Waxing the corpse

Lenin's Embalmers

Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson <em>The Harvill Press, 215pp, £12.99</em>

You have to squeeze past the crowds outside McDonald's, negotiating your way round the giant screen broadcasting pop videos and the street sellers hawking Disney balloons, to see Lenin these days. Visitors are frisked for cameras and hurried in single file through the darkened passages of the giant granite sepulchre in Red Square. But although the guards try to appear as starched and severe as in Soviet days, you can tell that the pride has gone. The waxy, diminutive, 75-year-old corpse of Lenin is an anachronism and they know it.

Stalin first mooted the idea of embalming Lenin at a secret meeting of key members of the Soviet Politburo in October 1923, three months before Lenin died. Trotsky, Bukharin and Kamenev reacted against the suggestion, which, in their view, defied Marxist ideology. But Stalin, who later murdered these Politburo rivals, believed that preserving Lenin's body would serve his purpose. It would provide an outlet for the religious sentiments of the uneducated masses who had been robbed of their icons and relics, and it would allow for the creation of a full-scale cult of personality around the new leader: Stalin.

Lenin's Embalmers is an intriguing account of the life and work of one of the original team of embalmers: an ambitious and calculating scientist called Boris Zbarsky. Written by his son, Ilya, in conjunction with Samuel Hutchinson, a French news photographer based in Moscow, the richly illustrated book also provides an invaluable impressionistic view of life in the early years of the Soviet Union.

While most archives have been open to public scrutiny in the decade since perestroika, the Lenin Mausoleum Library remains firmly shut, even to former employees. And so we are forced to rely on Ilya's version of the events surrounding the embalming, even though Zbarsky wrote memoirs of his own.

Zbarsky was a forceful, handsome man with a passion for money and power. Denied education and employment opportunities in Tsarist Russia because he was Jewish, Zbarsky was a committed revolutionary at an early age; he allegedly helped Trotsky escape into exile the first time. Zbarsky trained as a scientist in Switzerland and was quick to exploit the opportunities for academic advancement after the revolution. After Lenin died, the Politburo spent two months dithering about what to do with the corpse. Scientists were consulted and ignored, something which presaged the subjugation of science to politics throughout the Soviet period. But Zbarsky took a calculated risk. Dictating letters on behalf of Professor Vorobiov, who had done pioneering research into embalming techniques, he engineered a meeting with Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet security apparatus, and begged to be allowed to embalm Lenin.

In the years that followed Zbarsky became a rich member of the nomenclature, eventually taking sole credit for the triumphant embalming of Lenin. At the height of the purges, when 34 out of the 36 apartments in his government block were raided, Zbarsky remained safe. He was an ardent supporter of tyrants, naming his second son Felix after Dzerzhinsky, clapping and cheering during the show trials, and turning his back on his persecuted fellow-scientists. Remarkably, he was able to avoid arrest until 1952, when he was imprisoned as part of the general anti-Semitic campaign. His short stint in jail damaged his health and he died shortly after his release in 1954. It is clear from the memoirs of Ilya, however, that even from the grave he influenced his malleable, resentful son, whom he bullied too much and loved not enough during childhood.

Denied state subsidies, the mausoleum's staff have been forced to turn their hand in recent years to the commercial embalming of Russia's new rich. Bullet holes and knife wounds are carefully patched up to make the corpses of mobsters presentable for their families. But the huge team of scientists know that their days at the mausoleum will soon be over, as the call to bury Lenin becomes louder every day.

Natasha Fairweather is a former literary editor of the "Moscow Times"

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians