Lenin lies with us still

Andrew Donaldson writes on the centenary of the Bolshevik leader's death


WALTER Becker’s wonderful comedy drama, Good Bye, Lenin! (2003), offers a wry take on German reunification. In the film, Christiane, dedicated communist and loyal member of Erich Honecker’s Socialist Unity Party, suffers a near fatal heart attack and falls into a coma in October 1989 after seeing her son, Alex, arrested and beaten by the police in an anti-government protest. 

She awakens eight months later but is terribly weak. Doctors warn Alex that another shock may be fatal for his bed-ridden mother, so he goes to farcical lengths to shield her from the reality that the Berlin Wall has fallen, communism has collapsed and capitalism is rampant in the country. This includes creating fake TV news broadcasts to maintain the illusion that all is well in the socialist GDR.

One day, Christiane manages to leave her bed and wander the streets of her rapidly changing East Berlin neighbourhood; she sees billboards and advertisements for Western products, second-hand BMWs for sale and, memorably, a gigantic statue of Vladimir Lenin being flown away by helicopter. It’s a striking moment in the film, powerfully symbolic: the Bolshevik leader, soaring off into the sunset like some departing dark angel and supposedly disappearing from collective memory. 

This Sunday past marked the centenary of Lenin’s death. Thousands of statues of the leader would be toppled or destroyed following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but the “real thing”, if I may, remains in Moscow. Lenin’s corpse was placed in a mausoleum on Red Square shortly after his death on 21 January, 1924, and has been on public display ever since.* 

What’s there is apparently not a triumph of the embalmer’s art. According to a report in The Times, it is “slightly waxy” and there are debates in Russia “about how much of Lenin actually remains, given the removal of organs and numerous treatments that his mummified body has undergone since his death”. The newspaper quotes the then deputy of the Duma, Vladimir Medinsky, as saying in 2008: “What’s left there is only 10 per cent of his body.”

Incidentally, it’s said that Mao Zedong’s remains are also in poor repair. His embalmed body lies on public display in a dimly lit chamber in an enormous memorial hall in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Dressed in a grey suit, his face is reportedly also sallow and “waxy”. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of people file past his body on a daily basis — although not when I was in Beijing in the late 2000s; our tour guide informed us that the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall was not open to visitors that day. She also claimed the protests that took place on the square in 1989 were the work of a small group of foreign agitators and that there was no massacre there on June 4 that year, as such, but perhaps a few disturbances nearby. 

Be that as it may, a rumour quickly spread among our party that one of Mao’s ears was in the process of detaching itself from his head, necessitating hasty repairs, and that this was the reason the hall was closed to the public. 

I now suspect the all-round shabbiness of the corpses of these two leaders is due to the fact that their embalming was done by committee: gangs of dullards, party hacks, apparatchiks and other botherers tabling motions and taking part in endless debates.

In Lenin’s case, it was only once the worst of the Russian winter had passed, some two months after his death, that Soviet officials decided to permanently preserve his body. Prior to that, and thanks to the weather, it was literally a frozen stiff. Steps were taken to keep it that way, and the Soviets set about acquiring special freezing equipment from Germany. 

But then two chemists, Vladimir Vorobyov and Boris Zbarsky, suggested a chemical embalming mixture that would prevent the corpse from decomposing, drying up and changing colour. Numerous government meetings and inspections followed before they were finally given the go-ahead. A team of scientists then joined the project and, under the watchful eye of their Soviet bosses, nervously set about the embalming, toiling day and night. 

According to a 2016 Guardian report, the “Lenin lab” tasked with maintaining the body included some 200 “specialists” at the height of the Soviet era, but this number has shrunk in recent years. Their work, however, remains unchanged: scientists inspect the body every few days and every 18 months Lenin is whisked off for a wash and re-embalming. 

The department responsible for this work is the absurdly-named All-Russia Institute of Aromatic and Medicinal Plants. Its management routinely refuses requests for interviews as they fear journalists will make fun of their work. Here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies), we cannot imagine why this would be so.

The Chinese, meanwhile, had to act fast with Mao’s body. He died on 9 September, 1976, at the height of a hot sticky summer. After several days of bickering among themselves, party officials ignored Mao’s request to be cremated and decided that he, too, be embalmed and put on display like Lenin. 

One Xie Piao, an engineer in charge of an experimental thermoelectric cooling project, was given the job, overseeing a team of “specialists”. He used liquid nitrogen to bring down the stifling temperature in the room where Mao’s perhaps gamey body lay. 

When Mao’s notoriously ill-tempered widow, Jiang Qing, arrived to pay her respects to her husband, Xie hid behind the huge banks of floral wreaths surrounding Mao’s body lest he be singled out for harsh criticism. Senior party officials also pitched up day and night to bow before the body, thus adding to the tensions of Xie’s team as they drained it of fluids and injected it with formaldehyde. Mao’s former doctor, Li Zhisui, later published an account of the process and described the Chairman’s head swelling up “like a football”.

But back to Lenin. This week The Times reported that, according to a survey carried out by VTCIOM, the official Russian pollster, some 57 per cent of Russians want his body removed from display and buried in a cemetery. A similar poll, conducted a decade ago, found that 53 per cent of Russians wanted the Bolshevik leader’s body buried.

Out of sight, then, but perhaps not out of mind. Especially young minds. Here in the UK, James Bartholomew, the director of the Museum of Communist Terror, recently commissioned his own survey ahead of the centenary of Lenin’s death to discover what people thought of the Bolshevik leader. Bartholomew writes in The Spectator:

“It emerges from this poll (of more than 2 000 people) that of those aged 18 to 24 who have heard of Lenin and have a view one way or the other, the proportion who have a ‘favourable or very favourable’ view of him is a terrifying 43 per cent. If you include all the young people polled, the proportion who approve of Lenin falls to 15 per cent, but that includes those who haven’t a clue who Lenin was and therefore couldn’t approve or disapprove.

“Our poll tallies with those done in America, where many young people are also overtly keen on communism. The polls there reveal that 28 per cent of Gen Z and 22 per cent of millennials have a favourable view of ‘communism’ and that the percentage is rising every year.”

Somewhat at odds with this assertion is a current BBC Radio 4 seriesThe Kids Are Alt Right?, which examines the role that younger voters have played in recent electoral successes of radical right wing parties in Western Europe. (Spoiler alert: it would seem the youth are concerned that immigrants will take their jobs and all available state housing; their parents, meanwhile, disapprove of all the hijabs and falafels about the place.)

Bartholomew nevertheless argues that it is “curious” that Lenin is considered acceptable by young people, who even approve of him, whereas they regard Adolf Hitler as beyond the pale. “It is not exactly a secret that Lenin started off 70 years of communist rule in Russia which included two major famines, the Red Terror, the Great Terror and continuing poverty,” he states. “The death toll of Soviet communism was in the order of 20 million. So how do people manage to think favourably of him?”

A number of misconceptions exist about Lenin. His admirers claim, for example, that he led a popular revolution against a corrupt, tyrannical Tsarist regime. This, Bartholomew states, is just not true: Lenin didn’t take part in the February 1917 revolution as he was in Zurich at the time and only became aware of this popular uprising after reading about it in newspapers. He was around, however, to lead the October revolution. According to Bartholomew this however was not a revolution, but rather a coup. 

Neither is it true that this coup represented the “will of the people”. The Bolsheviks got little more than 23 per cent of the vote in the 1917 Russian Constituent Assembly elections and were beaten by the more moderate Socialist Revolutionaries who received almost 38 per cent. This mattered little to Lenin, as the Bolsheviks enjoyed considerable support in the urban areas of Petrograd and Moscow; he accordingly shut the assembly, deploying soldiers to prevent its reopening, and proceeded to rule Russia as a one-party state with all opposition parties banned.

“The lie Lenin fans choose to believe,” Bartholomew states, “is that if only Lenin had lived, communist rule would have succeeded. Lenin’s replacement by Stalin ruined it all. But Lenin did all the things that Stalin did…”

Lenin introduced the Gulag system of slave labour camps; he established the Cheka, the secret police agency that would eventually be known as the KGB; his collectivisation of agriculture led to the Soviet Union’s first mass famine and the death of an estimated three million people; he executed political opponents and others en masse with little or no due process; he suppressed of freedom of speech and religion; confiscated private businesses; and established a virulent system of regime propaganda.

It is nevertheless true that Lenin is an important historical figure. Without him, the Russian Communist Party, it’s claimed, would have collapsed by the end of 1921. However, Bartholomew argues that the communist regimes which emerged in his wake “caused poverty, fear, oppression and the deaths of an estimated 80 to 100 million people. He was important in the sense that he was most disastrous leader of the 20th century and the damaging effects of his coup continue to this day.” 

Writing in The Volokh Conspiracy, a libertarian website, Ilya Somin, professor of law at George Mason University and the author of Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom (Oxford University Press), describes Lenin as the “first great communist mass murderer”, a leader who initiated the policies responsible for about 90 per cent of repression and death in the Soviet Union. 

“And these ideas weren’t idiosyncratic to Lenin,” he states. “They were backed by the vast majority of other communist leaders, as well, which is why later communist regimes tended to adopt similar policies to those of the Soviet Union and got similar results. Mao Zedong managed to exceed the Soviet Union in sheer numbers of victims (he had a much larger population to work with). Cambodia's Pol Pot killed a higher percentage of his population in a shorter period of time, and arguably managed to exceed both the Soviets and Chinese in sheer torture and cruelty. But these mass murderers were, on major issues, still largely following the model first established by Lenin.”

The root of the evil here wasn’t the personality of any one leader, Somin adds, but rather the ideology they all sought to implement. “But Lenin was nonetheless notable for being the first to lead a regime that pursued these policies, and set an example for all that followed. That is how we should remember him.”

As for the Russians, well, a few dozen members of the Russian Communist Party did gather at Red Square on Sunday. Some waved flags, others held posters and laid wreaths at the mausoleum where Lenin’s body lay. There was no comment from Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin on the centenary.  

And, strangely enough, at the time of writing this, not a word from the South African Communist Party.  



On 23 January, 1924, The Times reported: 

“Lenin is dead. His agony has been long. For over a year he has dragged out the slow days in a living death. The bowl is broken, and he is gone. He died in a house confiscated from a once wealthy merchant not far from Moscow. For many weeks his followers, already weary of the artificial legend of his leadership, have been disputing his succession.

“Lenin was Bolshevism, and Bolshevism was Lenin. Rarely in modern times has a man so strongly impressed his own individuality upon a movement of astounding extent and still incalculable consequences. He was something that is not known even yet. He was a force that is everywhere felt. He was a disturber, for whose action analogies must be sought in remote and barbarous periods of history. Yet he was a man of our generation, whom not a few contemporaries have seen and heard. The ruin he has wrought in a great Empire is manifest. 

“The destructive doctrines he taught are still poisoning the minds of many millions. Yet he was no superman. Lenin was extraordinary because the times in which we live are extraordinary. For he himself, in spite of all the destructive changes he has wrought, in spite of all the fierce convulsions that are connected with his name, was but an ordinary, a rather commonplace man, and the secret of his still hardly credible success lies in a striking coincidence between certain qualities of his character and some tendencies of the historical environment into which he was thrust in his later years.”