Recently there’s been some blather about removing Lenin from Red Square and inserting him into a hole in the ground. Yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it. About once a year some Russian public figure suggests burying the Father of the Proletariat, everybody talks about it for a day or two, and then the idea fades away. You see, the interesting thing about Lenin is that, after you’ve seen him once you forget that he’s there. I mean, I’m sure Putin never thinks that there’s a hollowed out shell of a human located in a glass box a stone’s throw from his office. I lived in central Moscow for three years and hardly ever thought about it myself. Lenin’s basically invisible. Familiarity breeds indifference.
And yet it’s good to remind yourself from time to time how strange that whole mausoleum-and-mummy business really is: personally I find it kind of funny that after the Enlightenment, the invention of the airplane and assorted revolutions, one of the first things the heralds of the glorious future did was return to the practices of Ancient Egypt. It’s just a pity Stalin forgot to make offerings of food to Lenin’s ka; Vladimir Illyich must have been pretty hungry when he climbed in the boat with Ra to sail across the sky each morning. Note also that the Bolsheviks built seven skyscrapers in Moscow shaped a bit like pyramids. They were hog-wild for mystic voodoo.
Lenin, before he was pickled.
The mummification of Lenin was just the beginning of a mania for preserving political corpses and showing them off in glass boxes, the communist equivalent of America’s 1950s hula hoop craze. Stalin was the next Soviet leader to take the plunge into a bath of embalming fluids, and after he was dried off and dressed, he spent a few years sleeping alongside Lenin in a matching display case. Then Khruschev ordered him removed and buried. Stalin’s name disappeared from the mausoleum and suddenly everybody in the entire USSR was acting as though he’d never been in there in the first place.
Georgy Dmitrov, the communist leader of Bulgaria had greater staying power. He remained inside his glass box for over 40 years, and was only buried in 1990, when MC Hammer was soaring up the charts with U Can’t Touch This. Klement Gottwald, a puppet while alive, became a mannequin following his death, but after a mere three years, the Czechs decided it was all in rather poor taste, incinerating him in 1956. The cases of Dmitrov and Stalin raise an interesting question however- given that they were subjected to the full embalming treatment, how much of each leader remains beneath the soil? Sealed in their caskets, are they still looking fresh?
And then there’s Mao. He sleeps in a huge mausoleum on Tiananmen Square in China and keeps very generous opening hours: 9a.m.-3p.m. (Lenin, by contrast, only receives guests between 10a.m. and 1p.m.). Uniquely among communist mummies, Mao was not preserved by Soviet specialists: the Chinese knew a few things about preserving the dead, having embalmed numerous emperors over the centuries. Mao was a vile character, though in spite of China’s abandonment of communism, he’s not going anywhere any time soon; and the same is no doubt true of Ho Chi Minh, preserved by Soviet embalmers as the Vietnam War raged around them. I suspect that as with Russians and Lenin, most Chinese and Vietnamese forget their glorious (dead) leaders are even there.
But wait; there’s more. In 1979, the Lenin squad embalmed Dr Aghostino Neto, the President of the People’s Republic of Angola. Alas, a shortage of cash meant that his mausoleum was never completed. Visitors could only behold the mummy one day a year and then, in 1991, he was buried. Latin America briefly gained a mummy when Lindon Forbes Burnham, the president of Guyana was embalmed in 1985. Apparently he was going to be put on display in a fetching plexiglass capsule but according to Ilya Zbarsky (son of Lenin’s embalmer, in whose excellent memoir I discovered a lot of this material), the United States objected and he was buried instead.
Today this whole mummification business looks like some incomprehensible, savage rite from the distant past. Probably the only country where the regime still believes strongly in the practice is North Korea, where Kim Il-sung holds court forever in Kumsusan Palace, which was his unhappy nation’s White House while he was alive. North Koreans probably think about his dead body a lot because state propaganda forces them to; visitors to the Eternal President’s remains are obliged to bow three times in his presence, albeit only after passing through a full “body dust remover.” Soon he will be joined in the palace by the remains of his son, Kim Jong-il, though whether they will be sharing a bedroom remains to be seen. The mausoleum is closed to the public, and word has it that Russian or possibly North Korean experts are busy preserving his tubby frame even as we speak.
And then of course there’s Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the EU. However- physical appearance and rumors to the contrary notwithstanding- I must inform you that, actually, he’s still alive.