Chemical Soup

James Meek

In October 1971 a Soviet scientist flew over the burning land around Hanoi, his passenger jet given a safe corridor by Phantom fighters from the air force that was busy laying waste to the countryside. Three days after arriving in the North Vietnamese capital he and his colleagues were taken to a site in the deep jungle. There, in the searing tropical heat, at the end of a track called the Path of the Cockerel, they saw a perfect miniature replica of their own workplace, Lenin’s mausoleum on Red Square in Moscow. Inside, under a glass cover, was the embalmed corpse of Ho Chi Minh, two years dead, dressed in a white suit.

US troops never found the heavily guarded site, although once, by chance, they landed nearby. A North Vietnamese general told the team from Moscow that if the Americans ever captured the body, Hanoi would be prepared to give all up its US POWs to get it back.

Today Ho Chi Minh lies in a cooled chamber at the summit of a gigantic temple on Hanoi’s Badigne Square. Like Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum, it is a relic of a Moscow-centred neo-religion which for a time was almost as widespread as the regimes which depended on Soviet support. It involved the corpse of a dead leader, already promoted to superhuman status in his lifetime; the skills of Moscow embalmers; an imposing building to house it; and a series of annual sacraments in which the leader’s successors, mounting the mausoleum like priests at an altar, would exercise their anointed power to transmit to the people the dead man’s wisdom, revolutionary spirit, and blessings.

In most countries the rite had a short life. The Angolan President Agostinho Neto, who died in 1979, had a troubled start to pickled purgatory when his successors could not agree whether he should be embalmed with his glasses or without them. The tall tower supposed to house his body was never built and in 1992 he was buried. The Czechs cremated Klement Gottwald in 1956, only three years after embalming him and putting him in a mausoleum in Prague.

In Moscow, the formal rites ended in 1991, but Lenin’s body, and its temple, remain in place. Russia’s misleadingly named Communists still ascribe to it a mystical power, like a socialist Stonehenge. To others, it is a tawdry exhibit, with a touch of the House of Wax. What it offers is the frisson of proximity to a historical giant. Anyone who wishes can still duck briefly into the cooled murk of the inner sanctum and look at the mummified features of Vladimir Ilyich, 129 years old in April, but the long, steadily shuffling queues have gone, and the mausoleum is often closed.

Now that the cult has nearly disappeared it is easier to see how fateful was the decision to preserve Lenin’s body. Taken immediately after his death in January 1924, it was more than just a cynical trick to gull the superstitious peasants: indeed, it was the moment at which Soviet Russia and Communism parted company, never to be reunited. By mummifying a single corpse and turning it into a fetish, the Soviet leadership took a wild leap towards the metaphysical from which they were never to return. In doing so, they weren’t merely signalling their readiness to break with the West politically, economically and societally: this was a warning that they intended to break with the Enlightenment tradition of rational thought and inquiry – something Lenin and most of the early Bolsheviks never thought to do.

Ilya Zbarsky’s poignant, laconic memoir is partly an account of how his opportunist father Boris came to head the laboratory responsible for keeping Lenin’s body in perfect condition. It is also an account of the fate of Soviet science under Stalin and his successors. The stories run in parallel. What comes across strongly in the book, written with the Moscow-based French journalist Sam Hutchinson, is the sheer, offensive stupidity of the Soviet authorities, and the pettiness of their motives. One of the easiest ways to add lustre to your place in history is by decorating it with innocent corpses: in a way Stalin and his minions are still holding their victims to ransom, daring historians to mock them because in mocking the regime they would be mocking those the regime executed.

A powerful faction within the Soviet leadership wanted to freeze Lenin rather than embalm him. Specialised refrigeration equipment was ordered from overseas and in March the Central Committee voted for freezing. By that time the body had decayed to such an extent that Alexander Pasternak, an architect and the brother of the poet, recorded nine different tones of decomposed flesh in a watercolour painting he made of the corpse.

The embalming team, led by Vladimir Vorobiov, a professor of anatomy from Kharkov, removed Lenin’s lungs, liver and spleen, flushed out the inside of the ribcage with distilled water and fixed the body tissue with formalin – the brain had already been removed to be studied for proof of superhuman intellect. While the outside of the body was covered in cotton-wool soaked in a formaldehyde solution, the inside was cleaned with acetic acid and formalin was injected into vulnerable parts of his flesh. Vorobiov then demanded a rubber bath in which to soak the body. It was a Saturday, and there was no such bath to be had in Moscow. Felix Dzerzhinsky in person summoned the workforce of a rubber factory on the edge of town to make the bath on their day off.

Lenin’s corpse, its skin and muscles carefully slit in the abdomen, shoulders, thighs and back to allow better absorption, was marinated in the bath for some three months, while the formula to preserve him was perfected. The chemical soup he eventually lay in – 240 litres of glycerine, 110 kilogrammes of potassium acetate, 150 litres of water and a small amount of quinine chloride – is still used for the baths the former leader of world Communism is given every 18 months to keep him supple. His lips were sewn together, false eyeballs were implanted, his eyelids sewn up, and his body wrapped in rubber bandages to stop the embalming fluid from leaking out. Krupskaya, his widow, provided clothes, and the mummy was ready for display.

It was Dzerzhinsky who turned the notion of embalming Lenin from an idea into a project when he told the funeral committee two days after the leader’s death: ‘Kings are embalmed because they are kings. In my opinion, the question is not so much whether we should preserve Vladimir Ilyich’s body but how.’ According to one credible source, however, it was Stalin who suggested that Lenin should be embalmed, at a secret, unminuted meeting in October, three months before Lenin died. The future dictator spoke vaguely of disquiet among ‘comrades in the provinces’ for whom ‘it is unthinkable that Lenin, as a Russian, should be cremated.’ Three of the Politburo members who would become Stalin’s leading opponents and victims – Trotsky, Bukharin and Kamenev – immediately saw the significance of what Stalin was suggesting. ‘The embalming idea strikes me as reminiscent of the very priest-mongering that Ilyich himself denounced in his philosophical writings,’ Kamenev said. He was right, of course, but it was already becoming dangerous to be right when it meant disagreeing with Stalin.

Tutankhamun’s tomb had been discovered only two years before Lenin’s death. Yet Russia had no tradition of embalming its rulers. The tsars, Europe’s last autocrats, who believed themselves literally anointed by God, were nonetheless buried, and lay in metal sarcophagi in the Kremlin and the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg. It is true that Russians bid farewell to their loved ones face to face. The final procession of Princess Diana through London in a closed hearse, with mourners behind barriers hurling bouquets at the car, was bizarre seen through Russian eyes: she should have been laid out in an open coffin in a public place, for all to file past and pay their last respects. Apart from Ivan Pirogov, the 19th-century surgeon whose mummy still lies in Western Ukraine, the only Russians whose remains were preserved after death were saints and holy men – hence Trotsky and the others’ suspicion of Stalin, a former Georgian Orthodox novice. In Kiev, the cradle of Russian Orthodox Christianity, there are catacombs beneath the belltowers and churches of the ancient Pchersk Monastery on the slopes above the River Dniepr. In niches along the passageways lie the desiccated bodies of long-dead monks. Had the Bolsheviks overthrown the tsars, the aristocracy and the whole corrupt, despised church apparatus only to see the Russian people’s inclination to mysticism and superstition attached to another set of idols? In Stalin’s mind, the answer was yes, and his vision was to win out. In Russian peasant households before the 1917 Revolutions, there was a krasny ugol, a ‘fine corner’, in which the icon of a saint would be hung. After Lenin’s deification, his image became the new icon in the ‘fine corner’, the archaic word for ‘fine’ or ‘beautiful’, krasny, also meaning ‘red’. The Red Army was the Fine Army and the Army of the Red Banner, symbolising blood sacrifice, embarked on a metaphysical struggle widi the forces of evil.

It was typical of the Soviet attitude to intellectual activity to use science to achieve the unscientific end of turning an ordinary human corpse into an object of veneration. Science and philosophy were to be tolerated only in so far as they helped to keep up with the enemy, increase raw production and perpetuate ideology, and did not clash with the whims and prejudices of the ruling class. The institute established to care for Lenin’s mummy grew and grew. A mausoleum trio, including Zbarsky, roamed the Soviet sector of postwar Germany with permission to loot whatever they could find to help in their work. Every scientist in the institute – in 1970, the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birth, the number of staff swelled to 100 – had his or her personal corpse on which to carry out experiments. The bodies are still there, in the institute’s large modern building in central Moscow, which now earns money from embalming murdered gangsters and conserving frozen mummies found by archaeologists in southern Siberia. In Soviet times the mausoleum and its institute were citadels of the scientific establishment. But the debasement of science they represented told on that establishment, and eventually on the mausoleum workers themselves.

The same mystical, anti-scientific, ultimately nationalist spirit which embalmed Lenin made possible the rise of the evil jester of Soviet research, Trofim Lysenko, whose stubborn insistence that characteristics acquired by one generation can be passed on to another, combined with the bullying, hectoring, abusive style of denouncing opponents which assured success on the Stalinist career ladder, crippled Soviet medical and biological enquiry for a generation. Some scientists who opposed him were arrested: others committed suicide rather than accept his belief that there was no such thing as a gene and that a pine tree, treated like a fir tree, would turn into one. In The Great Soviet Encyclopedia genes were said to be mythical concepts. After the war, when Russian chauvinism peaked, virtually every discovery in the history of science was reattributed to Soviet or Russian scientists. In Soviet textbooks Michael Faraday became Mikhail Faraday.

The Zbarskys, unlike the majority of their neighbours, escaped the Great Terror of the Thirties. At one point there were secret police seals on 34 of the 36 flats in the élite tenement where they lived. Late in life, Zbarsky junior was shown a document dated 1949, recommending to Stalin that he and his father be arrested for ‘counterrevolutionary conversations’. Stalin had scribbled in the margin that they needed to find replacements first. But the Zbarskys were Jewish. In 1952 Zbarsky senior was arrested and Zbarsky junior lost his job. Zbarsky senior had written a book about the mausoleum: one ‘charge’ against him was that in a photograph in that book he had added a false goatee to one of the guards of honour to make him look like Trotsky.

Zbarsky senior was released after Stalin’s death in 1953; he died a year later. Zbarsky junior was rehabilitated and eventually found a way back to his main love, research into the nuclei of cells. Stalin’s embalmed corpse lay alongside Lenin’s for eight years until 1961, when Khrushchev was able to bury it. Lenin slept on alone.

The fateful turn taken with the decision to embalm Lenin was never corrected. There were economic twists and turns, and varying degrees of repression. But neither Khrushchev nor Brezhnev recovered the internationalism of the early Communists, or attempted to diminish the status of the mausoleum as a Soviet-Russian Ark of the Covenant. The death of Stalin only meant the replacement of one cult – the cult of Stalin – with another: the cult of the Great Patriotic War. In many ways, Gorbachev was the nearest thing to a genuine socialist leader the Soviet Union had after Lenin was embalmed, and it is for him that the last of the so-called Communists reserve their greatest hatred, like a priestly hierarchy who found it more painful to abandon the rites of their faith than to lose the faith itself.