A century after the Bolshevik revolution, a 147-year-old corpse outlasts the Soviet Union – the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin.
Despite being on public display in its mausoleum in Red Square for nearly 100 years, the body looks like he’s still in his 50s thanks to the ongoing work of an increasingly elderly group of embalmers in the so-called “Lenin Lab”.
“He doesn’t look perfect now, but he looked perfect until about the late ’80s when the Soviet Union disintegrated,” says Dr Phil Gore, second vice president of the British Institute of Embalmers who says he visited the mausoleum in 2011.
Maintenance on Lenin has been reduced and the time between his regular baths in a secret mix of chemicals has been stretched out. “There have been these various ridiculous reports that it’s actually a wax form effigy. Well, the reason that there is a slight, slight sheen to him is that he has a ‘waterproofing’ compound covering all exposed parts, to minimize the evaporation of preservative compounds, giving him that slightly waxy, glisteny look.”
Lenin remains on display and is a major tourist attraction. Besides changing tombs, maintenance, and being evacuated in 1941 as Nazi troops approached Moscow, Lenin’s body has been on public display since his death.
Lenin conceived and orchestrated the Bolshevik October Revolution in 1917 and served as the head of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1924. His body was never intended to be on display for so long after his death on January 21, 1924 by what was said at the time to be an incurable disease of the blood vessels after poor health and a series of strokes.
Gore says Lenin’s body remained in near perfect condition for so long because of routine baths, every six to eight weeks, in a solution of secret quantities of alcohol, glycerine, potassium acetate, and water. The body was placed in a glass bath rather than a metal container, so that the chemicals in the solution wouldn’t react with it.
Once The Center for Scientific Research and Teaching Methods in Biochemical Technologies in Moscow, or ‘Lenin Lab’, no longer had the funds to maintain Lenin’s appearance, the mausoleum relied on donations until the Russian state started financing the mausoleum more recently. As The Moscow Times reported, the “Lenin Lab” also worked on former Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, Bulgarian leader Georgi Dimitrov and Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Its embalmers also kept former Russian leader Josef Stalin preserved from 1953 to 1961 until his second successor, Nikita Khrushchev, had Stalin’s body removed and buried.
After Lenin’s autopsy by Alexei Abrikosov, chemists Vladimir Vorobyov and Boris Zbarsky used knowledge of preserving anatomical specimens, and adapted it for maintaining Lenin, the Scientific American reported. Lenin’s brain was even removed and examined by the Soviet “Brain Institute” (as reported by Vice) — with the specific role of studying his “extraordinary abilities.”
Zbarsky put formalin into Lenin’s tissues and the ‘Lenin Lab’ continued to submerge the body in a three percent solution of formaldehyde roughly every two months. Gore says that doesn’t happen now because Lenin is “a symbol of a previous dictatorial state. Because now Russia, as opposed to the USSR, regards Lenin as some sort of tyrant, any further preservative elements have been stopped.”
That might not be a problem though because various polls within the last few years have found a majority of Russians think Lenin should be buried. However, it seems unlikely this will happen, considering the mausoleum closed so that scientists could prepare Lenin’s body (Scientific American) for its reopening in 2015, as part of the 145th anniversary of Lenin’s birth.