Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Vladimir Lenin has been dead for 87 years, but he's never looked better.

"He looks quite fine, as good as he did 87 years ago," said Yuri Denisov-Nikolsky, the Russian doctor who supervised the last extensive makeover of Lenin's corpse. "He looked terrible when he died, but what you see now is Lenin's face, not someone else's. He looks as he did before his stroke." With current techniques, the body could last "many decades, even for 100 years," said Ilya Zbarsky, 90, a doctor who worked on the body from 1934 to 1952.

When Lenin died of a stroke and heart attack on Jan. 21, 1924, his widow said he'd wished to be buried next to his mother in a simple cemetery plot. But the communist elite had other ideas.
They originally planned to freeze their beloved leader, but his body began to deteriorate badly as a super-freezer was being built. Instead, using an untested chemical process, Lenin was embalmed and his skin carefully treated to preserve a lifelike appearance.

He's entombed in a granite-and-marble mausoleum in Red Square. The body is sealed in a glass sarcophagus, cooled to 61 degrees, with the humidity between 80 and 90 percent. Some say Lenin appears to be sleeping. Others compare him to waxed fruit.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian government stopped financing the preservation of the body. Private donations pay the meager salaries of his 15-person staff at a research lab called Medical Biological Technologies. The physicians and professors on the team, he said, earn $200 a month. 

Specially filtered lighting gives Lenin's face a warm glow. Botox, collagen and modern cosmetics aren't used. A mild bleach is employed to combat occasional fungus stains or mold spots on Lenin's face. The skin is examined closely each week, using precision, Russian-made instruments that measure its moisture, color and contour. Dehydration - and time - are the principal enemies.
Lenin gets an extreme makeover every 18 months or so. The mausoleum is closed for two months and the body is immersed in a bath of glycerol and potassium acetate for 30 days. The skin slowly absorbs the solution, regaining its moisture and pliancy.

Lenin's blood, bodily fluids and internal organs were removed as part of the initial embalming. His eyebrows, moustache and goatee are his original hair - no molting. And his genitals are intact.
No one seems to know what's happened to Lenin's heart, but Soviet ideologists were sure that his brain was something special. They brought in a renowned German scientist to examine it for clues to the great man's genius, but nothing came of it. The brain is still kept at a Moscow institute. But it's not easy to see it and requires special permission. It's mostly dissected.

Lenin himself never wanted any of this. "Do not put up buildings or monuments in his name," his widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, said in the days after his death.

But the communist propaganda machine already had begun turning out heroic posters, worshipful biographies and everything from massive statues to miniature busts. Boulevards, hospitals, schools, train stations, collective farms and the city of St. Petersburg were renamed in Lenin's honor. With the Collapse of Communism in Russia, many of these places have been re-renamed back to their original names.