Why was Lenin’s body mummified? Who decided it?

“Nothing would be easier and more obvious than to imagine that upon Lenin’s death his successors— with Stalin in the lead— quickly gathered in a back room and immediately understood the utility of preserving, displaying, and worshiping his body. A top-down manufactured cult of Lenin would then provide a substitute religion for the peasants, complete with the sainted founder’s relics, to replace the Russian Orthodoxy they were trying to destroy. It would enhance the legitimacy of Lenin’s successors and of the regime in general by tracing that regime’s descent from a founder, who was rapidly and intentionally becoming a mythical progenitor on whose pyramid the successor acolytes would stand to demonstrate their lineage… This idea, which is not uncommon in the scholarly literature, assumes that the Bolsheviks had a plan… Here it seems that there was no plan, no major role for Stalin but rather a series of contradictory, ad hoc, and contested proposals reflecting input both from below and above. Lenin’s successors stumbled and bumbled for a long time about what to do with his body.

First of all, it seems that Stalin had little if anything to do with the decision to permanently display Lenin. He was not on the Lenin Funeral Commission, chaired by Feliks Dzerzhinskii, where such decisions were made, and his associate Kliment Voroshilov, who was a member, bitterly opposed the idea. Stalin was a member of the Politburo, which, as it turned out, approved all the recommendations of the commission, but he seems to have played no active role in the decision. According to rumors that surfaced decades later (in the 1960s), Stalin had been the initiator of the idea to mummify Lenin even before Lenin died, having supposedly suggested it at an informal meeting of Politburo members in 1923, at which time Trotsky vehemently opposed the idea. This story is quite improbable on its face. The idea that such a careful political tactician as Stalin would openly talk about disposing of Ilich’s body while the latter was still alive, and in the presence of his arch-rival Trotsky, borders on the ridiculous. The senior leaders would consider it unpardonably crude to have such a discussion while their dear Lenin lived, and Stalin would certainly not have handed Trotsky such a faux pas on a platter…

The decision to preserve and display Lenin’s body was taken incrementally over a period of years, and it was not until 1929– 30 that his resting place was finalized in the stone mausoleum. At first, on 24 January 1924, Lenin was put in the Kremlin’s Hall of Columns for viewing by the public. Professor Abrikosov embalmed the body in customary fashion so it would last the three days until the funeral and burial. Nobody contemplated a longer viewing. Two days later, the huge crowds obliged the Politburo to order moving the display to Red Square near the Kremlin wall. Architect A. V. Shchusev was quickly conscripted to design and build a temporary structure there which was thrown together by 27 January. The crowds kept coming, and soon Shchusev was charged with designing a larger structure that was completed some weeks later. But it was not made to last. It was a wooden structure called the “temporary mausoleum.”

Meanwhile, during the extended viewing period… Lenin’s body began to decay. The Dzerzhinskii Commission was consequently faced with making a longer-term decision about the body. In February, commission member and engineer Leonid Krasin claimed that he could preserve the body through freezing, and on the seventh the commission authorized him to buy expensive German machinery for that purpose. By 14 March, the body continued to deteriorate and although Krasin continued to defend the freezing idea, the commission brought in Professors Zbarskii and Vorob’ev with a new chemical procedure for long-term preservation. It was not until 26 July that the commission made the final decision to embalm and display Lenin forever, based on Zbarskii and Vorob’ev’s procedure…

[About] whether or not even to have an open casket, there was sharp debate… Voroshilov took sharp issue with N. I. Muralov’s suggestion to display the body. According to Voroshilov, “We must not resort to canonization. That would be SR-like…” …Would Lenin have approved? Probably not, Dzerzhinskii admitted, because he was a person of exceptional modesty. But he’s not here; we have only one Lenin who is not here to judge, and the question is what to do with his body. He brushed aside deep questions, noting that everybody loved Lenin. Pictures of him were treasured; everyone wanted to see him. Lenin was a truly special person. “He is so dear to us that if we can preserve the body and see it, then why not do it?” “If science can really preserve the body for a long time, then why not do it?” “If it is impossible, then we won’t do it.”… the Dzerzhinskii group won the day… It was rather an incremental process.

Voroshilov, as we saw above, was afraid of the hypocrisy and person-worship… Other Bolsheviks, like Dzerzhinskii… thought that Lenin was such a special case as to not provoke such reflections…

As with preserving the body, the resistance to traditional monuments was strong… In October-November 1924, senior Bolsheviks Lunacharskii and Krasin made the case for monuments. “The question of monuments should be seen from the point of view of the demands of the revolutionary people.” The proletariat, they argued, has a solid sense of history and connection to the past. Proletarian monuments, unlike bourgeois ones, are not mere idols or signposts. Proletarian monuments are “sources of strength taken from the revolutionary masses. . . . A revolutionary monument is an active thing; it is a centralizer and transformer of social strength. . . . Revolutionary society does great deeds and therefore has a need to immortalize itself.” “Lenin’s tomb has already become a magnetic center for the masses, who visit it and whose literal voices of millions of people show that it answers a profound need of the masses.” … “We are an organic unified class doing great things and therefore naturally monumental.”… they concluded “We are not anarchists. We have great and brilliant leaders. So we conclude that monuments and monumentalism are completely natural in our revolutionary life.” Voroshilov, who resisted displaying the body, thought monuments were fine to maintain memory. After all, he had been to London to see Marx’s grave…

[When Lenin died] Thousands of unsolicited condolence letters and telegrams spontaneously poured in. The very decision to move Lenin’s body from the Hall of Columns to Red Square had to do with crowd control and was the result of thousands of requests from the public, especially from those unable to reach Moscow in time to see the body during the viewing period originally planned. The decision to build the second, “temporary” wooden and then the third permanent stone mausoleum had similar causes: the people kept coming, more than a hundred thousand in the first six weeks, despite bitter cold… proposals poured in from the provinces to build local monuments to Lenin and to name all kinds of things for him. Without permission, in Cheboksarai they build an exact replica of the mausoleum to be used as a bookselling kiosk. This caused much consternation in Moscow. Sailing in the wake of popular action, the regime quickly understood that they needed to get control of this process, and arrogated to themselves the right to approve or disapprove such requests; nothing could be built without their approval. Subsequently much of the work of the Dzerzhinskii Commission consisted of approving (but mostly disapproving) these proposals, which included everything from a proposal for an electrified mausoleum, complete with lightning bolts, to renaming the calendar months because as one letter-writer said, “Lenin was savior of the world more than Jesus.” (Arch Getty, Practicing Stalinism, pp. 69-77)

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