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.