Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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The Independent (UK)
20 October 2001
The Body Issue: Rest in peace?
Yeltsin tried to bury him, Putin says he's staying put.
Seventy- seven years on, Lenin's embalmed corpse still attracts crowds and controversy


The queue forms early mornings on Red Square, in all weathers, before the squat black granite tomb of Vladimir Lenin. On a typical day thousands still come, apparently oblivious to the onward march of history. Elderly women in the main, wrapped in shawls, some with restless children in tow, they wait impassively for hours as the line inches forward.

Then it is a hushed walk down steep marble steps into the inner vault, and a few seconds to file past the brightly lit glass casket that holds Lenin's mummy, before being ushered through a discreet side exit.

For outsiders the experience is invariably a letdown. Lenin appears an almost absurdly small man dressed in an ordinary suit, with close-cropped red hair, Asiatic eyes and ironic smile pasted on a small, waxy mouth. But Russians emerging from that quick encounter can explain why the old Bolshevik still enjoys a prestigious Kremlin address, a decade after the state he founded was consigned to history's rubbish bin. "Lenin was the sun that lit up our lives, he was the spirit that made us do great things," says Svetlana Kuznetsova, a retired Moscow schoolteacher who brings her grandchildren to visit the mausoleum at least twice a year. "As long as Lenin is in his place, there is hope that our country might revive from its present degradation."

Thanks to the enduring hold of Lenin's extraordinary personality cult over so many people, the wizened old revolutionary still easily triumphs over opponents - 77 years after his death at the age of 54 following a long illness. Former President Boris Yeltsin, who abolished the Soviet Union a decade ago, vowed to evict Lenin from his Red Square perch and to eradicate Lenin's heirs, the Communists, from Russian public life. Yeltsin stumbled off into retirement almost two years ago with neither goal realized. The Communist Party, banned in a series of sweeping Yeltsin decrees in 1991, now rules almost half of the Russian regions and controls a third of the seats in parliament. As for Lenin, he was voted "Russian Man of the Century" in a nationwide survey last year, winning 14 per cent of the votes. Next in line was Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin with 9 per cent. Yeltsin didn't make the list.

Current Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin has officially quashed the decade- long debate about removing Lenin from his official mausoleum and burying him in a regular grave. "I'll tell you why," Putin told journalists recently. "Many people in this country associate their lives with the name of Lenin. To take Lenin out and bury him would say to them that they have worshipped false values, that their lives were lived in vain ... I cherish stability and consensus in society, and I will try not to do anything to upset civil calm." Even the radical democrat and film director Mark Zakharov, who originally led the charge for burying Lenin, now says "this is not the best political era to discuss that issue".

Ironically, Lenin himself never wanted any of this and would probably be aghast if he could see his chemical-soaked remains boxed and displayed like the bones of some Russian Orthodox saint. After he died in 1924, his widow Nadezhda Krupskaya is said to have demanded he be buried next to his mother in a St Petersburg cemetery. But she was overruled by the Party, and particularly Stalin, who saw a way to make the deceased Lenin go on working his undeniable magic on the masses. "The Party tried to create a secular religion, with Lenin at the centre," says Tatiana Koloskova, a curator at the Central History Museum in Moscow. "In the Russian Orthodox tradition, an undecayed corpse is proof of sainthood. By preserving Lenin, and placing him in a temple next to the country's seat of political power, the Party sought to usurp the power of the Church."

The discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb by archaeologist Howard Carter the year before Lenin's death, and the ensuing global fascination with ancient Egyptian mummification, may have played a role, she adds. "Bolshevik leaders read widely, and may very well have been inspired by the Tut frenzy."

The Party brought in a special team of undertakers to do the job. They developed an embalming treatment which remains an official state secret to this day. Ilya Zbarsky, whose father Boris headed the Lenin project back in 1924, described the mystery method in his 1998 book In The Shadow of the Mausoleum. Doctors performing the autopsy had removed Lenin's veins - the usual channel for embalming fluid - so scientists were forced to improvise by bathing the corpse in a vat of preservatives. "The body was washed with water, with different concentrations of alcohol, then with elevated solutions of potassium acetate," Zbarsky wrote. "Cuts were made in all parts of the body to enable better penetration and permeability of the solution."

Every 18 months since 1924 - even during the Second World War - Lenin has been tenderly removed from his display case and carried to a special complex buried deep beneath the Kremlin for a two-month soaking in embalming fluid, surgical touch-ups and other rejuvenating treatments. A team of 12 scientists who staff the curiously-named Kremlin Centre for Biological Structures handles the regular rest cures and remains on permanent call for any emergency. The annual cost to Russian taxpayers: pounds 1m. f

The Centre's reputation has suffered in recent years from press allegations that its specialists often peddle their skills to the new rich and criminal underworld to earn a few extra roubles. A 1996 expose in the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda charged that dozens of mafia leaders had been restored "by the Lenin method" after being shot, stabbed or blown up.

As a state-sponsored religion substitute, vast resources were invested in the Lenin cult over seven Soviet decades. It was briefly eclipsed by Stalin-worship during that dictator's heyday, but came back more forcefully than ever after Stalin was blamed for the horrors of the blood purges and Gulag prison camps. Every school, workplace and many homes boasted a "red corner", a little shrine to Lenin. According to historian Lev Kolodny, more than 40 cities and towns around the USSR were named after the great Bolshevik. A staggering 51,553 museums and major monuments were dedicated to him.

"The cult eventually became ubiquitous and acquired elaborate rituals, designed to evoke feelings of awe and cement the link between people and Party which Lenin symbolized," writes historian Nina Tumarkin in her recent study, Lenin Lives. "Lenin's portraits, busts and statues became the icons, his idealized biography was the Holy Writ, his writings were Gospel. All the little red corners were places of worship and the principal cathedral was the Mausoleum."

After Communist reformer Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in the Kremlin in 1985, it seemed only a matter of time before Krupskaya's wish to see her husband buried would be honoured. Russian democrats like Zakharov were elected to the newly formed Soviet parliament, where they argued that the strange mummy on Red Square was an alien and embarrassing symbol for a modern state. When Yeltsin faced down a hardline coup, and the USSR headed for extinction, the Lenin cult seemed likely to follow it. Russians were hugely amused in 1992 when rock impresario Stas Namin, a grandson of the former Communist Party Politburo member Anastas Mikoyan, proposed to send Lenin's body on a "farewell world tour" before giving it a proper funeral. "Michael Jackson does it, Egyptian mummies do it, so why shouldn't Lenin be seen by the world?" Namin said at the time. The tour's theme, he added, could be: "Workers of the world, goodbye."

But the political shocks of the past decade and the growing power of the rebounding Communists have put a stop to all that. On one occasion in 1997 when Yeltsin raised the issue of finally burying Lenin, Communist Party leader Gennady Zuganov threatened to bring tens of thousands of loyalists to stand vigil at the Mausoleum. Yeltsin backed off. Today only a handful of fringe politicians will even discuss it. "While the monster Lenin lies in state on Red Square, Russia will never be able to join the civilized world," says Valeria Novodvorskaya, an outspoken radical democrat. "Compared to Lenin, Osama bin Laden is a Sunday-school pupil."

But as long as President Putin is able to look from his Kremlin office window and see those long, patient queues forming each morning, Lenin will probably continue to rest securely on his pedestal, smiling to himself as Russia shuffles by in supplication.

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