Today concluding this piece from Life News [“Life News” – get it? irony alert] by Russian historian Evgeny Antoniuk. Where we left off in this morbid saga, a battle royale was developing between Krasin, who wanted to freeze Lenin’s body; vs Zbarsky, who wanted to try out his patented formalin mixture. Zbarsky’s main debating point being that even a frozen body would eventually decompose, however slowly, and that the skin color would change. Which would make it problematical to keep the body on display to the public. Which appeared to be one of the main goals of the Party leadership. Hey, they weren’t keeping the corpse around just for their own amusement: Bolshevik political power and legtimacy was based, or so they seemed to believe, on the single, fragile thread of Lenin’s legacy. What else could there be? It’s not like — gasp! — the workers and peasants of this giant country could actually develop the organs of legitimate government — the soviets — which Lenin had fought to place in their work-worn and calloused hands!
By now it was March, the weather got warm. Some weird-looking stains appeared on Lenin’s body. This worried the Corpse Committee (recall that the committee consisted of three men: Molotov, Krasin, and Bonch-Bruyevich), who decided to resolve this issue of the nasty stains as soon as possible. (Because there wasn’t really anything else more pressing for them to do in 1924.) Krasin’s friend and fellow chemist Vladimir Vorobyov was summoned to Moscow. When Krasin showed him the corpse, Vorobyov recoiled in horror. The body was in terrible shape, fixing it was probably hopeless, and he was not willing to take the risk, in case of likely failure.
Despite Vorobyov’s negative attitude, Zbarsky convinced his colleague to speak to the Committee and give them his opinions. Vorobyov agreed. Speaking like a typical mortician he told the Old Bolsheviks that, while it was theoretically possible to preserve a body forever,
it was not recommended to do so the probability of decomposition was very high. But he ended on a more optimistic note, stating that the “changes” would be visible only to people who had been close to the deceased. Nobody else would even notice!
This sounded more hopeful, but Vorobyov made it clear that he personally wanted nothing to do with this project. Clearly this was a man who valued his own reputation as an anatomist and professor of medicine. After speaking to the Committee, Vorobyov returned hastily to Kharkov. According to Antoniuk, Vorobyov had an additional motive for not wanting to get involved in this ghoulish affair: Vorobyov was not particularly sympathetic to the Bolsheviks; in fact, to a certain degree he had supported the Whites during the Civil War. He was afraid that if he undertook to preserve Lenin’s body but failed in the task, then he would be held accountable as a “wrecker” and “counter-revolutionary”. They would send him to jail, maybe even shoot him. He didn’t want to be that guy, who got punished as the scapegoat for somebody else’s harebrained scheme.
Nonetheless, as his parting shot to the Committee, Vorobyov gave platonic support to Zbarsky’s side of the debate. Vorobyov stated, in writing, that embalming was preferable to freezing, as a method of preserving the corpse for a longer period of time. This opinion swayed the committee, so they took Zbarsky’s side over Krasin’s. And then, miracles, Zbarsky somehow persuaded Vorobyov to put aside his paranoid fears and actually help him embalm Lenin’s body.
The Witches Brew
And so, at the end of March 1924 Zbarsky and Vorobyov set about on their ghastly project. By then, Lenin’s body was in terrible shape. Vorobyov’s biography shows him to be a cautious man, not at all a boaster. He knows better than to promise more than he can deliver. He is sort of like Scotty (from Star Trek) who tells Captain Kirk it will take at least three hours to fix the warp engine. Kirk snaps back: “I give you one hour.” Then Scotty finishes the job in half an hour, and looks like a hero. Similarly, the ever-cautious Vorobyov pessimistically assured the Commitee that the best which could be hoped for, was to preserve Lenin’s body in the poor state it was currently in; actual improvement was not likely. Nonetheless, Vorobyov exceeded all expectations: In his embalming process, he was able to introduce significant cosmetic improvements into the look and feel of the corpse.
A special “rubber bath” was prepared and filled with Zbarsky’s patented formalin mixture. Lenin’s body was immersed in the bath for one week. Twenty incisions were made to allow the chemicals to penetrate into the tissues and muscles. Several holes were drilled into Lenin’s skull, to allow the chemicals to penetrate the brain tissue as well. Lenin’s eyeballs were removed, and replaced with glass eyes. His mouth was sewn shut. Parts of his skin were injected with vinegar, and this actually worked to remove the unsightly stains. Housewives, take note – you probably won’t see this tip on the Martha Stewart show!
After the first week, the formalin bath was replaced with an alcohol bath. The proportion was 35% alcohol for the head and hands; and 20% alcohol for the rest of the body. In the third week of the process, glycerin was added to the bath. Later, the alcohol was removed altogether, and the bath was pure glycerin and water. Later something else was added, which I had to look up in the Russian-English dictionary: Russian уксуснокислый калий, English potassium acetate. And finally, as culmination of this recipe, the cooks added one more ingredient to the stew: a 2% solution of [and once again, Roderick, kindly hand me the dictionary]: Russian хинин солянокислый, English quinine hydrochloride solution. The quinine was to prevent micro-organisms from attacking the body. All of these various procedures lasted about three months. After which point, it was once again possible to show Lenin’s body to the public, as Party leaders kept requesting insistently. Because, once again, they had nothing to better to do during those lazy, crazy days.
When the time came for the new showing, a delegation was sent to Nadezhda Krupskaya, requesting some items of Lenin’s clothing. After all, they couldn’t show the body naked, as it was, to the public. That would be impolite. Lenin’s widow greeted the delegation with furious rebuke. Something along the lines of: “How dare you treat my husband’s body like some kind of dummy! Please be humane, please just bury him.”
Notwithstanding Nadezhda’s display of irrational female hysteria, the delegates were able to calm her down and actually convince her to cough up a few items of Lenin’s wardrobe. Which she still had lying around the house. They even convinced her, god knows how, to go on a little field trip with them to view their masterpiece.
In June, Lenin’s corpse was shown off to Comintern delegates and to members of Lenin’s family. Recall that the Communist International was organized by Lenin to ensure that the work of the Marxist proletariat would be conducted across national lines. As the only country in the world (yet) which had an actual Communist government, the Soviet Union and Communist Party naturally assumed leadership over proletarians of other nations. And these proletarian delegations still looked to Lenin as their natural leader. Even though he was dead now.
Krupskaya was there too, and silently wept while her life companion’s body was being shown off. Lenin’s younger brother Dmitry, on the other hand, expressed approval with the efforts: Dmitry Ilyich, who was also a loyal Communist and Party activist, stated that his more famous brother looked almost alive, as he was lying there on the bier.
Around this same time, the construction of a more permanent mausoleum was completed. It was also made of wood, but had more technology installed to control air temperature and moisture levels. During most of the time Lenin continued to lie, like Marat, in his bathtub; but for a few hours each day he was allowed to go out and get some air.
A triumphant reception was planned for 26 July. Party leaders invited delegations of scientists. Speeches were delivered praising the accomplishments of Soviet science. And it was finally revealed to Soviet citizens that the Party had achieved the impossible dream, which even Doctor Frankenstein could not fully achieve — and now Lenin would be with them forever.
Despite Vorobyov’s continued paranoia and panic attacks, the reception went off swimmingly [pun intended]. The Corpse Committee praised the work of the embalmers and awarded them cash prizes.
And one week later, August 1, 1924 the Mausoleum was opened to the public. Vorobyov took the opportunity to escape back to Kharkov, returning to his anatomy students. For some reason he preferred teaching the living youth, to guarding a dead mummy. Zbarsky, on the other hand, remained in Moscow, with his new job as the “Keeper of the Body”. Well, it’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it. As the years and decades passed, an entire branch of Soviet scientific research was devoted to the issue of Lenin’s body. One wonders just how many valuable scientific and/or medical lessons were drawn from this, hopefully something useful came out of it.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the funding of this Institute was cut back, as one would expect, and yet the work continues, even to this day. Members of the Insitute no longer perform unauthorized experiments on Lenin’s corpse; and yet the corpse itself continues to be treated and subjected to “cosmetic repairs” from time to time. Without these treatments, Lenin’s corpse would have eventually dried out into the form of an Egyptian mummy.
Antoniuk concludes his piece with the information that all this experience gained by experimenting on Lenin’s body, was used on other leaders of socialist countries. Practically all of them, except for Mao Zedong. When he died Mao was also embalmed and put in a mausoleum, but the work was not outsourced to the Soviets. Since the Chinese and Russians weren’t really talking to each other around that time.
P.S.: Please, people, just do as Krupskaya asked, and bury Lenin!