When Vladimir Lenin, the communist revolutionary and leader of Russia’s Bolshevik movement, died in 1924, thousands of mourners visited his body. And anybody who missed their chance in 1924 can still do so today — because Lenin’s remains have been preserved for more than 90 years. Jeremy Hsu reports for Science that a whole team of scientists works to keep the corpse as fresh as it was nearly a century ago.
Rather than go the ordinary burial route, writes Hsu, officials decided to capitalize on the the circumstances at hand. Lenin died in January, and weather in Moscow was so chilly that the body maintained “fair condition” longer than expected. As the mourning period extended, Hsu notes, leaders decided to experiment with new embalming techniques to preserve the body.
Alexei Yurchak, a social anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Hsu that over the years, Lenin’s mummy team has “created a ‘quasibiological’ science that differs from other embalming methods,” slowly substituting parts of the body with materials like plastic. The body, writes Hsu, benefits from microinjections of embalming fluid and even a rubber suit that holds embalming fluid over the body when it’s displayed in public. And the Lenin Lab keeps up with the times Hsu explains, completely re-embalming Lenin every other year and even replacing body parts:
To maintain the precise condition of Lenin’s body, the staff must perform regular maintenance on the corpse and sometimes even replace parts with an excruciating attention to detail. Artificial eyelashes have taken the place of Lenin’s original eyelashes, which were damaged during the initial embalming procedures. The lab had to deal with mold and wrinkles on certain parts of Lenin's body, especially in the early years. Researchers developed artificial skin patches when a piece of skin on Lenin's foot went missing in 1945. They resculpted Lenin's nose, face and other parts of the body to restore them to their original feel and appearance. A moldable material made of paraffin, glycerin and carotene has replaced much of the skin fat to maintain the original “landscape” of the skin.
Lest you think that this obsession with keeping a world leader perfectly embalmed is a bit ghoulish, consider the alternative: 150 years ago, President Lincoln’s embalmed body was actually paraded around America on a seven-state journey of mourning…and though an embalmer was on board Lincoln’s funeral train, some viewers were horrified by the already-decayed corpse.