He welcomes over one million visitors every year, so it’s crucial that Lenin always looks his best.
However, as he’s been dead since 1924, this has proven to be no easy task.
For over 90 years his embalmed body has been laid out for public visitation in a purpose-built mausoleum situated in the Red Square, in the center of Moscow.
Lenin mausoleum pic.twitter.com/NPpKpuKU8j
— Nahia Sanzo (@nsanzo) 21. September 2016
Inside the dramatic granite structure, tourists and Russians alike gather to gaze upon the waxy figure, encased in a glass display cabinet, as though sleeping on a bed of dramatic black silk.
The Russian state has described the preservation of his corpse to be, of a “biomedical nature”, referring to the complex 30-day chemical bath in which once a year the body must be submerged. Dr. Debov, a molecular biologist, has been taking care of such technicalities for almost 40 years. He claims the creation of such a ‘life like’ appearance is due to extensive research conducted in Soviet times into a chemical compound that replaced all the water in the corpse’s skin. The consensus is divided concerning the success of this embalming procedure. Many believe that the presentation of his body in this fashion stands as a fitting and poetic tribute to such an influential and culturally symbolic individual. Others have described the body as resembling ‘a wax fruit’.
Regardless of the successes or failures of the visual aesthetics of the embalming, Russian people are now questioning, more than ever before, the relevance of keeping the former Soviet leader persevered, like a martyr, over 20 years after the fall of the USSR.
Contributing significantly to this debate is a recent announcement by the Kremlin detailing the exact cost of keeping the former revolutionary leader’s body persevered. The exact figure, up to 13m roubles ($200,000; £140,000), is an expense that many now feel is unnecessary. With the average Russian monthly wage recently shrinking to just 31,200 rubles ($500) it’s no wonder that the results of a recent survey suggested that over 60% of the 8,000 Russians polled, are in favor of bringing an end to the embalming procedure and laying Lenin’s body to rest in a traditional grave. This is after all, what the great leader had requested. So why has it taken so long for public opinion to support this?
Perhaps this is due to the cultural implications of burying Lenin’s body. By removing the physical Lenin from the forefront of Russian national identity, this could symbolize the dilution of the influence of his political theory on contemporary Russia.
main shrine of the USSR – The main shrine of the USSR, the Lenin Mausoleum is necessary now to nobody, even to the … pic.twitter.com/PuOWf0fwbD
— Dr Vicente Nario (@DrBicentenario) 2. Oktober 2016
Through the preservation of his earthly remains, Lenin’s body been transformed into an icon, in the rich Russian Orthodox tradition. His corpse stands, as a symbol, albeit a macabre one, for Russia’s illustrious past. The act of continuing to conserve his corpse has become almost a religious ritual, with the Russian government, and its people, faithfully ensuring its care and conservation. Like a relic, his corpse has created a cult. This is particularly ironic, for a man who created a revolutionary state that so ardently opposed religion.
This theory of cultural iconography is supported by the fact that from 1953 until 1961, the body of his successor Joseph Stalin joined Lenin in his tomb. However, during the process of ‘de-Stalinization’, his body was removed and buried in a grave close to the Kremlin wall. When the Russian government decided that Stalin’s legacy no longer reflected contemporary Russian values, and therefore was no longer worthy of the almost religious-like devotion inspired by the context of the mausoleum, he was resigned to the ground. If the Russian people decide that the same fate awaits Lenin’s remains, what does that tell us about contemporary opinion on his political and cultural legacy?
The process of embalming our significant social or political leaders is not unique to Russian culture. However, due to the volatile political past of the nation, this preservation of the physical body of their idols seems to speak particularly to the spirituality and nature of its people. The process of auto-icon can be seen world wide across a range of cultures, from ancient to modern times, and speaks more about the desire of humans to defy or at least delay our inevitable mortality, than about the individual people who have been preserved.
In Vietnam, the body of Ho Chi Minh has been on display in Hanoi since 1975, inside a purpose built tomb inspired by Lenin’s own, striking mausoleum. He was secretly embalmed; presumably against his personal wishes, by a Soviet team in 1970 in a cave in North Vietnam. As recently as 2013 Hugo Chavez’s body, the former president of Venezuela, was intended to be preserved for display in the capital Caracas, where it would lay as a physical, permanent manifestation of his political legacy. This was declared by acting President Nicolás Maduro, however, due only to ‘the uncertainties of plastination’ his body has now instead been interred.
Why is it that the states and political leaders succeeding such enigmatic individuals such as Lenin, so often make the decision to preserve their former leader’s bodies, even if it contradicts the individual’s personal wishes? Could it be an attempt to, with the physical body, also preserve the political power and influence that the individual whiled within their lifetime? By creating a personality cult around the individual, and their preserved body, the political parties are able to extend their former leaders influence well beyond the grave.
An almost humorous twist on the theme is the will and testimony of Jeremy Bentham the founder of modern Utilitarianism. A man who in contrast to the majority of individuals who have been subject to embalmed, specially instructed the preservation of his corpse. Born in England in 1748, Bentham was politically radical for his time. As a philosopher and social reformist he influenced and developed the concept of welfarism, freedom of expression, and promoted the decriminalization of homosexuality and totally social and political equality for women. Bentham was a free thinker, which may contextualize his decision, to personally request the transformation of his body into an auto-icon.
After his death in 1832, following his instructions, Bentham’s body was permanently encased in a wax like representation of himself. Dressed in his own clothes and seated on his favorite chair, Bentham’s auto-icon is surmounted by a spectacular wax head, crowned with sections of his actual hair. Due to his tireless campaigning for universal education, and participation in it’s founding, Bentham’s auto-icon lives in its own, purpose-built case, in the corridors of the University College London, where like Lenin, he remains, on permanent public display.
Despite public opinion turning in favor of a traditional burial, for now, Lenin’s remains continue to be on display in the Red Square. For company, he has only the curious public and the armed military guards charged with protecting the safety and dignity of his corpse. However, as one of Putin’s closest advisers, Parliament Speaker Boris Gryzlov has recently been quoted, “The problem of the removal of Lenin’s body should be solved in due time – probably in 2024.” Implying that with the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s death soon approaching, and the true cost of the maintenance of preserving his corpse exposed, perhaps Russia will finally decide to lay their great idol Vladimir Lenin to rest.