Between 1924 and the fall of communism in 1991, many millions of visitors paid their respects to the embalmed body of Lenin in Red Square. This is the story of the mausoleum, told by the only survivor of the family that plunged the founder of the Soviet Union into a solution of glycerine and potassium acetate to preserve him forever. Alongside the story of the laboratory and its close ties with Stalin, Ilya Zbarsky also tells his family's story. His father's responsibility for Lenin's mummification brought him scientific repute and political prominence but he lived in fear, initially of the body deteriorating, later of the regime. This eye-witness account throws a mordant and original light on a surreal aspect of the Soviet regime at a moment at which the future of Lenin's corpse is finally a matter of debate.
"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