I Completely Agree with Gorbachev Right Now

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One of the weirdest tourist attractions I've ever seen in my life is Lenin's body, and one of the scariest military rituals I've ever witnessed is the changing of the guard at his tomb. It was totally creepy to see these grim young men carrying rifles goose-stepping towards me--it was probably the first thing that gave me any inkling of what it would be like to live under military occupation.

Anyway, after the guard changed, we all got to file through the tomb and see the body. I got in trouble because my coat wasn't closed--the zipper was broken and I couldn't close it--and that upset one of the guards (actually more of a docent kind of dude; as I remember, the ones with the guns were outside the entrance); apparently you have to keep your coat closed so you are less likely to reach inside it and pull out a weapon. I showed the guard/docent that my zipper wouldn't work--which sucked, because it was February in Moscow, and I would have liked to be able to zip up my coat--and I guess he decided a 20-year-old American tourist wasn't that much of a security risk, because he let me trundle past the body with everyone else.

And I remember that I thought it looked waxy and green, and thought the innumerable statues and paintings and so forth EVERYWHERE YOU WENT were enough to let you know what the guy looked like--I certainly can identify him now. I didn't see why you needed to see his actual dead body, which, at the point I saw it, had been dead for sixty years.

I'm going to state the obvious: people deal with death in different ways. The Apaches used get rid of every last thing a person owned (including livestock), and bury the body out in the middle of nowhere (there are plenty of middles of plenty of nowheres out in the desert), or throw it off a cliff or something, so that the ghost would be less likely to return, drawn by a connection to the things s/he used in life. When the person who named you died, you had to get a new name. The dead person was erased from present life.

I'll continue to tell everyone what they already know and state that in general, we participants of Western culture prefer to remember our dead, but we still have to do something with the dead bodies of those we love, because (let me remind you, in case you somehow forgot) they decompose, and they stink, and they get all maggoty and moldy and gross. Completely respectable and legitimate ways of disposing of bodies include cremating them or embalming and then burying them (I think embalming is mandatory for burial, which I find too bad, because I think embalming is gross, and don't see why you need it if you're encased in an air-tight vault), or throwing them off the side of a boat if they die at sea. (I wanted to make sure that burial at sea still happens--turns out if you served in the navy, it will allow you that time honored method of being laid to rest, and there's also a company called Nature's Passage that will arrange for the rest of us to be returned to the earth that way, should we so desire.) As far as burying goes, you can stick someone in an unmarked grave, give them a fancy headstone, put them in a tomb, or build them a shrine.

But keeping their bodies on display? It's expensive, unhygienic, and weird. Lenin looks BIZARRE, and the bizarreness of his appearance has led some people to claim that he was buried long ago and a wax copy substituted. The state, of course, denies this. People started arguing in 1991, after the fall of communism, that he should be buried. But enough people objected that he stayed where he was.

Now, according to a story in the Independent, Mikhail Gorbachev has said, "My view is [that] we should not be occupied right now with grave-digging. But we will necessarily come to a time when the mausoleum will have lost its meaning and we will bury [Lenin], give him up to the earth as his family had wanted. I think the time will come."

The story also reports that

Mr Gorbachev also called for the creation of a memorial museum to remember the millions of people killed or sent to prison under Josef Stalin, whose embalmed body lay beside Lenin's for eight years until 1961. Historians estimate that up to 27 million people in the Soviet Union suffered from Stalin's repression but he is revered by many Russians for defeating Nazi Germany and building the USSR into a superpower.

Personally, I think Mr. Gorbachev is onto something, on both counts.

5 Comments

I agree with Gorbachev on both counts as well.

I am not sure if you heard some of the controversy surronding Lenin's body and potential burial. I remember my professors explaining the almost resurrection process - I think they explained it in Russian so I didn't understand everything they said (my Russian was not so good).

Here's one article about it - the folk worship of Lenin throughout the countryside. I don't have access to the whole article.
here

Here's another article (warning: complete with photos of Lenin) about the embalming and restoring process Lenin goes through every 18 months. I can't vouch for the accuracy.

http://www.artukraine.com/historical/lenin_makeover.htm"> here

And as far as Stalin's victims go, there were many of them. They deserve a memorial as well. It was interesting, while I was in Russia, the professors there debated the exact number of those who died under Stalin.

Eek! Should have clicked on your links first - you already linked to that photo and embalming article!! My apologies.

Hi aerin--thanks for the comments. I'm glad I don't seem way off base to someone who spent more time than I did in the country. And I appreciate your taking the time to provide links, so the fact that one's duplicated is no big deal.

Holly,

I always find it interesting that a country such that the Soviet Union was, which publicly sought to suppress, and in some cases, outright banish religion, would have substituted what is essentially its own brand of secular religion.

Lenin became a godhead, for all intents and purposes. Stalin became a sort of living god, and a wrathful one at that. The public display of Stalin's body was a sort of religious veneration. A pilgrimage to Lenin's tomb carried the same significance as a haj to Mecca. My Russian relatives that came here in 1980 would describe it in just those terms. It was practically a requirement of every Soviet citizen to make that journey to weep over the body of the fallen leader.

A well ordered ritual, whether religious in nature or not can have a powerful effect. Just look at what life was like under Mao. Every Chinese citizen was required to have Mao's little red book of sayings on his/her person at all times, in the left breast pocket next to their heart. It was a bible equivalent, and woe to the person that was caught without it.

As for embalming requirements, it varies from state to state. Also, certain religions prohibit the use of embalming, as you probably are already aware. When my dad died, we didn't have him embalmed, but then again, he was in the ground within 48 hours after he died.

My bad I meant Lenin's body

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on June 5, 2008 9:37 AM.

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