By Mark McDonald, Associated Press, Moscow, Russia, March 1, 2004
MOSCOW - Vladimir Lenin has been dead these 80 years, but the founder
of Soviet communism has never looked better. Just ask his curator.
"He looks quite fine, as good as he did 30 years ago," said Yuri
Denisov-Nikolsky, the Russian doctor who just supervised an extensive
makeover of Lenin's corpse. "He looked terrible when he died, but
what you see now is Lenin's face, not someone else's."
Lenin in tomb in Moscow
(Click on image to enlarge it)
Denisov-Nikolsky has been working on Lenin since 1970, and in a rare
interview he pulled back the shroud of secrecy surrounding the body,
its original embalming and its periodic makeovers.
When Lenin died of a stroke and heart attack on Jan. 21, 1924, his
widow said he'd wished to be buried next to his mother in a simple
cemetery plot. But the communist elite had other ideas.
They originally planned to freeze their beloved leader, but his body
began to deteriorate badly as a super-freezer was being built.
Instead, using an untested chemical process, Lenin was embalmed and
his skin carefully treated to preserve a lifelike appearance.
Lenin's appearance is remarkable
He's entombed in a granite-and-marble mausoleum in Red Square. The
body is sealed in a glass sarcophagus, cooled to 61 degrees, with the
humidity between 80 and 90 percent. Some say Lenin appears to be
sleeping. Others compare him to waxed
With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian government
stopped financing the preservation of the body, Denisov-Nikolsky
said. Private donations pay the meager salaries of his 15-person
staff at a research lab called Medical Biological Technologies. The
physicians and professors on the team, he said, earn $200 a month.
The mausoleum staff also visits Vietnam to check on the body of Ho
Chi Minh, on display in Hanoi. Denisov-Nikolsky was on the Soviet
team that secretly embalmed "Uncle Ho" in a North Vietnamese jungle
cave in 1970.
Denisov-Nikolsky, 71, said he'd never talked or sung to Lenin's
corpse when he'd been alone with it in the mausoleum, and he sees
nothing odd or macabre about his work. But he does remember that his
hands trembled when he first began working on the body.
"Not every expert is allowed to restore such treasured historical
objects, like a Raphael or a Rembrandt. Those who do it, we tremble.
I feel a great responsibility in my hands."
About 1.5 million tourists visited the mausoleum last year, despite
the fact that hours are limited and it's not always easy to find the
entrance. Red Square is often closed for security reasons: There can
be no more tempting target for a suicide bomber in Russia than
Lenin's tomb and its body-under-glass - the Russian equivalent of the
Statue of Liberty or the Washington Monument.
Mausoleum security was improved this winter, Denisov-Nikolsky said,
but the mausoleum and sarcophagus were never built to be bombproof.
(During World War II, fearing a direct hit by the Nazis, Soviet
authorities secretly shipped Lenin - code-named "Object No. 1" - to a
warehouse in central Russia. They put him back on display in March
Specially filtered lighting gives Lenin's face a warm glow. Botox,
collagen and modern cosmetics aren't used, Denisov-Nikolsky said,
with a polite harrumph. A mild bleach is employed to combat
occasional fungus stains or mold spots on Lenin's face.
The skin is examined closely each week, using precision, Russian-made
instruments that measure its moisture, color and contour.
Dehydration - and time - are the principal enemies.
Lenin gets an extreme makeover every 18 months or so. The mausoleum
is closed for two months and the body is immersed in a bath of
glycerol and potassium acetate for 30 days. The skin slowly absorbs
the solution, regaining its moisture and pliancy.
With current techniques, the body could last "many decades, even for
100 years," said Ilya Zbarsky, 90, a doctor who worked on the body
from 1934 to 1952. His father, Boris, participated in the original
embalming in 1924.
Lenin's blood, bodily fluids and internal organs were removed as part
of the initial embalming. His eyebrows, moustache and goatee are his
original hair - no molting. And his genitals are intact.
No one seems to know what's happened to Lenin's heart, but Soviet
ideologists were sure that his brain was something special. They
brought in a renowned German scientist to examine it for clues to the
great man's genius, but nothing came of it.
The brain is still kept at a Moscow institute. "But it's not easy to
see it," Zbarsky said. "It's mostly dissected."
A poll last month by the Public Opinion Foundation in Moscow found
that nearly 60 percent of Russians younger than 50 want Lenin to be
removed and buried.
"Only people over 50 more frequently reply that they're against
Lenin's burial," said foundation President Alexander Olson. This age
group views "suggestions that the body be removed as blasphemous."
Others argue that an emerging democracy - even if it's a democracy in
name only - shouldn't maintain monuments to a dictator responsible
for decades of suffering and millions of deaths.
"The body should be removed, yes, and it should cease to be an object
of worship," Zbarsky said. "It should be buried or kept in a
Lenin himself never wanted any of this. "Do not put up buildings or
monuments in his name," his widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, said in
the days after his death.
But the communist propaganda machine already had begun turning out
heroic posters, worshipful biographies and everything from massive
statues to miniature busts. Boulevards, hospitals, schools, train
stations, collective farms and the city of St. Petersburg were
renamed in Lenin's honor.
Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of the
secret police, pushed for the preservation of Lenin's remains. Red
Army soldiers quickly began building a wooden mausoleum, using
dynamite to blast open the winter-hard earth in Red Square.
A special commission decided that freezing would be the best method
of preservation, so a massive freezer was ordered from Germany. But
the appliance took months to build, and as winter turned to spring,
Lenin's body began to deteriorate: His face and hands darkened, body
wrinkles began to appear and his lips were cracking.
The freezing method was abandoned in favor of embalming and an
experimental method of chemical preservation. Bodies had been
embalmed before, of course, but never with the idea of maintaining a
lifelike appearance. A team led by Vladimir Vorobiov, an anatomy
professor from Ukraine, did the work.
"This was an unprecedented task," Zbarsky said. "It would have been
dangerous to fail."
But Vorobiov's experiment worked. A stolid new mausoleum was built
along the Kremlin wall, and the mausoleum scientists received perks
and privileges not available to most Soviet workers. They had nice
apartments, decent food, country cottages and well-equipped labs.
At one point, however, the scientists became perplexed - and
terrified. A mysterious black spot had appeared on Lenin's right
cheek, a bloom of mold that resisted all known treatments. They
didn't want to ponder what would happen to them if they couldn't fix
"They might have even killed us," said Zbarsky, who eventually
bleached away the mold himself. "The atmosphere of fear and terror
was there for us scientists, just as it was for everyone in the
Zbarsky and his father were arrested without warning in 1952, during
Stalin's wave of terror, accused of being German spies. Boris Zbarsky
was imprisoned and his son was placed under house arrest.
When Stalin died soon after that, in 1953, he was embalmed by the
Zbarskys' former assistants at the mausoleum.
Stalin shared the Red Square mausoleum with Lenin for eight years,
then he was officially discredited and was quietly taken away and
buried under the Kremlin wall.
In the new mood of anti-Stalinism at that time, according to Ilya
Zbarsky, Muscovites created a new saying: "Don't sleep in a mausoleum
that doesn't belong to you."
The first calls for Lenin to be removed from Red Square came 15 years
ago. Communism was about to collapse and most reformers wanted Lenin
buried along with Marxism-Leninism.
President Boris Yeltsin, saying Red Square "must not resemble a
cemetery," suggested a national referendum in 1997 on the disposition
of the body. But this proposal, along with numerous other demands for
Lenin's eviction, was met with outrage by the Communist Party.
Last month, on the 80th anniversary of Lenin's death, Communist Party
leader Gennady Zyuganov laid a wreath at the mausoleum and
proclaimed, "The bright, clever cause of Lenin lives and thrives."
Zyuganov and the communists were resoundingly beaten in parliamentary
elections in December, and their defeat opened the way for another
possible campaign to remove Lenin. But no new groundswell has
emerged, and President Vladimir Putin, whose re-election seems
assured March 14, has skirted the issue.
One of Putin's closest advisers, Parliament Speaker Boris Gryzlov,
said, "The problem of the removal of Lenin's body should be solved in
due time - probably in 2024, after the 100th anniversary of Lenin's
EDITOR'S NOTE: A major bronze statue of Lenin, unfortunately, still stands
in a very prominent place in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine. The Ukrainian communist
parties rally's in Kyiv normally start at this statue. One can still find
statues, monuments, paintings, and other remembrances to Lenin in many
places across Ukraine although they do seem to slowly but surely to be
disappearing from the landscape.
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