Why is Lenin’s Embalmed Body on Public Display?

Henry Sawyer

Russian Revolution Twentieth Century
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Moscow’s Red Square today houses the pillars of Russian society and power. Occupying one side are the high walls of the Kremlin, a former fortress and the seat of once Soviet and now Russian government. Ahead is St Basil’s Cathedral, an important symbol of Russian Orthodoxy.

Seemingly out of place, adjacent to the walls of the Kremlin, sits a marble, pyramid-like structure. Inside there is no government department or place of worship, but rather a glass sarcophagus containing the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the founder of the Soviet Union.

For over half a century this Mausoleum was a place of quasi-religious pilgrimage for millions. But why was Lenin’s body preserved for public viewing?

Monopoly on power

Lenin was already the de facto ideological and political leader of the Bolshevik Party before an attempt on his life in August 1918. It was this close-call with death, however, that truly raised him to the status of undisputed figurehead of the Revolution and the Russian Soviet Republic (RSFSS).

Lenin’s moment of peril was used by the Bolsheviks to unify their supporters around a single leader, who’s traits and person increasingly began to be depicted and written about using quasi-religious rhetoric.

Vladimir Lenin delivers a speech to motivate the troops to fight on the Soviet-Polish war. Lev Kamenev and Leon Trotsky look out from the steps. May 5 1920, Sverdlov Square (Credit: Public Domain).

By the end of the Russian Civil War in 1922, Lenin had emerged as the leader of the international Communist movement, and also the founder of the Union of Soviet Social Republics (USSR).

Lenin’s image and character became a unifying symbol between the Soviet Republics and socialists across the world. He had monopolised the symbolic authority of the Party, as well as actual control over numerous branches of government.

This arrangement created a potentially deadly structural trap for the infant Soviet Union. As Nina Tumarkin notes, Lenin was ‘unable to separate himself from his creations, the Party and the Government, and thus he could not protect himself from being orphaned at his death.’ If Lenin were to die, the Party risked a total loss of the authority and legitimacy he projected onto the state.

Like a ‘house of cards’, the Party faced not only an internal power vacuum but also a potential loss of stability in a fragile, post-Civil-War country.

This was a reality the Party would have to deal with quickly as Lenin’s health began to decline. In May 1922, Lenin suffered his first stroke, in December a second, and after his third stroke in March 1923 he was incapacitated. Their leader’s impending death left the Party with a significant crisis.

The solution was the creation of a state-sanctioned cult venerating Lenin. If the Bolsheviks could successfully implement a system through which Lenin was the focus of religious worship, regardless of whether he was incapacitated or dead, the Party would be able to centre its claims to legitimate rule on his figure.

Veneration of Lenin’s image would unify the country and inspire a mood of loyalty towards the government, providing stability during a potential crisis in political and symbolic leadership.

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Plans for preservation

Fearing that party propaganda would not go far enough, at a secret Politburo meeting in October 1923 Party leadership finalised plans to ensure a more permanent solution to this question.

At the time of Lenin’s death, a temporary wooden structure would be erected to house the embalmed body of Lenin. This Mausoleum would stand next to the Kremlin to ensure that Lenin’s authority and influence was physically tied to the government.

This plan used the traditions of Russian Orthodoxy prevalent in pre-Soviet society, which held that the bodies of saints were incorruptible and would not decay after death. In the place of the icons and shrines of Orthodox saints, Lenin’s ‘immortalised’ body would become a new site of pilgrimage for the Leninist faithful and a source of quasi-religious power for the Party.

The wooden version of Lenin’s Mausoleum, March 1925 (Credit: Bundesarchiv/CC).

The death of Lenin

On the 21 January 1924, Lenin’s probable death became a reality and the Bolshevik propaganda machine was mobilised to full effect. As Tumarkin describes, within days of Lenin’s death, the apparatus of the cult ‘went into a frenzy of activity and spread across the land the trappings of a nationwide cult of his memory.’

Within six days of Lenin’s death, the planned wooden Mausoleum was erected. Over a hundred thousand people would visit over the next six weeks.

The ‘Commission for the Immortalisation of the Memory of Lenin’ was charged with the difficult task of ensuring that Lenin’s corpse remained in perfect condition. The Commission battled constantly to halt decomposition, pumping the body with a plethora of solutions and chemicals to ensure that this icon of the Party’s power and authority continued to reflect the health and prowess of the system.

By 1929, improvements in the embalming process enabled the Party to ensure a longer-term halting of decomposition. The temporary wooden structure was replaced by the marble and granite Mausoleum that stands in the Red Square today.

Night view of the Kremlin and Lenin’s Mausoleum, in Red Square (Credit: Andrew Shiva/CC).

The building of the Mausoleum and preservation of Lenin’s body would prove to be a long-term success for the Party. For a peasant or worker making a pilgrimage to the Mausoleum, the sight of their Immortal Leader confirmed his mythic status as an omnipresent revolutionary figure.

Embodied in the cult, Lenin’s ‘spirit’ continued to be used to direct the people to the ideal society he envisaged. The Party justified actions through the spirit and worship of Lenin until Stalin emerged as the out-right leader towards the late 1920s. Decisions would be declared ‘in the name of Lenin’ and followers would recite, ‘Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live.’

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Like Jerusalem for the monotheistic religions, the Mausoleum became the spiritual centre of Bolshevism, a pilgrimage necessary for any loyal Communist and patriot. Lenin became an icon of such power that his image continued to be used as the eternal symbol of the USSR and the Party until the late 1980s, the introduction of Glasnost and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.

Some 2.5 million people still visit the Mausoleum each year. The continued influence of Lenin, propagated by his visual image and the Mausoleum, is undeniable.

Henry Sawyer