When Vladimir Ilyich Lenin died just two years after the creation of the Soviet Union, on 21 January 1924, many wondered if the October Revolution’s star was about to fizzle out. By the time the 53-year-old revolutionary succumbed to a final stroke, his comrades in the Soviet government were already locked in a tacit struggle for power.
Lenin’s death gifted the Politburo, the nerve centre of the Communist Party, an opportunity. Revered since 1917, the unofficial cult around the revolutionary leader now assumed quasi-religious status, as his successors competed to nominate themselves its high priest. Central to this cult, and most extraordinary of all, was the decision to embalm Lenin’s body and put it on public display. As the most distinguished figure of the Soviet regime, Lenin was held in high esteem by much of the population. In preserving him, party leaders hoped some of his popularity might rub off on them.
The man himself had settled on a modest burial next to his mother’s grave in Petrograd (St Petersburg). But he’d underestimated the potency of his own image beyond death. Within days, Petrograd, cradle of the Russian Revolution, was renamed Leningrad. His funeral on 27 January established the protocol for what would become nearly 70 years of Soviet ritual. After a few days lying in state at the House of Trade Unions in Moscow, Lenin was then carried in a solemn procession to Red Square.
As the cortège filed into the space, a band played the socialist anthem, The Internationale and Chopin’s Funeral March. A makeshift wooden vault waited to receive the body, where it would be left visible to mourners over the following days. That winter was so cold, dynamite had to be used to break the frozen earth and lay the foundations. After a series of eulogies by Bolshevik dignitaries, with the notable absence of Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s body was interred within the structure and the ceremony drew to a close.
Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s widow, was appalled by the decision not only to embalm him, but to later display him indefinitely. Breaking rank, she issued a plea in the Communist Party newspaper, Pravda: “Do not raise memorials to him, palaces named after him, splendorous festivals in commemoration of him. To all this he attached so little importance in his life”. Her poignant exhortation was ignored.
As the founder of the world’s first Communist state, Lenin was elevated alongside his heroes, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Together, they formed a secular trinity for the modern world. Such was the magnitude of Lenin’s thought that his writings were codified into a multi-volume collection. “Marxism-Leninism” became the official name for the Soviet state’s ideology. Even Lenin’s brain was salvaged and a special institute founded to study it for signs of genius.
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The quest to preserve the body long-term fell to a group of scientists tasked to the so-called Immortalisation Commission. Headed by Vladimir Vorobyov, professor of anatomy at the Kharkov Medical Institute, the team experimented on the cadavers of similarly-aged men to Lenin. Eventually, a solution believed to consist of glycerine and potassium acetate was found to be most effective. Lenin’s face, which had begun to discolour, was whitened with a mixture of Vaseline and paraffin. By summer 1924, the Commission achieved its goal and hailed the prowess of Soviet science.
Entombed before the Kremlin’s north-eastern wall, Lenin’s Mausoleum opened to the public on 1 August 1924. In 1930, the wooden structure was replaced by one made of marble, porphyry, granite and labradorite. The architect, Alexey Shchusev, was influenced by ancient mausoleums – notably Imhotep’s Step Pyramid. By echoing civilisation’s first monumental stone building, Shchusev enshrined the historic gravitas intrinsic to Communists’ perception of the October Revolution and its legacy. Complete with a reviewing stand, the new mausoleum enabled Soviet leaders to see and be seen during state occasions in Red Square.
Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Lenin’s body was evacuated to the safety of the Ural Mountains. For the next four years, it was tended to in Tyumen in Western Siberia. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, in May 1945, a victory parade was held in Red Square. Captured Nazi paraphernalia was hurled at the base of Lenin’s Mausoleum, signifying the triumph of Communism over fascism.
In March 1953, the high priest of the Lenin cult himself, Joseph Stalin, died. Until 1961, Stalin’s embalmed corpse rested beside Lenin’s. Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes in his shocking ‘On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences’ speech, airbrushed the late dictator from public veneration. Stalin’s body was removed and relegated to a burial plot behind the mausoleum instead. Lenin, however, remained incorruptible.
Along with his physical endurance, Lenin also assumed a kind of disembodied omnipresence throughout the USSR. His likeness was ubiquitous – every town had a Lenin statue, a street bearing his name, or a branch of the Soviet youth organisation named in his honour: the Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organisation (commonly known as the “Young Pioneers”). State propaganda acted to depict Lenin as an immortal and benign figure, watching approvingly over the Soviet Union’s progress.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 dealt a fatal blow to the cult of Lenin. But as a new Russia emerged from the wreckage, the body in the mausoleum remained in place. In spite of his best efforts, Russia’s first post-Communist president, Boris Yeltsin, failed to bury him. To this day, tourists and diehard Leninists continue to flock to the mausoleum. Revelations into Lenin's cold and often brutal leadership have not dented his status as an iconic figure of revolution around the world.