Tag Archives: Moscow cemetery

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.