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Book Forum: Biography   |    
Lenin’s Embalmers
WILLIAM EDWIN FANN, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 1999;156:2006-2007.
View Author and Article Information
Houston, Tex.

By Ilya Zbarsky, Samuel Hutchinson. London, Harvill Press, 1998, 208$20.00.

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One of the many vicious ironies of Soviet Communism is that Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov—Lenin—in his savage hatred of the Russian Church, murderer of its clergy, destroying its sanctuaries and icons, should in death have himself become a ritual object and the subject of iconolatry. No religious shrine ever enjoyed the degree of popular subscription of his secular reliquary. Though Lenin directed much of his fury against organized religion’s use of church ceremonies and effigies and cautioned against his own personal idolization, the Communist Party began the "cult of Lenin" immediately postmortem. The idea of preserving Lenin’s body was first proposed secretly within the Presidium by Joseph Stalin; implementation of the task was assigned to Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the murderous OGPU (Lenin’s terroristic political police). As with everything else within the official Soviet Communist apparatus, the inner workings, decisions, procedures, and processes for this project were kept under strictest, pain-of-death secrecy. Dr. Ilya Zbarsky (born 1913) (a biochemist and member of the mausoleum laboratory, whose father was one of two scientists recruited to mummify the remains) and Samuel Hutchinson (director of a Moscow press agency) have used their own experiences, first-person knowledge, personal interviews, and Soviet archival material to construct a compelling account of the genesis and perpetuation of this most manifest, enduring, and perverse legacy of Soviet society.

The saga of the preservation and public exhibition of Lenin’s body becomes, in the hands of these capable historians, a new and powerful commentary on Stalin’s (and Lenin’s) Soviet society, but from an altogether unforeseen perspective. Each of the 13 chapters reveals scathing and sobering details that communicate a real sense of life in Soviet society, and of the travails of the men of the laboratory. The political decisions and interference into the project’s initiation, and even in selection of the scientific methods to be used for it, nearly led to choices and techniques that would have destroyed the whole venture. Most of those in the scientific and medical community who were approached to do the work understood the penalties for failure and refused out of sheer terror.

With the corpse beginning visibly to deteriorate (desiccation, discoloration, gaping of the lips, etc.), the desperate Bolshevik committee finally found two scientists with the knowledge, experience, and willingness for the job. "And so, two months after Lenin’s death," Professors Vorobiov (his first name is never used here), Boris Ilich Zbarsky, and their staff "were at last able to start work on the embalming. They were all well aware of the enormous responsibility they were taking on. They knew, too, that the slightest mistake might cost them their lives." Though initially besieged, the two were granted every reasonable request for materials, space, and personnel. The chemicals and techniques used in the process are described in discomforting detail. Their obvious success in saving Lenin’s mortal remains elevated them and their laboratory to an upper stratum of Soviet elite with all the attendant personal privileges and amenities. The necessity for periodic reconditioning of the subject assured their careers, their lives, and the expansion of their influence and laboratory, including the eventual recruitment of Ilya Zbarsky, our primary chronicler, to the staff.

The authors begin their tale by highlighting the final months of Lenin’s life, recounting adversities within the revolution that demanded his extraordinary efforts and energies and precipitated the series of strokes that ultimately took his life. Within the Party leadership, Lenin’s diminishing capacity set off infighting (Stalin’s deceits and criminality and the Stalin-Trotsky enmities are pertinently related) for primacy and an acrimonious debate as to his soon-to-be postmortem status. The matter was settled early and secretly by Stalin. Months later it was announced publicly that "the wishes of the workers" for mummification would be honored.

Chapter 2, "The Prehistory of the Mausoleum: Should the Body Be Frozen or ‘Balsamed’?" begins with a published plea by Lenin’s widow against "buildings and monuments" in his name. Not to be deterred, the Bolshevik leadership moved and displayed the corpse as a propaganda instrument for their own succession while awaiting a final decision on its disposition. The next three chapters are a fascinating digression into Ilya Zbarsky’s life, travels, education, and relationships, contrasting his circumstances before and after his father’s ascendancy to the mausoleum elite. Many readers will recognize notorious Party members, scientists, and artists Ilya met within the elder Zbarsky’s circle (young Boris Pasternak, while a guest of the family, seduced Ilya’s beautiful and willing mother).

The massive impact of Stalin’s Terror on Soviet society; the increasing official rigidities; constrictions of personal freedom; the dictator’s murder of intimate friends, colleagues, and Party officials; and the impact of all this on the mausoleum staff are carefully chronicled in horrifying detail. When Hitler’s invading armies were threatening Moscow, the laboratory and the corpse were moved eastward to safety in the small town of Tiumen, Siberia. Securing supplies and continuing their work was difficult (distilled water for bathing and soaking the corpse "was several hundred kilometers away"), but the laboratory staff was exempted from combat duty and favored with food and amenities while ordinary citizens were deprived, deported, starved, or conscripted into the army. As Germany came under the control of Soviet forces, young Zbarsky was sent to help pillage their chemical industries, laboratories, and universities to upgrade backward Soviet facilities. His account of the war-torn territories, his adventures as a high-level looter, and romance with a Fräulein, all convey the terror and debasement those months inflicted on people on every side.

With the end of World War II, Stalin used the reemergence of anti-Semitism to purge high-level Jewish scientists, administrators, and artists. The elder Zbarsky, despite his long service, awards, and favored status, was jailed. He was saved from death only by the dictator’s own unexpected demise (his corpse also was preserved and displayed). More recently, the laboratory has been pressed into memorializing an international clientele, preserving departed leaders of satellite Leninist-Stalinist societies. Now, in the present shambles of Novaya Rus, they serve the gangsters and other nouveau riche whose private treasuries can command such bizarre funerary extravagance.

At the end Ilya Zbarsky reviews the privileges, dangers, ironies, and associations bequeathed him by his association with the mausoleum laboratory. He reflects that "while the preservation of Lenin’s corpse was a considerable scientific achievement, I cannot help believing that embalming is a barbaric and anachronistic practice, alien to the cultures of Western societies." This is the reason that, "despite the privileges I enjoyed in the shadow and shelter of the mausoleum," he believes, "speaking as a citizen, that Lenin should now be buried." For these reasons, and for whatever commentary and closure it may bring to the iniquitous policies, practices, and legacies of the man who once occupied that body, one hopes that post-Cold-War Russia will follow Dr. Zbarsky’s advice.

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