Tag Archives: Lenin tomb

Death’s Garden: Lenin’s Mausoleum

Lenin mausoleum002

Modern postcard of Lenin’s Mausoleum

by Melodie Bolt

In January 1988, I stood in Red Square with thirty American college students watching Lenin’s Honor Guard change.

The replacement soldiers exited the Kremlin gate and moved parallel to the Kremlin wall. The duo marched in long wool military coats, black boots goose stepping. But what seemed inconceivable was the position of their rifles: gripped in the left palm, with a steady aim at heaven. With boots tocking across the stone, the pair relieved the guards on duty to keep the watch.

Vladimir Ilyitch Lenin’s mausoleum is a squat ziggurat constructed from black stone and red marble. He died in 1924 at the age of 53 and was embalmed shortly thereafter. Thousands have visited the Bolshevik leader to pay their respects. A few days after watching the guards, we returned to see Lenin ourselves.

One of our professors, a Hungarian, told us the rumor that the only “original” pieces on Lenin’s body were the head and hands, preserved, while the rest had been buried or burned. It sounded grisly. Since we were in our late teens and early twenties, such things only excited our curiosity. Giggling as we piled off the tour bus, we filled the air with American smiles, hard currency, Marlboros, and Levi’s. Our bright Gore-Tex jackets added confettied splashes to the solemn scene.

The line for the presentation of the dead wound down—a black ribbon—from the mausoleum. We joined the queue in the Alexander Garden.

The garden, commissioned by Tsar Alexander I, was built long before the Bolshevik Revolution to celebrate Russia’s defeat of Napoleon. The garden later became a pivotal scene in Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel Master and Margarita. The story, set in the 1930s, follows the havoc created by the Devil and his minions in Moscow. Interwoven with the Devil’s arc is the story of Pontius Pilate and the trial and execution of Jesus. It is in Alexander Garden that the Devil’s demonic assassin, Azazello, meets Margarita and pulls her from Communist reality to the supernatural (Christian) sphere. Bulgakov’s writings and plays were banned by Communist censorship. He died in 1940. Master and Margarita remained unpublished until 1966.

How ironic that our pilgrimage to the mausoleum started in the same garden created by a Tsar and the location where a demon from Christian mythology takes a Soviet woman to Satan’s Ball. Lenin, a devout atheist, despised religion and firmly believed in Karl Marx’s assertion that it was opium for the people. Standing there in January, the same month that Lenin died, I watched St. Basil’s draw nearer as the line moved toward the mausoleum’s entrance.

Our professor admonished us to enter two-by-two, to be respectful, and for God’s sake, to be silent. It was bitter cold. For all the people in line, it was exceptionally quiet.

The girl walking with me wore a beret reminiscent of the one that Prince sang about in 1985. Not quite raspberry, its lavender sequins glittered atop her golden curls. My partner and I settled into a respectful demeanor until the student behind us cracked some juvenile joke. We snickered, at got hissed at by the professors and the older, more mature students, and tried to compose ourselves again.

As I stood in front of the oppressive architecture, I began to panic. My thoughts raced. Lenin died at 53. When I entered the mausoleum, he had been embalmed for 64 years. How decayed would the body be? Would it be evident that the head and hands had been severed from the body? How far would the labyrinth would go until I could leave? I felt claustrophobic. I wondered if the room would be brimming with lilies. I hated that rich funereal smell.

The line kept moving. There was no time to prepare. I entered and Lenin was right there. The line moved continuously with no time for genuflection, no real time to study the body. There was only the red and black stone, the shuffle of boots on the floor, and the body.

Lenin corpse003They call it lying in state. Glass walls enclosed a dias. The coffin looked more like a canopied bed with the body angled so his head raised a little higher. Great ruffled black satin, looking almost Victorian, draped over his legs and spilled toward the floor. The canopy top was a replica of the mausoleum’s ziggurat design, but made of wood. He wore a black suit. His hands rested near his waist, one clenched in a fist, the other open, palm down.

His face looked as though he were sleeping, more waxen than the freshly dead. His hair and goatee were exactly the same as the black and white images in our history books, but the tinge of copper surprised me. Lashes rested against his skin; face calm, serene.

There was no time to look closer, to stand in awe. The line kept pushing me forward. As I serpentined around his feet and back up the other side of his body, I caught the faces of the Russians in front of me observing his supine form; their dark eyes unreadable in the dim light. I turned back for one last glance. So much power, so much fire in his rhetoric to spawn a world power to be reckoned with. Suddenly, I was back outside, breathing the refreshing January air that moments ago had seemed so bitterly cold. Spilling into Red Square, our voices were subdued, including the joker behind me.

It wasn’t until I began writing my essay that I looked online for more information regarding Lenin’s mausoleum. You can easily find images of his body online, both from inside the mausoleum and during the embalming process. I have to admit that seeing the graphic images him disrobed have cheapened my memory. The frail, naked body with the great gash doesn’t seem to honor that moment in time, Soviet power and Soviet history as perceived by an outsider. There was so much mystery to Moscow and the Communists.

Here are some interesting facts I discovered while writing this:

  • Turns out that the body is Lenin’s without his organs and brain. The brain is preserved elsewhere. The corpse is frequently re-embalmed to keep discoloration from the skin.
  • Lenin’s body was removed from Moscow to protect it during WWII and then returned later.
  • Stalin’s body was also on display next to Lenin’s until it was removed when the Soviet Union began the de-Stalinalization process.
  • In 1993, Yeltsin removed the Honor Guard from Lenin’s tomb, but it remains today at the eternal flame honoring the military dead near the mausoleum. You can find youtube videos featuring the guards.
  • The embalming process is top secret and other heads of state from other countries have been embalmed by the Moscow team.
  • Recently, a Russian movement has urged the government to have Lenin buried.

Perhaps Lenin, being an atheist, wouldn’t mind his body being handled by scientists honing their embalming skills with images available online for any curious eyes. Perhaps science is the truest end for the man who started the greatest revolution by promising power, not heavenly rewards, to the people.




Lenin’s Mausoleum was a Cemetery of the Week on CemeteryTravel.

CemeteryTravel’s review of Lenin’s Embalmer.


Melodie HeadShotMelodie Bolt writes poetry and contemporary fantasy & dark fiction. She earned an MFA in Writing from Pacific University in Portland, Oregon and an MA in Composition & Rhetoric from University of Michigan Flint. Her poetry has appeared in magazines like TOTUVerse Wisconsin, and Yellow Medicine Review. Her fiction has been recently published in the anthologies Incarceration (Wolfsinger Publications, 2017), Hoofbeats: Flying with Magical Horses (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016), and the magazine Witches&Pagans #31, 2015). She is currently working on a dark fiction novel set in Flint, Michigan. Melodie has been a member of the Flint Area Writers for over a decade and frequently contributes to the blog at www.flintareawriters.org . You can also find more of her work here.


Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

I am jump-starting the Death’s Garden project again. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, please get in touch. I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

Cemetery of the Week #121: Lenin’s Tomb

Lenin corpse003The Mausoleum of Vladimir Lenin
Red Square
Moscow, Russia
Founded: 1924
Number of interments: 1
Open: Information varies across the web. It looks like your best bet is to visit Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The tomb may also be open on weekends, but seems most definitely to be closed on Mondays and Fridays.
Admission: Free

IMPORTANT TO NOTE: Bags and cameras are not allowed inside the mausoleum. They can apparently be check at the Kutayfa tower cloakrooms across the square from the mausoleum for 50r. You might be better off simply to leave them behind. Make certain you bring along your passport, however. If the security guards ask to see it and you can’t comply, the fine is prohibitive.

After a series of strokes that left him a prisoner in his own body, Vladimir Lenin died on January 21,1924. He had intended to be cremated, but Josef Stalin insisted he be embalmed and lay in state long enough that Soviet Russia could pay its respects.

Lenin’s widow was quoted in Pravda: “Do not let your sorrow be transformed into demonstrations of adoration for Vladimir Ilich’s personality. Do not put up buildings or monuments in his name. When he was alive he set little store by such things; indeed, he actively disliked them.”

She was overruled, of course. Red Army soldiers were ordered to blast a hole into the ground in Red Square. Unfortunately, the minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit weather had frozen the ground quite solid. Still, they managed a hole three meters deep, into which Lenin’s open coffin was placed.

At first, only a wooden mausoleum was constructed over him on Red Square. The intent was to bury him in a suitable tomb, but the embalming worked better than expected and it became clear that the Great Leader was going to stick around for a while. Stalin demanded that a permanent monument be built.

Modern postcard of Lenin's Mausoleum

Modern postcard of Lenin’s Mausoleum

Five years after Lenin’s death, architect Aleksei Shchusev received the commission to design the permanent resting place, where Lenin’s body could remain on display. A year later, the red, black, and gray Constructivist pyramid had been built on the site of the moat which once encircled the Kremlin.

Granite viewing platforms were added to the outside in the 1930s so that Soviet officials could inspect the massive parades of soldiers and weaponry.

In 1939, more changes were made to the mausoleum. A laboratory was constructed so that an embalming team could be on call for touch-ups to the corpse. Every 18 months, Lenin was taken off display and given full-body treatments.

During World War II, the body was sent into hiding. When he was returned to display in 1945, the glass sarcophagus that enclosed him had been redesigned. The old cone-shaped glass was replaced with an “inverted trapezium,”* which eliminated the glare and made it easier to see inside. The embalmers had been busy during the war and Lenin’s hands and face returned to Moscow much pinker than they had been, making him look more lifelike.

From 1953 to 1961, Stalin’s body joined Lenin’s inside the mausoleum. Krushchev had him removed and buried “under the ramparts of the Kremlin among the graves of other dignitaries of the regime.”* These include Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, and pro-Bolshevik victims of the October Revolution, who were buried in a mass grave in 1917.

A view of Red Square.  For scale, note the tourists clustered on the left.

Another modern postcard with a view of Red Square. For scale, note the tourists clustered on the left.

The tomb was closed in 2012 to repair water damage to the building’s foundation, caused by the former moat beneath it. The mausoleum reopened in May 2013. The BBC story, complete with video, is here. It’s worth watching to get a peek inside the tomb.

In days past, the line of visitors ran along the Kremlin wall and stretched for hours. 2014 visitors, posting on TripAdvisor marveled at their ability to stroll right in. Either way, visitors are cautioned that decorous behavior is firmly encouraged. Laughing, smiling, or merely stuffing your hands in your pockets can get you expelled from the line – or even harassed by the security guards.

The tomb is dark inside and guards make sure you don’t loiter, but you can walk around three sides of the body. Visitors are forbidden to speak inside the mausoleum. Lenin is apparently less than lifelike. Rumor has it that the body was replaced by a wax replica.

About.com says stopping in to visit is not worth the effort and calls Lenin’s body the least interesting attraction in Moscow. On the other hand, Time made seeing Lenin the bonus #11 on their 10 Things to Do in Moscow. The mausoleum visit is super-kitschy, they say, but worth the visit. According to the BBC, Lenin’s mausoleum is one of Russia’s top tourist attractions.

The BBC also reports that more than half of Russians believe that Lenin should be buried now. Although Vladimir Putin seems reluctant to do so, it appears that Lenin’s days on view may be numbered. You should take the opportunity to visit while you can.

Useful Links:

Moscow Info’s page about Lenin’s tomb

Whoever wrote the piece for About.com had a bad experience or knew someone who did.

Time‘s 10 Things to Do in Moscow

Bridge to Moscow tour guides’ site to Lenin’s tomb: http://bridgetomoscow.com/lenins-tomb_2

*Unattributed quotes came from Lenin’s Embalmers by Ilya Zbarsky. This is a great book, which you can get from Amazon. There’s a newer book by the same title, but I haven’t read that one yet.

Dead People on Display

Lenin`s EmbalmerLenin`s Embalmer by Ilya Zbarsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came at this book not from the perspective of a history aficionado but, as you might guess, as someone fascinated by the concept of keeping one’s leaders under glass. Nonsecular saints, you might say. Ilya Zbarsky is the person to go to for the gory details, since he was the son of the man who first embalmed Lenin, and in turn, headed up the embalming lab. As such, it’s interesting that Zbarsky chose to end this little book with the statement: “I cannot help believing that embalming is a barbaric and anachronistic practice, alien to the cultures of Western societies.” Speaking as a citizen, he feels the time has come to bury Lenin. Guess I should see about getting some plane tickets and making my pilgrimage now.

In 1923, as Vladimir Lenin was dying of a series of strokes perhaps brought on by syphilis, Joseph Stalin suggested the Soviet Union embalm Lenin long enough “for us to grow used to the idea of his being no longer among us.” Lenin’s widow begged the country, in the pages of Pravda, to remember her husband by building kindergartens and hospitals, but Stalin saw a way to use the population’s religious sentiment to cement his own power.

One of the Bolshevik leaders wanted to refrigerate Lenin and approached Boris Zbarsky, a biochemist, to strengthen his case. Zbarsky examined the decaying body and knew that freezing would not reverse the damage. After he’d dared to have an opinion on the matter, he was put in charge of restoring the corpse and preparing it for public viewing. The descriptions of Lenin’s decomposition are particularly tasty. These were recorded in watercolors by Alexander Pasternak, but unfortunately, the paintings aren’t reproduced here.

After his career in nuclear composition was cut short for smacking too much of genetics, Ilya Zbarsky joined the embalming lab. While he was sent to Mongolia to embalm the dictator Choybalsan, his father Boris was arrested for being “cosmopolitan” – read Jewish – after some 30 years of tweaking Lenin’s corpse. The elder Zbarsky’s health was ruined by his imprisonment and his son assumed his position.

Stalin joined Lenin on view in the mausoleum on Red Square for eight years, before he was buried under the Kremlin with other dignitaries. After his demotion, Muscovites adopted the maxim, “Don’t sleep in a mausoleum that doesn’t belong to you.” Other leaders who were embalmed by the Russian team include Ho Chi Mihn, Kim Il Sung, and the leaders of Angola, Guyana, and the Czech Communist Party. Mao Tse-Tung was embalmed by the Chinese without Soviet technology.

These days, after the fall of the Soviet Union decimated their budget, the embalming team works commercially, providing museum-quality preservation for gangsters.

Zbarsky is the last survivor of the team who preserved Lenin from 1934 to 1952. His memoir is fascinating, even occasionally frightening, reading.

This review originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #8. Lenin’s body was in the news in January 2011 as Russians once again considered burying him at last. Here’s the link: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe…

You can get your own copy for cheap on Amazon here.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.