cover image Lenin's Embalmers

Lenin's Embalmers

Ilya Zbarsky, I. B. Zbarskii. Harvill Press, $20 (208pp) ISBN 978-1-86046-515-4

Mention of Lenin and corpses might indicate intrigue and topics of dark fascination. However, this vanilla account of Soviet life doesn't quite plumb the depths. Zbarsky was a member of the nomenklatura, and his privilege stemmed from a job in the world's most famous mausoleum. It was the author's father, Boris Zbarsky, who was in charge of the mausoleum; Ilya had a supporting role as a chemist, ensuring that Lenin did not spoil. While Zbarsky's account might resemble that of any Moscow pensioner, his employment did offer ringside seats for the Stalinist show trials in the 1930s. Although he skims over what could have been interesting personal detail (a competitive relationship between the young scientist and his playboy careerist father; the antipathy between the young man and his stepmother), Zbarsky shines when it comes to corpse preservation: he recounts the evacuation of Lenin's body to Siberia during WWII and includes a chapter focusing on the process used to preserve the leader of the World Proletariat. Zbarsky's personal relationship with the corpse ended in the 1950s, when he was dismissed from his post. The institute responsible for Lenin's upkeep later embalmed the leaders of several other Socialist countries (including Klement Gottwald, head of the Czech Communist Party, and Ho Chi Minh), and today the mausoleum laboratory provides mortuary services to all paying customers, including the Russian mafia. Offering little new information on the mysteries behind Lenin's tomb, the book will prove most interesting to those curious about Communist worship of their leaders' remains. (Apr.)