Since the Soviet Union folded in 1991, Russia has been tippy-toeing around the dead mouse on the national living room floor, namely Lenin’s embalmed corpse.
Every few years, someone suggests doing something about it. Some weeks ago, Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s minister of culture, said in a radio interview that he thought it was time Lenin was put to use pushing up the daisies. Not his exact words, but you get the drift.
When the subject came up in 2009, the Community Party leader, Gennadi A. Zyuganov, went predictably ballistic.
These periodic suggestions send Russia’s Communists into a spluttering rage. Yes, Russia still has a Communist Party; some myths really do die hard.
“Discussions about removal and reburial are simply provocative,” he declared. “Any attempt to vulgarize or rewrite the Soviet period and diminish the memory of Lenin … is an attempt to undermine the integrity of the Russian federation.”
Mr. Zyuganov runs for president on a regular basis, making him the Harold Stassen of Russian politics, only snarly and frightening.
According to an April opinion poll cited by the British newspaper The Guardian, over half of Russians now favor burying the god that failed. In his radio interview, Mr. Medinsky pledged to make it an occasion to remember and to observe all the obsequies.
If nothing else, the prospect of a state funeral poses questions of protocol, like — who gets to represent the United States?
Answer: this is why we have vice presidents! Really, it would be worth it just for the look on Joe Biden’s face as the cortege moves past. And what an opportunity for some unscripted Bidenesque remarks.
I’ve just read a 1998 book called “Lenin’s Embalmers,” by Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson. It’s fascinating, in a horrible sort of way. Over the last 88 years, Lenin’s corpse has had more adventures than many live people. In the words of the Grateful Dead, “what a long, strange trip it’s been.” The author, who died in 2007, was the son of Boris Zbarsky, one of Lenin’s original embalmers. Boris was keeper of the body for nearly 30 years, earning a pretty good living (by Soviet standards) and, better still, immunity from Stalin’s terror.
Dictator Remains Management was not at the time a huge field; more of a boutique industry. There weren’t all that many scientists back then who knew how to keep a body fresh and pinkish. Stalin couldn’t afford to toss Boris into the Gulag along with tens of millions of other Russians. Boris wasn’t arrested and thrown into prison — for no particular reason — until 1952, one year before Stalin died. He almost made it to the finish line.
Many sons follow Dad into the family business, but when Ilya Zbarsky entered the mausoleum in 1934, age 21, it was surely a Guinness World Record moment. By the time he ran afoul of the government — like Dad, for no particular reason — he’d been in charge of the remains for almost 20 years. A good run, all in all.
After 1991, Ilya looked up his file in the K.G.B. archives and learned that he and his father had been denounced in 1949 for “counterrevolutionary conversations.” There in the margin of the report he saw Stalin’s handwriting: “Must not be touched until a substitute is found.” Job security in Soviet Russia, circa 1949.
Soviet history is often indistinguishable from Orwell’s fiction. When Lenin died, Stalin appointed a Committee for the Immortalization of Lenin’s Memory. Immediately there were fierce disagreements as to how, exactly, to immortalize the actual remains.
I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say the committee gave the job to Ilya’s father and another scientist named Vorobiev. Both recognized that a lot more than their scientific reputations was on the line. Next time you think you’re under pressure at work, consider Comrades Zbarsky and Vorobiev, with Stalin and Dzerzhinsky breathing over their shoulders. How is it coming? Wonderfully! Couldn’t be better! Look — no tan lines! It took them four months, but they got it right.
When World War II arrived in the form of Gen. Heinz Guderian’s tanks, Zbarsky & Son were charged with spiriting the body out of Moscow — to Siberia, which seems somehow apt, karmawise.
There, Lenin had a good war, unlike 25 million other Russians. In far-off Tyumen, the Zbarskys had all the time in the world to attend to Himself’s maintenance. Indeed, by 1945, Ilya wrote, “the condition of the corpse had improved considerably.” You look great! You been exercising?
The saga of Lenin’s remains is a uniquely Russian story. His caretakers got drunk on the alcohol used in embalming Lenin’s corpse, and in one instance, one was caught groping the other’s daughter. There are group photos of them striking jaunty poses, as if they’ve gathered for a picnic.
And here was Khrushchev in 1956, growling, “The mausoleum stinks of Stalin’s corpse.” Stalin was embalmed and laid out beside Lenin between 1953 to 1961, until Khrushchev said enough and ordered him buried beneath the Kremlin wall.
Lenin remains — Sleeping Beauty From Hell. Perhaps when his heir, President Vladimir V. Putin, is finished shipping combat helicopters to shore up his friend Bashar al-Assad of Syria he will have time to consider his minister of culture’s modest proposal.
Footnote: In 1991, when I was editing a publication for Forbes, I engaged in a hoax and briefly persuaded the world that the Russian government was preparing to auction off the body.
The story garnered quite a lot of play. A none-too-happy Russian interior minister denounced me for my “impudent lie” and called it “an unpardonable provocation.” (Which sort of made my day.)
But a number of readers of the magazine apparently didn’t get the memo that it was all a hoax. The Kremlin was deluged with offers.
My favorite came from the head of a Virginia printing company, who accompanied his bid with this note:
“We are in the final planning stages of our new corporate headquarters. We were recently discussing the new lobby and saw the need for an appropriate centerpiece. Our interior designer has agreed with us, and feels that suitable arrangements can be made to house Mr. Lenin’s body here.”
Christopher Buckley is the author, most recently, of the novel They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?