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Lenin's Embalmers

Zbarsky, Ilya; Zbarskii, I. B.

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Professor Ilya Zbarski mummified Lenin two months after his death to maintain the Soviet founder's body in perpetuity. Between 1924 and the fall of communism in 1991, hundreds of millions of visitors paid their respects to the embalmed bodies of Lenin and later, Stalin. This text reveals the story of Zbarski, his family and of those who worked in the mausoleum laboratory. Lenin's body was plunged into a secret solution based on glycerine and potassium acetate. This story, unthinkable except in a totalitarian regime, is also that of the burgeoning Soviet Union and those who, disregarding Stalin and his growing antisemitic paranoia, believed that working in the shadows of the mausoleum would protect them forever. Abandoned by the State since 1991, the laboratory can only survive through the patronage of the "nouveaux riches" and the Russian mafia dynasties. The text includes both archival and contemporary photographs.

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"Comrades, Vladimir Ilich's health has grown so much worse lately that it is to be feared he will soon be no more. We must therefore consider what is to be done when the great sorrow befalls us.... Modern science is capable of preserving his body for a considerable time, long enough at least for us to grow used to the idea of his being no longer with us."
On January 21, 1924, just three months after Joseph Stalin spoke those words, Vladimir Lenin died. Trotsky, already falling from favor, argued that turning Lenin's remains into a relic ran counter to Lenin's own beliefs. Eager to strengthen his new regime, however, Stalin saw that preserving the body was a good way to harness the religious sentiment of the nation's masses for his support. The Committee for Immortalization was duly founded, and--after much debate--scientists Vladimir Vorbiov, Boris Zbarsky, and their assistants were selected to embalm the great leader. Lenin had been dead for two months before they were able to begin working in a laboratory housed inside Lenin's mausoleum in Red Square. Despite constant refrigeration and tentative preservation attempts, the body had deteriorated--"the left hand was turning a greenish-grey colour; the ears had crumpled up completely." Vorbiov developed a successful solution of glycerin, alcohol, water, potassium acetate, and quinine chloride, which restored the body to a lifelike appearance and is still used for preventive maintenance today.

Boris's son Ilya Zbarsky recounts this strange history and his family's experiences in Lenin's Embalmers. Technical details regarding the embalming process are interspersed amongst stories about Lenin, moving the body during World War II, and even traveling abroad to embalm other Communist heads of state. Zbarsky also reveals the political infighting that dogged the scientists, and how, even in the shadow of Lenin's mausoleum, it was impossible to hide from Stalin's purges. Finally, Zbarsky brings the book to its ironic conclusion: when their funding was cut by 80 percent, the mausoleum's scientists began embalming the former Soviet Union's nouveaux riches to support Lenin's upkeep. Full of interesting detail--and remarkable photos--Lenin's Embalmers makes for an engaging read. --Sunny Delaney

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Zbarsky, Ilya; Zbarskii, I. B. Author
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Zbarsky, Ilya; Zbarskii, I. B. Author
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