Experimental science and millions of rubles give the dead revolutionary a youthful glow
by MATTHEW GAULT
When a country’s founder dies, they become a lasting national symbol. But rarely has a founder’s actual corpse been the symbol.
That’s because it’s hard to keep a dead body looking good year after year, decade after decade. Just ask the Russians.
Immediately following communist leader Vladimir Lenin’s passing in 1924, scientists and technicians injected the corpse with embalming fluid and squeezed it into a rubber suit containing preservatives. The Russian government built a wooden tomb and put the revolutionary on display in Moscow’s Red Square.
The tomb has changed since then, but Lenin’s body looks as good as ever. But such unearthly beauty comes at a high cost — almost $200,000 a year.
That figure comes from an official notice from Russia’s procurement agency. It cites an annual cost of 13 million rubles for the “biomedical” procedure that keeps Lenin in a “lifelike condition.”
The cost of upkeep has fluctuated since 1924. Russian taxpayers have mostly been on the hook for the bill — except for a brief period following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Private donations kept the body beautiful until Moscow could once again take over the ghastly duty.
Attitudes toward Lenin have also changed over the years. During the Soviet years, Russians viewed Lenin as a kind of communist saint. Millions visited his tomb. But after the ’91 collapses, people were free to express opinions they’d long kept to themselves.
That catharsis culminated in a 1998 art exhibit for which artist Yury Shabelnikov baked a lifesize cake replica of Lenin’s interred body and filmed local school children devouring it. The still extant communist party called for an investigation, but its pleas fell on deaf ears.
The science behind preserving Lenin’s corpse is impressive and bizarre. According to Scientific American, upkeep requires a team of five or six scientists.
Every other year, the scientists re-embalm the corpse, “submerging the body in separate solutions of glycerol solution baths, formaldehyde, potassium acetate, alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, acetic acid solution and acetic sodium.”
“They have to substitute occasional parts of skin and flesh with plastics and other materials,” University of California, Berkeley social anthropology professor Alexei Yurchak told the science magazine.
Lenin’s death-bath takes a month and a half.
Damage happens and science can only do so much. During the height of the Soviet era, more than 200 people worked to keep Lenin looking fresh. Technicians sewed artificial eyelashes on to the leader, swapped decaying chunks of the man’s face and nose with a mix of paraffin, glycerin and carotene and once replaced portions of his foot when it went missing in 1945.
Today, Russians overwhelming favor burying Lenin. But Pres. Vladimir Putin has pushed back against the idea. In 2001, he told the public that interring the corpse would send a signal to the Russian people that they’d lived under false values during the Soviet era.
Questioned about the expensive embalming in 2012, Putin deflected. “We can see holy remains in the Kiev-Pechora Monastery and in other places,” he said, implying that it’s totally normal to keep historical figures’ bodies on display, well, forever.
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