaders continued to preserve Lenin’s body. Because of those “scores and hundreds of millions” of people who still needed the opportunity to view the remains of the great proletarian leader. And for this purpose, balsam was needed. Lots of balsam.
[to be continued]