Lenin’s Pink Life-Like Body Makes For Best Sunday Newspaper Read

On a lazy Sunday afternoon comes the best read from the Sunday newspapers.

I’ve just read a 1998 book called “Lenin’s Embalmers,” by Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson. It’s fascinating, in a horrible sort of way. Over the last 88 years, Lenin’s corpse has had more adventures than many live people. In the words of the Grateful Dead, “what a long, strange trip it’s been.” The author, who died in 2007, was the son of Boris Zbarsky, one of Lenin’s original embalmers. Boris was keeper of the body for nearly 30 years, earning a pretty good living (by Soviet standards) and, better still, immunity from Stalin’s terror.

Dictator Remains Management was not at the time a huge field; more of a boutique industry. There weren’t all that many scientists back then who knew how to keep a body fresh and pinkish. Stalin couldn’t afford to toss Boris into the Gulag along with tens of millions of other Russians. Boris wasn’t arrested and thrown into prison — for no particular reason — until 1952, one year before Stalin died. He almost made it to the finish line.

Many sons follow Dad into the family business, but when Ilya Zbarsky entered the mausoleum in 1934, age 21, it was surely a Guinness World Record moment. By the time he ran afoul of the government — like Dad, for no particular reason — he’d been in charge of the remains for almost 20 years. A good run, all in all.

After 1991, Ilya looked up his file in the K.G.B. archives and learned that he and his father had been denounced in 1949 for “counterrevolutionary conversations.” There in the margin of the report he saw Stalin’s handwriting: “Must not be touched until a substitute is found.” Job security in Soviet Russia, circa 1949.

Soviet history is often indistinguishable from Orwell’s fiction. When Lenin died, Stalin appointed a Committee for the Immortalization of Lenin’s Memory. Immediately there were fierce disagreements as to how, exactly, to immortalize the actual remains.

I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say the committee gave the job to Ilya’s father and another scientist named Vorobiev. Both recognized that a lot more than their scientific reputations was on the line. Next time you think you’re under pressure at work, consider Comrades Zbarsky and Vorobiev, with Stalin and Dzerzhinsky breathing over their shoulders. How is it coming? Wonderfully! Couldn’t be better! Look — no tan lines! It took them four months, but they got it right.

Joe Paterno’s Statue Treated Like Saddam Hussein’s

For the record I am pleased that Joe Paterno’s statue was taken down, and am hoping for a crippling response to the Penn State football program based on the horrific news of child abuse.  Joe Paterno’s luster is gone.

Today Maureen Dowd’s column, which is always a must read, muses about Paterno.

Paterno is the tragic figure in the case, the man who went to church and taught his players “success with honor,” but succumbed to supporting depravity. His name was derived from the Latin word for father, and JoePa was the beloved paterfamilias of Happy Valley. So how did he crack his moral compass?

It’s the story of “Faust,” a morality play that unspools daily in politics, banking, sports and the Catholic Church. It has taken many artistic forms, from puppet theater to the Marlowe and Goethe plays to opera to a buoyant musical that was also a sports morality tale, “Damn Yankees,” about a middle-age real estate agent who sells his soul to be a slugger named “Shoeless Joe” Hardy for the Washington Senators.

Like Dr. Faust, Paterno was a learned man, an opera lover versed in the classics. A graduate of Brown University, JoePa was known for quoting Virgil and Shakespeare in his Brooklyn accent, and loved the Robert Browning line, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Certainly, he was grasping with both hands in January 2011. As Jo Becker reported in The Times, Paterno began negotiating to amend his contract and get a sweeter deal with luxury perks like use of the university’s private jet, even as prosecutors plumbed the depths of Sandusky’s pathological behavior.

In an interview in 1987, Thomas Ferraro of United Press International asked Paterno about his holier-than-thou image. A few skeptics said JoePa was an egotistical zealot who would do anything to win, Ferraro wrote, but most people idolized him as “the saint in black cleats of the often seamy world of college sports.”

Paterno replied: “It scares the heck out of me. Because I know I’m not that clean. Nobody is that clean.”

And it turned out he wasn’t. Louis Freeh, the former F.B.I. director who conducted the school’s investigation, found that despite the denials of Paterno and his family, the coach knew about a 1998 allegation that Sandusky had abused a child in the Penn State showers.

“God Forbid That We Question Even A Single Tenet Of The Theology Of Firearms”

A tremendously important column from E.J. Dionne.

In part…

Nobody who points to the inadequacy of our flood-control policies or mistakes by the Army Corps of Engineers is accused of “exploiting” the victims of a deluge. Nobody who criticizes a botched response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to a natural disaster is accused of “exploiting” the victims of a hurricane or a tornado. Nobody who lays part of the blame for an accident on insufficient regulation of, say, the airlines or coal mining is accused of “exploiting” the accident’s victims. 

No, it’s only where a gun massacre is concerned that an absolute and total gag rule is imposed on any thinking beyond the immediate circumstances of the catastrophe. God forbid that we question even a single tenet of the theology of firearms.

The lobby then goes to its backup moves. The problem, it insists, lies in the failure to enforce existing laws—conveniently ignoring that the NRA’s whole purpose is to weaken the gun statutes we already have.

The worshipers of weapons also lay heavy stress on the psychological disabilities of the killer in a particular incident to create a sense of futility and resignation. Crazy people, they say, will do crazy things, and there is nothing we can do about this. Never mind that more rational laws would help keep guns out of the hands of people with a history of mental illness. Never mind that it’s harder to get a license to drive a car than it is to own a gun. Never mind that even a Supreme Court ruling that gave an expansive reading of the Second Amendment nonetheless acknowledged the right of the people through their legislatures and Congress to enact sensible gun regulations.

Oh, yes, and then there is their trump card: We’d all be safer, says the gun lobby, if every last one of us owned a gun.

Why is there so little pushback against assertions that are so transparently designed to prevent rather than promote dialogue? The answer lies in a profound timidity on the part of politicians in both parties. The Republicans are allied with the gun lobby and the Democrats are intimidated.