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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lenin's Last Bath

A week after the death of her husband, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Nadezhda Krupskaya wrote a letter to Pravda.


"Do not let your sorrow for Ilyich find expression in outward veneration of his person", she wrote. "Do not build memorials to him or palaces to his name. Do not organize pompous ceremonies in his memory".


The Soviet government planned to honor Krupskaya's wishes and bury Lenin. Yet with January temperatures falling as low as minus 30 degrees centigrade, workmen could not break through the frozen earth quickly enough, and the burial was delayed two days.


Large crowds continued to pack the Hall of Columns near the Bolshoi Theater to see Lenin's body, often waiting four or five hours in the cold for a glimpse of the dead revolutionary. Bolshevik leaders, including Stalin and Felix Dzherzhinsky, the new regime's first secret police chief, were greatly impressed by the outpouring of affection for Lenin.


They decided to keep displaying the embalmed Lenin. The cult of the body was born.


For the next 70 years, millions would visit Lenin, marveling at and debating the condition of the corpse. Was it real? Was it wax?


Now that the Russian government has decided to bury Lenin - President Boris Yeltsin's chief spokesman says this will take place in the near future - a mystery that has puzzled the world since his death in 1924 has been unlocked.


In the first known extensive account of the scientific procedure that preserved Lenin, Ilya Zbarsky, 80, who tended the body from 1934 to 1952, has broken the embalmer's code of silence and revealed the details.


Zbarsky's description, corroborated in interviews with Lenin's current embalmers, illustrates that the Kremlin spared no effort in keeping the body as lifelike as possible.


"There have been lots of articles in the Russian press that a hand was cut off or just the head and the hands remain", said Zbarsky, whose father helped perfect the Lenin embalming technique in 1924. "They absolutely do not correspond to the truth; the body is whole and is preserved to this day".


When the state finally moved Lenin from the Hall of Columns near the Bolshoi Theater to a hastily erected wooden mausoleum on Red Square on Sunday, Jan. 27, 1924, he was placed in a coffin with two side windows and a viewing area on top.


By spring, the government realized they needed a radical new technique to preserve Lenin lest his body decay in the warmer weather.


Originally, Lenin's embalmer removed the brain and internal organs and injected his body with formaldehyde, the most common embalming technique. Yet the procedure is designed to last for a few days before a person's burial - not until the end of the Soviet state.


"At first they performed regular embalming on the body, but changes started to occur within a month or a month and a half", said Zbarsky. "Then the Politburo made the decision to preserve the body for a long time, and several months of scientific work were done".


Rather than relying exclusively on injections of fluid, scientists decided to immerse the body in a large glass vat so that chemicals could penetrate the body pores and surface incisions like a sponge in water.


The immersion, done most recently last spring, was necessary because Lenin's veins - the traditional embalming route - were cut during an autopsy performed before there was any idea of preserving the body for eternity, said Zbarsky.


The immersion is done every 18 months for about 60 days, after which the body is bound with rubber bandages to prevent leakage and returned to the mausoleum.


To this day, the Institute of Biological Sciences that supervises the body's preservation will not reveal the exact chemical solution used in the bath. Zbarsky said, however, that two central ingredients are glycerol and potassium acetate, which are still common in Western embalming.


Peg Boothe, a chemist at Dodge Chemical in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the world's largest manufacturer of embalming fluids, said that glycerol helps keep the body from drying out and that potassium acetate balances the acidity to keep it from turning too gray or pink.


The technique has worked well with Lenin. He stilt has his trademark goatee, surrounded by a several-day old stubble. His head, which lies above a period jacket and spotted blue tie, is totally bald except for a black stubble with white specks, trimmed by his wife days before his death. His hands, one clenched in a fist and the other relaxed, fall over a dark blanket covering his lower half.


Yury Denisov-Nikolsky, assistant director of the Institute of Biological Sciences, acknowledges that his once-rich facility can today afford only the barest minimum of preservation work. Its sole source of income comes from a charitable group called "Lenin's Mausoleum", which has donated 440, 000 rubles ($370) a month in support, according to the group's director, Alexei Abramov.


"We have practically no money", Denisov-Nikolsky said "We are using only old supplies and chemicals to preserve the body".


Attempts by the institute to sell its embalming technology to rich clients in Russia and abroad have been unsuccessful, as have plans to develop new, profitable medicines for the living, he said. The institute's best prospect is a preliminary agreement to rent out the first floor of its centrally located building behind the Garden Ring Supermarket.


Despite the institute's financial difficulties, its scientists still visit Lenin every Monday and Friday, inspecting the face and hands and dabbing on embalming fluids as necessary. The team closely watches for the growth of fungi and other blemishes that have plagued Lenin's body over the years.


Denisov-Nikolsky says there is nothing unusual about this kind of attention to a corpse.


"I don't see anything strange in this", he said. "I am an anatomist, and in the study of the human body we use both living and dead bodies. So to gaze upon a dead body does not pose any kind of moral burden".


Zbarsky does refer to his work on Lenin's body over 40 years ago as "an unpleasantness", but one to which he quickly adapted.


"We did our work and we quickly got used to it", he said. "For anyone who just arrived, of course it would appear rather strange".


The job was fraught with tremendous responsibility, Zbarsky added.


"We were greatly afraid that something would happen to the body", he said. "If you made a mistake, you could have been shot during Stalin's time".


Indeed, Zbarsky himself suffered under Stalin, losing his job after his father was arrested in 1952. From then on, he worked in a different biological lab that had nothing to do with matters of state - but he kept his secret.


He did, however, write an unpublished history on the preservation of Lenin's body that was made available for this article. and even today, Zbarsky has a memory for detail that suggests a man 30 years his junior.


A certain amount of modernization has taken place inside and beneath the tomb since Zbarsky's time, but the main procedures are the same.


One key to avoiding mistakes is rigorous control over the temperature, humidity, and light level inside the mausoleum, according to the institute's director, Sergei Debov.


"It is essential to preserve the body at an exact temperature, so that the body neither absorbs moisture from the air or gives up water", Debov said.


To meet these needs, the Kremlin leadership has installed an intricate ventilation and monitor system inside the mausoleum. The operation is run by about 15 people in a series of rooms along a lengthy hallway beneath Red Square's reviewing stands on both sides of the mausoleum.


Inside the central control room, a lone man sits behind a wide curved control panel of multicolored buttons and three computer screens that would make a fine display in a museum on early 1970s computers. An electronic rear panel across from the desk continuously displays information on the light level, humidity and other conditions in the tomb.


"We have no imported technology here; it's all domestic production", Mausoleum Commandant Vladimir Kamennikh proudly explained.


The controls also once monitored the body of Stalin, who was embalmed in 1953. But in 1961, on the Kremlin's orders, institute director Debov, along with a group of scientists and soldiers, entered the mausoleum, opened the glass case and transferred Stalin into a coffin.


Sometime in the near future, Debov and his coworkers will return to pound the nails into the coffin of Lenin himself, the sole inhabitant of the red granite mausoleum for the last 32 years. Then they will ship the body to the Volkovo cemetery in St. Petersburg to be interred beside his mother and sister.


For many, such an outcome will end not only a grotesque experiment, but also bury Russia's last great remnant of communism.