By Jason Chinn
In Lenin’s Embalmers, two Jewish chemists, Boris Zbarsky and Vladimir Vorobiov, are tasked with preserving Vladimir Lenin’s body after his death in 1924. Their efforts were successful and considered a scientific miracle.
Almost one hundred years later, the body is still on display most afternoons in Moscow’s Red Square (Lenin’s Mausoleum has a pretty good rating on tripadvisor.ca, FYI, just make sure you get there early to beat the queue).
For Lenin, the idea of being on display would have been abhorrent. After his death, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s widow, stated that he wished to be buried alongside his mother in St. Petersburg in a simple grave plot, wanting no monuments erected in his name.
Yet over the last ninety-four years, Russian scientists have continued to meticulously maintain the condition of Lenin’s body with a rigorous preservation process, even replacing and resculpting body parts when necessary. You might wonder, why then was Lenin embalmed?
Before we answer that question we’ll look at some of the historical events that precede Lenin’s Embalmers; a tumultuous shift from the Tsarist autocracy in Russia to Stalin’s tyrannical regime.
World War I and the February Revolution
The downfall of Tsar Nicholas II and the Russian autocracy paved the way for a new world order led by Lenin, and subsequently Stalin. This was made possible in part by Russia’s disastrous involvement in World War I. John M. Thompson and Christopher J. Ward write that the war contributed to the end of the Tsarist autocracy in four pivotal ways: by displacing millions of imperial subjects which resulted in the weakening of the old fabric of society; intensifying the resentment of Russian soldiers who felt expendable; causing the partial collapse of the economy; and discrediting Nicholas II as weak and incompetent (Thompson and Ward, 196).
The people’s discontent with the oppression of imperial rule and the hardships of wartime came to a head in February, 1917. On February 23, thousands of women took to the streets of Petrograd on International Women’s Day to protest bread shortages. Women were soon joined by students and workers. Soldiers who were ordered to put an end to the unrest mutinied and joined the cause as well.
By March 2, control of the capital was lost and Nicholas II was forced to abdicate. A Provisional Government was formed by the Duma until a constituent assembly could be elected. At the same time a group of revolutionary activists comprised of workers, moderate socialists, and soldiers assembled to form the Soviet Petrograd.
By April of 1917, Lenin returned to Petrograd, Russia, after years of exile in Europe to lead the Bolsheviks. In his April Theses, Lenin called on the people to reject the Provisional Government, transfer all power to the Soviet Petrograd, and denounce the war. The Provisional Government “nevertheless pushed forward with its plans to mount a major military offensive designed to relieve pressure on the Allies on the Western Front” and Russian soldiers continued to face defeat throughout the summer of 1917 (Thompson and Ward, 207).
Here we come to the first of two major events that improved the conditions for Lenin and the Bolsheviks to take power, the first being July Days. By July of 1917, a group of soldiers and sailors in Petrograd protested the Provisional Government, along with support from the Bolsheviks. Soldiers loyal to the Provisional Government opened fire on the protesters and a number of Bolshevik leaders were arrested.
Lenin avoided arrest by fleeing to Finland. From afar he continued to foster distrust of the Provisional Government among his supporters. July Days shed light on the Provisional Government’s tenuous hold on the capital during times of instability. The second event was General Lavr Kornilov’s failed attempt at seizing Petrograd and establishing a military dictatorship. The Bolshevik militia, known as the Red Guard was able to defend the city with the help of striking railway workers, making it impossible for Kornilov to move his troops. The Bolsheviks capitalized on this threat of counter-revolution in their bid for power and emerged as saviours of the revolution, gaining a majority in the Soviet Petrograd. On October 10, 2017, Lenin decided to return to Petrograd in secret and begin the preparations to seize power. Beginning October 25, the Bolsheviks did just that. The Red Guard and loyal soldiers seized key points around Petrograd and subsequently stormed the Winter Palace arresting the ministers of the Provisional Government.
Immediately after gaining power, Lenin’s newly formed Russian Communist Party was faced with a devastating civil war against the White Army, a group of armies united in their opposition against the Bolsheviks. Lenin’s response to the increasing economic instability and the threat of the White Army was to implement War Communism in 1918, a series of economic policies meant to nationalize industry. One such policy (Prodrazvyorstka) was essentially the confiscation of grain from peasant farmers to feed the urban centres and the Red Army, leading to peasant uprisings. War Communism was not a success.
In March, 1921, Lenin introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) in an attempt to put the country’s economy back on track. The NEP allowed peasants to pay the government a fixed tax and sell goods in an open market, denationalized industry, and mostly freed the labour market to operate privately and for profit (Thompson and Ward, 218). Many Bolsheviks criticized Lenin’s shift to capitalistic policies but he argued that changes were necessary to stabilize the economy before socialism could progress. And he was right. Unlike the policies of War Communism, the NEP worked to repair the economy. Lenin also established ties with the Western nations (with the exception of the United States) asserting that capitalist and socialist nations could co-exist.
In May, 1922, Lenin suffered his first stroke after undergoing surgery to remove bullets from his body from a failed assassination attempt. In March of 1923, he suffered a third stroke which left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. His condition continued to worsen and he died on January 21, 1924. In the wake of Lenin’s death, Joseph Stalin outmaneuvered his political opponents and took control of the Soviet Union. Stalin ruled by terror until his death in 1953, with millions of Soviet civilians dying under his reign.
In her book, Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia, Nina Tumarkin writes, “Lenin’s death appeared to precipitate the gravest political crisis the Bolshevik regime had had to face since the close of the civil war… Lenin had been its main source of legitimacy” (Tumarkin 135). For Lenin’s heirs, his death was an issue of political stability; to rule Soviet Russia in Lenin’s name would keep the people loyal to their cause. This loyalty to Lenin was clearly demonstrated at Lenin’s lying-in-state, when over half a million people waited in the freezing cold to pay their respects over four days in January. Naturally, those vying for power of the Soviet Union took notice of the people’s powerful response. If Lenin could be preserved, perhaps so could the people’s love and legitimacy of the Bolshevik regime.
Thompson, John M. and Christopher J. Ward. Russia: A Historical Introduction from Kievan Rus’ to the Present. New York: Westview Press, 2017. Print.
Tumarkin, Nina. Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983. Print.