"Comrades, Vladimir Ilich's health has grown so much worse lately that it is to be feared he will soon be no more. We must therefore consider what is to be done when the great sorrow befalls us.... Modern science is capable of preserving his body for a considerable time, long enough at least for us to grow used to the idea of his being no longer with us."
On January 21, 1924, just three months after Joseph Stalin spoke those words, Vladimir Lenin died. Trotsky, already falling from favor, argued that turning Lenin's remains into a relic ran counter to Lenin's own beliefs. Eager to strengthen his new regime, however, Stalin saw that preserving the body was a good way to harness the religious sentiment of the nation's masses for his support. The Committee for Immortalization was duly founded, and--after much debate--scientists Vladimir Vorbiov, Boris Zbarsky, and their assistants were selected to embalm the great leader. Lenin had been dead for two months before they were able to begin working in a laboratory housed inside Lenin's mausoleum in Red Square. Despite constant refrigeration and tentative preservation attempts, the body had deteriorated--"the left hand was turning a greenish-grey colour; the ears had crumpled up completely." Vorbiov developed a successful solution of glycerin, alcohol, water, potassium acetate, and quinine chloride, which restored the body to a lifelike appearance and is still used for preventive maintenance today.
Boris's son Ilya Zbarsky recounts this strange history and his family's experiences in Lenin's Embalmers. Technical details regarding the embalming process are interspersed amongst stories about Lenin, moving the body during World War II, and even traveling abroad to embalm other Communist heads of state. Zbarsky also reveals the political infighting that dogged the scientists, and how, even in the shadow of Lenin's mausoleum, it was impossible to hide from Stalin's purges. Finally, Zbarsky brings the book to its ironic conclusion: when their funding was cut by 80 percent, the mausoleum's scientists began embalming the former Soviet Union's nouveaux riches to support Lenin's upkeep. Full of interesting detail--and remarkable photos--Lenin's Embalmers makes for an engaging read. --Sunny Delaney
From Publishers Weekly
Mention of Lenin and corpses might indicate intrigue and topics of dark fascination. However, this vanilla account of Soviet life doesn't quite plumb the depths. Zbarsky was a member of the nomenklatura, and his privilege stemmed from a job in the world's most famous mausoleum. It was the author's father, Boris Zbarsky, who was in charge of the mausoleum; Ilya had a supporting role as a chemist, ensuring that Lenin did not spoil. While Zbarsky's account might resemble that of any Moscow pensioner, his employment did offer ringside seats for the Stalinist show trials in the 1930s. Although he skims over what could have been interesting personal detail (a competitive relationship between the young scientist and his playboy careerist father; the antipathy between the young man and his stepmother), Zbarsky shines when it comes to corpse preservation: he recounts the evacuation of Lenin's body to Siberia during WWII and includes a chapter focusing on the process used to preserve the leader of the World Proletariat. Zbarsky's personal relationship with the corpse ended in the 1950s, when he was dismissed from his post. The institute responsible for Lenin's upkeep later embalmed the leaders of several other Socialist countries (including Klement Gottwald, head of the Czech Communist Party, and Ho Chi Minh), and today the mausoleum laboratory provides mortuary services to all paying customers, including the Russian mafia. Offering little new information on the mysteries behind Lenin's tomb, the book will prove most interesting to those curious about Communist worship of their leaders' remains.
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