Monday, January 10, 2011

Comrade Lenin and I

Yesterday I went to Red Square with Colleen, Stuart, Victoria, Hannah, and Basil. Our goal: to see Lenin.

Since shortly after his death in 1924 (with some rare exceptions in wartime), the body of the Bolshevik leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution has been on public display in the mausoleum designed by Alexei Shchusev. The mausoleum itself is very simple in design, and was inspired by ancient mausoleums like the Step Pyramid in Egypt. It's to the right when you walk onto Red Square, but the entrance to see Lenin is actually back before you walk through Resurrection Gate, to the right of the statue of General Zhukov on his horse (we did a lot of backtracking yesterday, so I'm hoping if you are reading this and planning on a visit to see Lenin, you'll save yourself some time!)

Anyways, after we figured out where to queue up, we joined a fairly long line of people, mainly Russians. An older woman came up to us and said in English, "Hello, friends. You want to see Lenin? I can take you in through the employee's entrance if you want." It was pretty obvious that she was just trying to lure unsuspecting tourists into giving her money, so we politely declined. That didn't stop her from approaching us again, nor another man who tried to get us to buy the same line. So be warned! Although it may be tempting to say "yes" in the hopes of skipping the official line, it is just a money trap!

We found that the best thing to do was to stay quiet and try to look as "Russian" as possible. Ie. don't smile! There are guards who let in a certain number of people every so often, and after a bit of a wait, we were waved through the first checkpoint. Bring your passport just in case!! Also, the mausoleum is only open from 10am-1pm Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturday/Sundays. We went first thing in the morning and there was already quite the line!

At the top of the hill (the biggest hill I've climbed in Russia so far! I have no idea how I'm going to manage the hills of Cambridge when I move back home in the summer!), we had to queue up again before going through the metal detectors. Cell phones and cameras are strictly prohibited, but apparently beer is okay. Stuart had a bottle of Scottish ale in his backpack that he had brought back from Edinburgh, and he was so anxious that the guards would confiscate it (and most likely drink it themselves!). Luckily, no one noticed, and we all got through security without any problems.

Then we were ushered into the mausoleum. Going down the steps, I felt this odd mixture of thrilled anticipation and dread. This was Lenin we were going to see! The man who snuck back into Russia in April 1917, after years of exile, when he heard the news that the Revolution had happened. The man who, whatever your political slant may be, can inarguably be listed as one of the most influential and revolutionary figures in world history.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, AKA Lenin, died on January 21, 1924 after a series of debilitating strokes. Within hours, the Soviet government received over 10,000 telegrams from citizens across the USSR, pleading for some sort of embalming method that would preserve their hero for future generations. On January 23, a prominent Russian pathologist and anatomist, Dr. Alexei Ivanovich Abrikosov, was given the duty (honour?) of embalming Lenin's body. There are some apocryphal stories floating around that it was a case of "preserve this body forever or we'll kill you" but I wasn't able to find any solid, researched academic proof of that, so I'm taking that little story with a grain of salt. Either way, a method of preservation was discovered, despite Lenin's express wishes that he NOT be embalmed.

The cult of Lenin was firmly established with the embalming of his body. "Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live" is a slogan that perfectly captures the "discourse of revolutionary immortality" that was so important to the continuation of the Soviet state, now under the control of Stalin.

What exactly is the process? Apparently, the well-guarded secret has been made public since the collapse of the Soviet Union. So if you're not too queasy, read on...

The corpse requires daily moisturizing of the skin and injections of preservatives under his clothes (a somber black suit, if you were wondering!). Lenin's sarcophagus is kept at a precise temperature of 16 °C (61 °F) and kept at a humidity of 80 - 90 percent. Every eighteen months, the body is taken out and "dipped" into a wax-like substance of potassium acetate, alcohol, glycerin, distilled water, and quinine. Whew...ok that was more than a little gross...

When we walked into the room where the body is kept, guards moved us along as a fairly quick pace. I paused for a second to put on my glasses, and right away a guard appeared at my elbow to physically usher me on. The mood was very solemn and respectful, and it was clear to me that for many of the other people in the room, this man truly was a hero worthy of immense awe and honour.

He IS looking a little waxy, to be honest. He had very little hair on his head, but he did have a moustache, and as I mentioned before, he was wearing a dark suit. His hands were laid across his lap, one fist clenched and the other laid flat. Everything else was red and black, and it was very dark in the room except for the lighting on the sarcophagus. Within a minute or two, though, we were already standing outside behind the mausoleum. The tour was not completely over though.

Behind the mausoleum is where you can find the graves of several other prominent Soviet citizens. I saw Yuri Gagarin's grave (the first cosmonaut to orbit around the earth), as well as that of Leonid Brezhnev's (the leader of the USSR from 1964-1982, famous for the era of economic stagnation over which he presided), Dzherzhinsky's (founded the Cheka, later the KGB), and Sverdlov's (gave the execution order for the Romanovs in 1917), to name a few. And of course the Other Big Guy, besides Lenin - Stalin.

Stalin's grave was REALLY creepy to see, because this was the guy who, despite looking like a jolly old uncle, murdered millions of his own people. And there were so many flowers and ornamental wreaths on his tombstone!!! A few years ago, there was a television contest in Russia to see who was the most famous Russian in history (we had a similar one in Canada). And guess who came in THIRD PLACE??? Yep, good ol' Uncle Joe. His third place ranking (behind Alexander Nevsky and Pyotr Stolypin) was reasoned to be because of the anti-Georgian sentiment that is currently rife in Russia. Okay, so people didn't want him to win because he was GEORGIAN??? Not because of the little fact that he was an evil mass-murderer?

Ok, I need to calm down. Mini-rant aside, seeing Lenin was definitely one of my most memorable (but eerie!) experiences here in Russia so far. Although I wasn't able to take any photographs of Lenin, here are some pics of Red Square I took over the holidays:

Gorgeous Red Square, lit up around 4pm. The "gingerbread house"
on the left is the department store GUM (pronounced "goom)

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: a sign in front of it reads:
"Your name is unknown; your deeds immortal." So beautiful.

The New Years' Tree

Vic and I

Vic and I again - isn't the house behind us pretty? The colour reminds
me of the houses on the Battery in Charleston, SC

The ice cream (mainly whipped cream) that Zach, Vic and I
shared at Coffee House

My Minnesota friend, Zach

Today was the first day back to teaching, but it wasn't as bad as first days back usually are :) My first two classes of the day were canceled - woo hoo! Then I went to an Atlant game at 5pm with my friend Andrei. They were playing a Belarussian team, Dinamo. That was really cool because I got to listen to the Belarussian national anthem as well as the Russian one in the beginning. It was also fun going with a Russian because he taught me a lot of useful words/phrases! Like chanting "chai-boo!" means that you want a goal. And I also learned a lot of things to yell at the players that I probably shouldn't repeat on a family-friendly blog ;)

Unfortunately it was tied 1-1 by the end of the third period; it went into a five minute overtime but both teams remained score-less. By then, it was 7:22 and I had a class to teach at 7:30!! I had to swallow my disappointment and run across the street to the school, still wearing my new Atlant t-shirt I bought earlier, and wait until after class to find out from Andrei what the final score was: 2-1 Atlant!!! WE WON!!! :)


  1. To me, "granddad Lenin" was much more evil then Stalin, resposible for the horrible atrocities during civil war and "military communism" period, "red terror" and such. He set the tracks on which Stalin was rolling.

  2. Hmm that's very interesting! Would you say that's the attitude most Russians have towards Lenin and Stalin? Whenever I've taken a course in Russian/Soviet/20th Century history, the negative emphasis has always been on Stalin rather than Lenin. Maybe that's a North American historiographical slant?

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