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Dead People on Display

Lenin's EmbalmersLenin's Embalmers by Ilya Zbarsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came at this book not from the perspective of a history aficionado but, as you might guess, as someone fascinated by the concept of keeping one’s leaders under glass. Nonsecular saints, you might say. Ilya Zbarsky is the person to go to for the gory details, since he was the son of the man who first embalmed Lenin, and in turn, headed up the embalming lab. As such, it’s interesting that Zbarsky chose to end this little book with the statement: “I cannot help believing that embalming is a barbaric and anachronistic practice, alien to the cultures of Western societies.” Speaking as a citizen, he feels the time has come to bury Lenin. Guess I should see about getting some plane tickets and making my pilgrimage now.

In 1923, as Vladimir Lenin was dying of a series of strokes perhaps brought on by syphilis, Joseph Stalin suggested the Soviet Union embalm Lenin long enough “for us to grow used to the idea of his being no longer among us.” Lenin’s widow begged the country, in the pages of Pravda, to remember her husband by building kindergartens and hospitals, but Stalin saw a way to use the population’s religious sentiment to cement his own power.

One of the Bolshevik leaders wanted to refrigerate Lenin and approached Boris Zbarsky, a biochemist, to strengthen his case. Zbarsky examined the decaying body and knew that freezing would not reverse the damage. After he’d dared to have an opinion on the matter, he was put in charge of restoring the corpse and preparing it for public viewing. The descriptions of Lenin’s decomposition are particularly tasty. These were recorded in watercolors by Alexander Pasternak, but unfortunately, the paintings aren’t reproduced here.

After his career in nuclear composition was cut short for smacking too much of genetics, Ilya Zbarsky joined the embalming lab. While he was sent to Mongolia to embalm the dictator Choybalsan, his father Boris was arrested for being “cosmopolitan” – read Jewish – after some 30 years of tweaking Lenin’s corpse. The elder Zbarsky’s health was ruined by his imprisonment and his son assumed his position.

Stalin joined Lenin on view in the mausoleum on Red Square for eight years, before he was buried under the Kremlin with other dignitaries. After his demotion, Muscovites adopted the maxim, “Don’t sleep in a mausoleum that doesn’t belong to you.” Other leaders who were embalmed by the Russian team include Ho Chi Mihn, Kim Il Sung, and the leaders of Angola, Guyana, and the Czech Communist Party. Mao Tse-Tung was embalmed by the Chinese without Soviet technology.

These days, after the fall of the Soviet Union decimated their budget, the embalming team works commercially, providing museum-quality preservation for gangsters.

Zbarsky is the last survivor of the team who preserved Lenin from 1934 to 1952. His memoir is fascinating, even occasionally frightening, reading.

This review originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #8. Lenin's body was in the news in January as Russians once again considered burying him at last. Here's the link: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/20...

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