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Wednesday, January 27, 1999 Published at 17:20 GMT

World: Europe

Embalming - the new Russian revolution

If it's good enough for Lenin ...

By Alan Little in Moscow

Embalming in Russia used to be the preserve of revolutionary leaders, but it has now become the must-have of the Mafia chieftains and wealthy new Russians who hold sway.

Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet state, was buried 75 years ago on Wednesday.

In death as well as in life, Lenin was a pioneer. His successors decided to preserve his body for the inspiration of future generations of Communists.

Ilya Zbarsky: We would soak the face and the hands with a special solution.
He still lies in a mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square. These days, however, Lenin is no longer in the hearts and lives of Russians.

Interest instead has turned as much to the revolutionary scientific techniques used to embalm him, and how they are being used to preserve the remains of the people who now hold sway in post-Communist Russia.

The Russian revolutionary wanted to be buried alongside his mother in St Petersburg. But Lenin's successors had a higher use for him.

By embalming him, they tapped into the Russian passion for holy relics and religious veneration that the revolution had denounced and swept away.

Communist preservation

Ilya Zbarsky was 10 years old when his scientist father was summoned to the Kremlin in January 1924.

[ image: Ilya Zbarsky spent 20 years preserving Lenin's body]
Ilya Zbarsky spent 20 years preserving Lenin's body
His father was instructed to preserve the leader's body for all eternity - on the grounds that Communism - the ultimate destination of all mankind - was here to stay.

Initially, they tried to preserve him by freezing him - but that failed.

According to Ilya Zbarsky, "the state of the body was not very good. It began to decay and it was urgent to take measures immediately.

"My father and his collaborators were working at the underground mausoleum was very difficult and very nervous work, for there was no precedent of conserving the body with a good resemblance."

Ten years later, Ilya himself had become a member of the embalming team and was to work on Lenin's remains for the next 20 years.

He said: "Twice a week, we would soak the face and the hands with a special solution. We could also improve some minor defects...then once a year the mausoleum was closed and the body was immersed in a bath with this solution.

Scalpel search for Lenin's genius

But, the scientific institute that developed the ground-breaking technique is breaking ground no more.

Once, it sliced open Lenin's disease-shrunken brain in a search of dubious scientific credibility - the hunt for the source of the great man's genius.

It helped embalm Stalin - who joined Lenin in the mausoleum for 10 years before being denounced.

It even embalmed Ho Chi Min, Mao Tse Tung and Augustino Neto of Angola.

These days, like everything else in Russia, the institute is taking its chances on the open market.

Its director, Valeri Bykov, said: "We continue to work on embalming techniques as an ongoing process. We're learning about molecular and cellular structures, even when life is stopped.

[ image: Lenin's legacy still divides Russia, 75 years on]
Lenin's legacy still divides Russia, 75 years on
"We do use this fundamental knowledge for the preservation of corpses. We can keep a body preserved indefinitely, or at least for as long as is needed."

Mafia clients

These days the clients are to be found among Russia's wealthy elite - the Mafia bosses who want to remain like Lenin - objects of veneration and fear even after their deaths.

Samuel Hutchinson is the co-author of a new book called Lenin's Embalmers. He said: "Usually if there's a lot of work to be done on the bodies, if for example the dead man is bandaged because he has received a lot of bullets in his face, then there might be a lot of work to be done, up to one week, and the institute would charge $10,000.

If it's just one day of work then it would be $1,500 to $2,000. A year and a half ago there was an average of two gangsters per month.

A nation divided

It is often said here that Russia will not move on until Lenin is finally laid in his grave in St Petersburg.

But the country remains bitterly divided over his legacy. No leader dare move him. He has become a secular saint.

His continued presence is an enduring symbol of a paralysed country unable to decide whether the system he built was good or bad.

But even Ilya Zbarsky - the man who spent so much of his life in the unending fight against decomposition - believes it's now time to stop.

He said: "I don't think that it is traditional for a civilised people to conserve some political man's relics and the figure of Lenin is not now... so I think that it is better to inter Lenin's body.

Russia though yearns for the certainties of the past. It is not yet ready to part company with the closest thing to a deity those lost lamented days have bequeathed.

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