New East Digital Archive

Body language: the many afterlives of Lenin, from art object to science experiment

His ideas are no longer up for discussion and his legacy has been overshadowed by Stalin – so why is Lenin's body still on display, 83 years after his death? We look at how the old man of the Revolution ended up as a controversial museum piece, and ask what should be done with him now

25 May 2017

It took Lenin a long time to die; 93 years later, some would say he’s still not at rest. Sequestered in his Gorky estate from the summer of 1921 – where 26 doctors worked to keep the “heart of the Revolution” beating – between May 1922 and his death in January 1924 he suffered three severe strokes, temporary paralysis and loss of speech. In a way, these final two years served as a forewarning of what was to come for the late Vladimir Ilych: a man of ferocious intent and charisma no longer able to impose his will on the world, he became an object to be deployed by others. What should we do with this object today?

In his terminal illness Lenin was shut out of state business by former acolytes jostling to gain influence in the reshuffled Party. The idea of Lenin became more important as his physical self waned into insignificance: whoever had the most credible claim to represent the continuation of the great man’s great plan would gain in prestige. In a sense, “Leninism” was invented at precisely the moment Lenin died.

The idea of Lenin became more important as his physical self waned into insignificance. In a sense, “Leninism” was invented at precisely the moment Lenin died

I remember when I first saw him, on my first trip to Russia as a schoolboy still unaware of who exactly this corpse was and what he had done. Entering the gloomy central chamber of his marble and granite Mausoleum on Red Square, your eyes struggle to adjust to the darkness in time to get a proper look at this thoroughly bizarre unwrapped mummy before you are out the other side again, whisked on your way by stern armed guards. I remember the curled, wax-white fingers and an incongruous polka dot tie. The only thing I could think at the time was: “poor guy.”

It’s quite clear that Lenin would have abhorred what happened to him in death. He was an ascetic and deeply suspicious of cults of personality; his widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, pleaded with the Politburo to afford him a modest burial, to let the revolution stand as his tombstone. That the opposite of this came to pass now looks like a blackly comic accident that somehow survived the collapse of the Soviet state.

Alexei Yurchak, an anthropologist at Berkeley, has recently shown that the no one in the Party really knew what to do with Lenin’s body. After his death the body was transported to Moscow and laid in state at the House of Trade Unions for six days. Thousands visited in freezing temperatures. Then the dearly departed was “interred” in a temporary wooden mausoleum on Red Square. Meanwhile, former colleagues anxiously debated what to do next, relying on the bitter Moscow winter to hold off the decomposition process until a decision had been made. Should they bury him? Freeze him? Submerge him in embalming fluid like a pickled gherkin? The eventual solution – an experimental embalming procedure designed on the fly by Drs Vladimir Vorobiev and Boris Zbarsky – was an unexpected compromise. Later that year, the body was moved to a new, sturdier mausoleum designed by constructivist luminary Alexey Shchusev, who also designed the building’s final ziggurat form in 1930. Six years dead, Lenin had a new home.

A new body, too. Vorobiev and Zbarsky’s procedure was dynamic, requiring regular re-embalming, bathing, re-sculpting and the replacement of original organic materials with artificial or grafted replacements. Yurchak cites Vladimir Medinsky (now Culture Minister), arguing several years ago for the removal of Lenin’s body from Red Square: “Do not fool yourselves with the illusion that what is lying in the mausoleum is Lenin. What’s left there is only 10 per cent of his body.” (The political weekly Vlast subsequently estimated the figure at a more generous 23 per cent.) His brain was removed during an initial autopsy and a research centre established to study it. At one point, scientists in fact claimed to have discovered the neurological basis for Lenin’s political genius – something dubious about electrical activity that I can’t claim fully to understand.

The notion that Lenin never really died is as old as his embalmed waxwork-corpse, an endlessly repeated justification for what came after in Soviet society

The Centre for Scientific Research and Teaching Methods in Biochemical Technologies – the euphemistically-titled laboratory tasked with preserving Lenin for the past nine decades – does not even seem to mind that the real “stuff” of Lenin decreases over time. In Yurchak’s words: “They have been concerned with maintaining not the body’s biological flesh, but its physical form.” What this means in practice is pretty baffling. Lenin’s body doesn’t look right, but in a sense it still works. His head might look almost translucent, his fingers curled and waxy, but his skin is still elastic, the joints flexible, muscle tissues intact. His chest hair is, apparently, as firmly in place as when he died – even if only a handful of scientists have ever seen it. It’s hard not to ask why.

One veteran of the embalming lab, Yury Lopukhin, calls what is now on display a “living sculpture,” a kind of applied anatomical artform; in Yurchak’s words, “a sculpture of the body that is constructed out of the body itself.” The idea of Lenin as a kind of artwork was also raised recently by the celebrated performance artist Oleg Kulik in an interview with Lenta. For Kulik, it is essential to keep Lenin in public view, unthreatening, “mundane and banal,” as alive as possible: “As long as Lenin’s alive, it will be impossible to resurrect the Soviet project. To resurrect something, after all, it has to die first.” Lenin, says Kulik, is a monument to his own ideological defeat.

Kulik’s may be an anti-communist line, but it resonates with a classic Soviet-era slogan: “Lenin lived, lives, and will live on!” The notion that Lenin never really died is as old as his embalmed waxwork-corpse, an endlessly repeated justification for what came after in Soviet society. The journalist Mikhail Koltsov, describing his old friend at his public funeral, wrote: “There he is! He hasn’t changed a bit. How much he looks like himself! His face is calm, it almost smiles that unrepeatable, inexpressible, childishly arch smile, comprehensible only to those who saw it; his top lip with its stubbly beard is raised just as in life, provocatively. As if he himself can’t believe what has happened.” The great avant-garde filmmaker Dziga Vertov used archival footage from Lenin’s lying in state in his 1932 elegy Three Songs about Lenin, and at points that smile does seem to play across the dead man’s lips, as crowds of women and children file past him. In one shot, workers hold up a banner reading: “Lenin is our immortality”.

It’s tempting, as Yurchak does, to read the whole process of embalming and display as a kind of pre-modern ritual of power, the body of the leader imbued with a kind of magical authority undimmed by death – almost saintly, in its way. The architectural writer Owen Hatherley, describes his own visit to the “deathly, unearthly” crypt as a “minutely choreographed intersection of architecture and ritual.”

The great irony is how thoroughly Lenin’s own political project has been abandoned. It is Stalin and victory in the Second World War that are glorified in Russia today

The great irony in all this is just how thoroughly Lenin’s own political project has been abandoned. As Andrey Arkhangelsky writes elsewhere in this special project, it is Stalin and victory in the Second World War that are glorified in Russia today. When asked which revolutionary leader they felt most positively about, almost a quarter of respondents in a recent poll went with Stalin; Lenin has seen his popularity decline massively since the fall of the USSR. In 1990, 67% of respondents had something good to say about him: now the number is down to 26%. Putinism has little time for “genuine” revolutionaries like Lenin, who can be less easily tied into a narrative of national accession. A lookalike or two roam Red Square searching for tourists to fleece, but that’s about it. Apart, of course, from the man himself, dressed to the nines, only a few metres away.

Russian politicians periodically bring up the possibility of removing Lenin once and for all, but it always fizzles out in the stultified non-debate of the current parliament. It happened again only last month, when deputies from the ultra-conservative Liberal Democratic Party proposed a motion to kick-start proceedings. This time the rationale was that Lenin was baptised into the Orthodox Christian faith and should therefore be buried in accordance with its strictures. Not so saintly after all, perhaps. Conservatives have tried this line of argument before: Orthodoxy does expressly forbid the open display of dead bodies. There have even been debates as to whether the body’s current location is technically below sea level, and therefore “underground”.

He’s still there though. Poor guy. Personally, I’m of the opinion that after all this time it no longer matters whether he stays or goes; his own wishes were desecrated long ago. It would be a shame to lose Shchusev’s magnificent mausoleum – the final triumph of the architectural avant-garde. I’d suggest turning it into a museum, but then it already is: probably the world’s only museum dedicated to mummification, necromancy, communism, nationalism, sculpture and biology, all at the same time.

Text: Samuel Goff

The Future Remains: Revisiting Revolution runs until December 2017 at the Calvert 22 Foundation