Lenin's Corpse

July 5, 2010

Torah Kachur

Science in Seconds On Location:  Torah in Moscow, Russia


Imagine.  You are a scientist in Soviet Russia and the unthinkable happens.  Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov dies of a massive stroke.


Some random Russian dude dies.  No biggie really. 


Except when Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov's more common name is Lenin.  Then, under the watchful eye of Stalin - one of the most brutal dictators of the modern world, it becomes your task to find a way to preserve the body of the soul of the Soviet system. Under threat of your life.



I've hard the term "Publish or Perish" but this is ridiculous.  Boris Zbarsky and Vladimir Vorobyov were an anatomist and a biochemist that were in charge of preserving Lenin's body at all costs.  The motivations are unclear - Stalin may have thought it as a way to convince Russians of Lenin's sainthood.  Or, to celebrate the power of Soviet science.  Or just to flex his authority (and twitch that sexy moustache).


Regardless of why Stalin thought it would be cool to hang out with a dead body in perpetuity, the embalmers succeeded.  They sewed his eyes and mouth shut, his bodily fluids were removed as well as his brain.  The brain was moved to Berlin to be studied by a neuroanatomist (a foreigner!) to uncover Lenin's genius, but at the fall of communism the Soviets launched a military exercise to retrieve the brain that is now in the Moscow Institute. 


The embalmers of the entire body succeeded.  To this day, Lenin's corpse is still on display at the masoleum in Red Square.  Of course it was the first thing I did in Moscow.  The formula turned out to be quite simple - the initial treatment of bathing in glycerin and potassium stopped decomposition.  Since then, the body needs to be wiped down every few days and, once every 18 months, he is resubmerged in a bath of formaldehyde, methanol and ethanol.  In other words, he's a wax sculpture.  Take that Madame Tussaud's.


All these treatments are pretty standard in an anatomy lab to preserve specimens: formaldehyde crosslinks bonds in proteins so that they don't breakdown.  Ethanol and methanol are mostly responsible for dehydrating the specimen so that water can't fuel decay.  And the paraffin wraps up the corpse in a water-tight seal. 


Now you can have yourself embalmed.  For a cool million dollars, you too can exist as a creepy wax homage for your friends and family to worship.  Mao is preserved this way, Stalin was preserved this way.  Just think - Mao, Stalin, Lenin, you.  Has a certain ring, no?


As an important and sobering footnote to remind you that this was Stalin's Soviet Russia.  Zbarsky and Vorobyov were both Jewish and Zbarsky was later imprisoned in the anti-Semitic purges carried out by Stalin.  He survived the Gulag, but 20 million others did not.  Happy Monday!



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