CEPI Curiosities: The Public Afterlife of Vladimir Lenin

CEPI Curiosities: Tales from Medical History's Strange Side

Greetings, fellow historico-medico aficionados, and welcome to the latest installment of CEPI Curiosities, our monthly dive into the medically interesting or unusual.

There are a variety of notable objects and specimens on display here at the Mütter Museum, from wax specimens to human remains to even select parts of heads of state (including parts from the heads of heads of state). Today’s episode offers a blending of these topics as today we examine the medical science and history behind the preservation and display of world leaders.

Those of you who recall their world history classes may be able to identify Vladimir Lenin (aka Vladimir Ilyich Ulianov). Lenin (1870-1924) was the founder of the Russian Communist Party and was the first Premier of the Soviet Union; in 1917, following the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, Lenin and his Bolsheviks successfully wrested control of the Russian government during what is known as the “October Revolution.”

Portrait of Vladimir Lenin by Pavel Semyonovich Zhukov

Vladimir Lenin in 1920 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Following his death on January 21, 1924, there were no initial long-term plans to preserve Lenin’s remains, and he was embalmed so as to temporarily lie in state in Moscow prior to burial. These intentions are actually reflected in his body, as pathologist Alexei Ivanovich Abrikosov severed many of Lenin’s blood vessels and arteries after conducting his autopsy (embalming would be easier were the circulatory system intact).

Flocks of mourners gathered at Red Square in Moscow to send off the Bolshevik leader; the throngs combined with a characteristically cold Russian winter led officials to keep Lenin’s remains on display for two months. When a thaw risked accelerating Lenin’s decay, a commission of scientists gathered in March 1924 to discuss the ultimate fate of the deceased premier. They weighed the scientific and ideological pros and cons of keeping Lenin on display and solutions ranged from immersing Lenin in a vat of embalming chemicals, to storing him in a refrigerated coffin, to simply burying him. Ultimately Vladimir Vorobiev, professor of anatomy at Kharkov University, and Boris Zbarsky devised a method of preserving Lenin through periodic embalming and preservative treatments, a process that could theoretically allow him to be preserved indefinitely.

Image of Lenin's preserved remains

Image Source: sid (via Flickr Commons); Reproduced under CC BY-NC-DD 2.0, no alterations to original.

During the initial procedure, the pair removed Lenin’s organs and immersed his body in a vat of special chemicals. As an aside, they removed and preserved his brain, eventually allowing a German scientist named Oskar Vogt to examine it in order to understand the source of his genius (an act quite similar to what befell Albert Einstein, whose brain is on display at the Mütter Museum). After the initial preservation, this process is repeated roughly every eighteen months, during which time the body is removed from its mausoleum, bathed in chemicals, purged of embalming fluid, and re-embalmed. Typically, embalming fluid is introduced through the body via the circulatory system; however, since much of Lenin’s was severed during his autopsy, scientists administer the preservatives through a series of localized injections. Most surprising (to this author), Lenin’s joints are left articulated, making his body easy to pose or useful in the unlikely event of him rising from the grave to crush capitalism.

However, despite their best efforts, the process is not a perfect system and over the last ninety-three years even this method has not completely arrested decomposition. Not long after Vorobiev and Zbarsky first performed the procedure, Lenin’s eyelashes disintegrated and had to be replaced. In 1945, Lenin’s team of conservators discovered to their horror that a section of skin from Lenin’s foot detached from the body and was never seen again. As his body shifts and changes, parts of him have to be occasionally reformed or replaced to maintain its original shape. One person involved with the process has described Lenin’s corpse as a “living sculpture,” a blending of human tissue and artificial parts designed to resemble Lenin as he looked in life, a grim tribute to the fallen communist leader made out of his own remains. While his presence in Moscow has been a subject of debate in the decades following the fall of communism, Lenin (pardon the bad pun) remains on public display in his mausoleum in Red Square to this day.

Lenin's Mausoleum in Red Square

Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square; Image Source: American_Rugbier (via Flickr Commons) Reproduced under CC BY-SA 2.0

While Lenin is perhaps the most famous example of a preserved head of state on permanent display, he is far from the only one. Other preserved world leaders include Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, Chinese ruler Mao Zedong, and North Korean dictators Kim Il Song and Kim Jong Il. Initial reports following the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in 2013 suggested his preserved remains would be displayed in a glass case at the Revolution Museum; however, these plans were scrapped soon after his funeral as his body became too decomposed.

If you are looking for more stories on the handling (and in some cases, mishandling) of human remains, be sure to check out our articles on whether Joseph Hyrtl had Mozart’s skull among his collection, the case of a body made to impersonate a Persian princess, and the story of John Scott Harrison, a man who was the son and father of Presidents who also had his remains stolen by body snatchers.

Until next time, catch you on the strange side!

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