Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Embalming Vladimir Lenin

Lenin in a wheelchair attended by a doctor and his sister
One of the last photographs of Lenin with his sister and one of his doctors. May 15th 1923. Photo by Maria Ulyanova. Via Wikimedia.

In 1997, two years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ilya Zbarsky wrote a book about embalming the body of Vladimir Lenin, a process in which both he and his father (Boris Zbarsky) took part during the decades of terror of the Bolshevik reign.

It all seems to have begun in 1918, when a young woman fired several bullets at Lenin, one of which shattered his left shoulder and lodged in his lung. This may not have accelerated Lenin’s atherosclerosis, as the author suggests, but by 1921 Lenin had insomnia and headaches, then sustained a paralytic stroke, gradually deteriorated, and died in early 1924. The death of a powerful ruler, as often in history, unleashed fierce conflicts among the party leaders, at first between Stalin and Trotsky, then expanded to Stalin eliminating all his former Bolshevik comrades.

Right from its beginning, the Soviet state was ruled by terror and fear. Although the ultimate decisions were largely made by Stalin, there were under him powerful party officials, secret service and police chiefs, and committees that met in secret. The great masses lived in fear, people not knowing if under the slightest pretext they would be arrested, executed, or sent to Siberia. It was in this atmosphere that the decision was to be made whether Lenin should be buried or exhibited to the masses to glorify and prop up the communist regime.

As long as the temperature in Moscow remained minus 50 degrees centigrade, the corpse could be safely kept on show. But as the weather became warmer, ominous signs of decomposition appeared. The skin of the face and hands darkened, wrinkles appeared on the body, and the lips became parted to show the teeth. It had been useless to inject formalin into the aorta, as is commonly done for open casket funerals, and the Committee for Immortalization was stumped. They argued acrimoniously, one lone member wanting to preserve the body in nitrogen, the more influential ones proposing to freeze it. It was even decided to purchase special equipment from abroad for that purpose.

Meanwhile one of the members of the committee consulted Boris Zbarsky (the author’s father and a chemist), who told him in no uncertain terms that freezing was a bad option because it would destroy the cells and cause the body to crumble away. He mentioned, instead, that he was acquainted with an anatomy professor from Kharkov, Vladimir Vorobiov, who had a collection of specimens that still looked life-like after thirty years, and who had considerable experience in embalming. By the time Vorobiov arrived in Moscow, the body had deteriorated further. The drying and wrinkling of the tissues was rapidly progressing, brown patches were spreading on the thighs, the hands had a greenish color, the eyes sank deep into their orbits, and the fingernails had turned blue. Then the ears crumpled up completely, the nose became covered with black pigment, and large purple stains presaged that further decomposition was imminent.

At this stage the Committee had no other choice, and they gave Vorobiov and Zbarsky carte blanche to start embalming the body. So two months after Lenin’s death the two started work, aware of the enormous responsibility that had been cast upon them and that the slightest mistake might cost them their lives. They began by commissioning a bath made of rubber, which unlike metal would not be corroded by strong chemical reagents. Workers were to construct this bath and had to work at it night and day. Then all sutures used to stitch up the body were removed, the body cavity was opened, the viscera removed, and the inside of the abdominal and thoracic cavities rinsed, scrubbed, and strengthened by injections of formalin.

Following these preliminaries, the body was immersed into a bath filled with a solution of formaldehyde. This was, in time, modified by adding alcohol to improve the color of the skin, glycerin to make the skin more pliable, as well as potassium acetate and quinine as disinfectants. The large spots on the skin were treated with hydrogen peroxide and carbolic acid; false eyes were used to replace the real ones, and stitches inserted under the dead man’s mustache helped close the lips. Relatives viewing the body thought Lenin looked rather better than he had been in real life. The process was completed by July 1924.

Ilya Zbarsky’s story in the book then moves on to other events, the terror of 1936 when Stalin’s surviving comrades were executed, and the Second World War when the body had to be shipped to Siberia. At the end of the war another wave of terror followed; and in the early 1950s there was the trumped-up conspiracy of the Jewish doctors in which Boris Zbarsky was imprisoned for two years and died soon after his release. In 1952 Stalin had a stroke brought on by years of untreated hypertension and was found in his bedroom paralyzed and unconscious. Frightened doctors summoned by the secret police worked under threat to their own lives, applied ice to his feet and leeches to the neck, but could not save him. For some years Stalin’s corpse joined that of Lenin in Red Square but was quietly removed during Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization. In Bolshevik days the embalming workers had been constituted into a government supported institute and were periodically sent out to embalm dead dictators from “sister countries.” After the fall of communism they fell on hard times and had to lower their sights to embalming dead Mafia bosses. At present the costly process of re-embalming the body every eighteen months is continuing, despite many Russians thinking it is time to put Vladimir Lenin into the ground.


Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson. Lenin’s Embalmers. The Harvill Press, London, 1997.



GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief


Spring 2020   |  Sections  |  Books & Reviews

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