On January 21, 1924, Vladimir Lenin died, having already been debilitated and wheelchair-bound.[i] Although most people’s histories end upon their death, Lenin’s embalmed corpse would continue to shape communist ideology throughout the Soviet period as an object of veneration. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, Lenin’s corpse continues to stoke passionate responses to his continued preservation or potential burial.

The circumstances of Lenin’s preservation and display reveal the inner struggles of the early Communist Party of the Soviet Union and suggest its subsequent trend towards cults of personality. Immediately following Lenin’s death, a faction of Bolsheviks, including Joseph Stalin, initiated plans for a great funeral and continued preservation afterwards. The question of what to do with Lenin’s corpse had already caused splits among Soviet leaders on the truly Marxist attitude towards death and veneration. Stalin argued that Lenin at the least could not be cremated, as that method was “un-Russian.”[ii]

However, Leon Trotsky immediately attacked the practice of preservation, which hearkened back to “the relics of Sergius of Radonezh and Serafim of Sarov.” Trotsky and his allies happened to agree with Lenin’s own widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, whose letter to Pravda on January 29, 1924 urged mourners not “to let your sorrow be transformed into demonstrations of adoration for Vladimir Illich’s personality.”[iii] Ironically, local Orthodox traditions had existed of venerating the whole corpse of a person unknown in life but held to provide intercession after death. The “wholeness of [saints’] remains” was a particular concern of Russian Orthodox believers, “unlike their Byzantine and Western European counterparts” satisfied with relic fragments.[iv] Such an emphasis would also prove relevant in the Soviet period, as Stalin and his allies, having won the debate over Lenin’s body, would make preservation of the corpse a top priority.

The autobiography of Ilya Zbarsky, a member of the body’s maintenance team and son of an original embalmer of Lenin, provides extensive detail about the unique preservation process itself and the high political stakes that went into preservation. Zbarsky notes that his father’s team managed to save Lenin’s body after two months of uncertainty. Lenin’s family, upon seeing the final result, could not believe how well the corpse looked.[v] The Soviet government likewise rushed to construct a fitting mausoleum for the display of the surprisingly pristine corpse of Lenin. A structure had been built immediately after Lenin’s death to accommodate mourners, and in July 1924 the Soviets finished a wooden mausoleum.[vi] The speed with which the government constructed the mausoleum speaks to the immediate desire to facilitate popular veneration of Lenin’s corpse. In 1930, the structure which exists on Red Square today was built, providing the iconic image of the stark black mausoleum and “ЛЕНИН” atop the entrance.[vii] Given its central location and distinctive housing, Lenin’s corpse would remain the focal point of state-fostered cult adoration during the Soviet period and a “culture war” of sort in today’s Russia.

Lenin’s corpse fostered a broader adoration of Lenin and encouraged other leaders to seek physical as well as ideological proximity to him. Even children’s songs extolled the power which Lenin’s corpse provided to the Soviet Union: “In that grave is our strength, our leader, our dear Lenin.”[viii] Certainly more abstract representations of Lenin were also popular, but Lenin’s corpse remained a significant focus of popular cult. The simple fact that Lenin remained on Earth, rather than within it, meant his “spiritual” presence remained. Popular stories from the 1920s told that Lenin would “slip out the back door of the mausoleum” to keep an eye on how the USSR fared after his “death.”[ix]  Interred in the ground, Lenin could have no power over the fate of the Soviet Union, but his visible presence allowed him to be seen by all and in turn watch over all.

The symbol of Lenin’s corpse remained strong enough through the Stalin period such that Stalin himself was embalmed and placed next to Lenin in 1953. In addition to “ЛЕНИН,” there now read “СТАЛИН” on the outside of the mausoleum.[x] That Stalin’s corpse had been given the same treatment as that of Lenin, the founding hero of the USSR, demonstrated the extent to which Stalin’s own cult of personality had infused the state. The USSR even began to accommodate other Soviet states’ requests for their own leaders’ preservation. Prominent Communists such as Ho Chi Minh received embalming by Soviet specialists as a “gift” from the USSR.[xi]

Once Khrushchev had consolidated power and established his anti-Stalin campaign, the enshrinement of Stalin next to something as sacred as Lenin’s body became an awkward point. An anti-Stalin delegate even claimed in 1961 to have heard from Lenin that “it is unpleasant for me to be beside Stalin, who brought such misfortune to the party.”[xii] That year, Stalin’s body was indeed removed from the Lenin mausoleum and interned in the necropolis behind the mausoleum. The necropolis was itself a place of honor for many prominent communists, but such a move reinforced the notion that the mausoleum is a sacred space. Other communist leaders might even be allowed to imitate the embalming, but only Lenin himself could inhabit his eternal home.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia faced a general crisis of historical memory. Given the prominent place that Lenin’s body holds physically in Red Square and symbolically as part of the Lenin cult, the question of burial has arisen many times in recent Russian political discourse. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Boris Yeltsin made clear his desire to have Lenin’s body removed from the mausoleum.[xiii] Likewise, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation remains adamant in its support for keeping Lenin where he currently is. A party member accused the most recent supporters of Lenin’s burial of acting like “the pro-Western vandals who are currently raging in Ukraine.”[xiv] The invocation of the current Ukraine crisis in defending Lenin demonstrates both the heated tenor of this debate and the use of the Lenin question as a proxy for broader criticism of the Soviet regime. Hints of this phenomenon did indeed occur during the late Soviet period, as sarcastic jokes quipped that department stores sold beds for three because “Lenin is always with us.”[xv] Although dissident thought no longer has to be hidden in jokes, the attitude towards Lenin’s body continues to serve as a sign of one’s view on the Soviet Union.

While visiting Moscow in 2011, I took the opportunity to visit Lenin’s mausoleum. Perhaps I would be as affected by seeing anyone embalmed and shown for public display, but I can attest to the powerful effect of seeing Lenin’s corpse. The red-light illumination of the corpse and the red-and-black masonry may have fit the “Red” tenor of its construction, but it also struck me as an intentionally jarring substitute for Christian burial practice. Given the general anti-religious tenor of the Soviet period, many Orthodox believers support the removal of Lenin’s body from public view.[xvi] Indeed, even at the time of his entombment, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church was said to have made a sardonic quip about a sewage leak in the new mausoleum: “and according to the relics, the myrrh.”[xvii]

Lenin may prove unique as a world leader in having his physical remains approach the political importance of his actual life. His preservation and permanent display, unheard of in the modern world, provided the physical means by which a broader personality cult could develop. Even in the atheist USSR, communists would see no problem in referring to Lenin’s corpse as a devout believer might pray to a saint’s relic for intercession. Today, Lenin’s body remains a controversial topic, and its ability to survive in the post-Soviet period testifies to the power of its cultural memory. Although the lines to see him may be shorter, Lenin’s corpse so far has been powerful enough to resist even the collapse of its own creation.

[i] Nina Tumarkin, Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 133.

[ii] Ibid, 174.

[iii] Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson. Lenin’s Embalmers, trans. Barbary Bray (London: Harvill Press, 1998), 15.

[iv] Levin, Eve. "From corpse to cult in early modern Russia." Orthodox Russia: Belief and Practice Under the Tsars (2003): 85.

[v] Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson. Lenin’s Embalmers, trans. Barbary Bray (London: Harvill Press, 1998), 86, 91.

[vi] Ibid, 86.

[vii] Ibid, 91.

[viii] Nina Tumarkin, Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 228.

[ix] Ibid, 199.

[x] Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson. Lenin’s Embalmers, trans. Barbary Bray (London: Harvill Press, 1998), 86, 167.

[xi] Ibid, 173.

[xii] Nina Tumarkin, Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 259.

[xiii] Steve Harrigan. “Yeltsin Vows to Bury Lenin Once and For All.” CNN, July 13 1999, http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/europe/9907/13/lenin.burial/

[xiv] “Place Fit for Lenin’s Grave Suggested 90 Years after Death,” RT. January 21 2014, http://rt.com/politics/lenin-body-mausoleum-moscow-963/

[xv] Nina Tumarkin, Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 263.

[xvi] “Russian Church Spokesman Calls to Consider Burying Lenin,” The Moscow News, October 29, 2013, http://themoscownews.com/local/20131029/192013659/Russian-church-spokesman-calls-to-consider-burying-Lenin.html

[xvii] Mikhael Ardov, “МЕЛОЧИ АРХИ... ПРОТО... И ПРОСТО ИЕРЕЙСКОЙ ЖИЗНИ,” Biblioteka Yakova Krotova, http://www.krotov.info/library/01_a/ard/ard_mel.html. Translated with assistance of Google Translate.