Missing Character   /   Spring 2024   /    Notes & Comments

Lenin’s Tomb

The man and the mausoleum 100 years later.

Christopher Sandford

The entrance to Lenin’s tomb, Red Square, Moscow; Shutterstock.

In October 2023, the mummified remains of a petty thief named James Murphy, popularly known as Stoneman Willie, were finally laid to rest in a plot at Forest Hills Memorial Park cemetery in Reading, Pennsylvania. Murphy had actually died in 1895, but for various reasons his body remained in an upstairs room of Reading’s Theo C. Auman Funeral Home for the next 128 years. It seems that the original Mr. Auman had been interested in new embalming techniques and thought Murphy’s unclaimed corpse might be an opportunity to experiment with a recently developed chemical formula that included high levels of formalin, cyanide, and arsenic.

The result, according to the funeral home’s current director, Kyle Blankenbiller, speaking at the time of the 2023 interment, is that “if you touch [Murphy], he’s like stone, he’s hard as wood.”

“He weighs nothing,” Blankenbiller added. “He’s that petrified.”

It remains a matter of opinion whether Murphy’s extended lying-in period qualified him as something of a legend, or, conversely, a carnival sideshow or roadside attraction. Reposing in an open casket, his body was visited, gawked at, and often physically prodded by successive generations of camera-wielding tourists. Eventually someone in authority decided that more than a century of being ogled at was enough and belatedly made plans for the burial. Even then, Murphy’s dignity was somewhat compromised by events. When the moment came, the elevator to bring the casket downstairs from the funeral home’s upper floor broke down. Then the hearse waiting at the front door similarly failed to cooperate, and a backup had to be hurriedly summoned. In time, this vehicle took its place in a public parade preceded by a specially garlanded police motorcycle; it, too, malfunctioned. Perhaps Murphy, dressed for the occasion in an 1890s-era tuxedo, had the last, sardonic laugh at the whole episode.

When I read the story of Murphy’s final journey, I thought of matters concerning the “incorruptibility” of the bodies of certain religious or secular saints, and in particular that of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, who left us for the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns on January 21, 1924.

As it happens, I found myself living in Moscow in the late 1960s, where for some years my father served as the naval attaché in the British Embassy. I was of middle-school age at the time, and I admit it was all something of an adventure. My parents informed me that the KGB had planted listening devices in our home and car, which I thought impossibly glamorous. One snowy afternoon in December 1968, my father and I even found ourselves among a small group of Western visitors invited to the suburban home of the deposed Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev, who astounded me by revealing that he knew something of the rules and regulations of my beloved but, frankly, arcane childhood passion of cricket. But that’s another story.

One day about this same time, my parents and I were escorted to the front of an impressively long queue of people assembled around one corner of Red Square in order to enter the pillbox-like structure wherein lay Lenin’s mausoleum. Even then I registered it as a sinister-looking place, full of dimly lit internal corridors down which visitors shuffled, passing heavily armed Red Army guards every few feet of the way. There was a rigidly choreographed solemnity to the whole event that included prohibitions against wearing hats, talking, lingering, or putting one’s hands in one’s pockets. I remember that we were informed in English by a female army officer on entering the burial chamber itself that any attempt to use a camera would be “condemned,” a term rich in significance for anyone familiar with the day-to-day governance of Soviet society in that era. I was glad I had for once heeded my parents’ advice and left my Brownie box camera at home that morning.

At the climax of this progress into the inner depths of the mausoleum, a glimpse of Lenin himself suddenly appeared before us. He was lying in a glass sarcophagus, his trademark goatee and mustache neatly trimmed, his eyes closed, his hands resting at his sides. Someone had dressed him in a suitably austere black suit, polka-dot tie, and what looked like a freshly starched white shirt. It was a bizarre sight, part spiritual epiphany, part freak show. The word “waxy” was the consensus among our party to describe what was visible of the actual corpse, although more impressive than that was the stage management of the whole experience: the muted lighting and sloping black granite floors, and the reverently hushed atmosphere seen to by guards at every turn.

Today, as we variously commemorate or observe the centenary of Lenin’s death, there are two related thoughts to consider. What explains the continuing fascination with the man whose mortal remains are still visited by 2.5 million visitors each year, more than pay to enter the several museums of the Smithsonian? And what, if anything, might believing Christians have to say of the whole practice of exhibiting the dead, whether it be Stoneman Willie or the Great Revolutionary Scout, in this way? Is the scene still on display in Red Square thirty-two years after the fall of the Soviet Union a form of desecration that Lenin’s original embalmers and their successors may yet rue in the afterlife, or is it, conversely, a way of providing a worthwhile service in giving a community tangible access to its heritage?

To take the legacy issue first: It may still be possible, if not fashionable, to venerate Lenin as a socialist thinker of unusual profundity, selflessly dedicated to the egalitarian ideal, a tireless organizer, aggressively anti-imperialist, a fanatical redistributor of land and wealth, and ultimately a martyr to the cause of world revolution for which he struggled throughout his adult life, which came to an early end at age fifty-three. Lenin died of a stroke, seemingly precipitated either by sheer overwork or the slow oxidation of two bullets that remained lodged in his body following a 1918 assassination attempt.

Set against these laudable qualities, there is of course another possible interpretation of Lenin’s gift to humanity: that of an utterly centralist and ruthlessly authoritarian approach to government that served as the blueprint for several of the world’s subsequent tyrannical monsters, from Mao Zedong to Ruhollah Khomeini to Pol Pot to Robert Mugabe, to name just a few, and whose malign influence is far from extinct today. We perhaps need not linger over the well-documented excesses of both the 1917 Revolution and the consequent Russian Civil War, in which the consolidation of power in the hands of a few ultimately triumphed over such fuzzy concepts as the dictatorship of the proletariat, or of the desirability of representative government. In this latter context, there was the curious case of the short-lived All-Russian Constituent Assembly, which convened in January 1918 to discuss how executive power might best be distributed among locally elected councils of industrial workers, soldiers, and peasants. This fleeting exercise in practical democracy lasted for twelve hours, after Lenin himself had dismissed it as a “bourgeois” concept and walked out of the chamber, pausing to instruct the Red Army guards stationed at the door, “There is no need to disperse the Assembly. Just let them go on chattering as long as they like and then break up, and tomorrow we won’t let a single one of them back in.”

Perhaps, too, Lenin’s life is explicable by the “great man” theory of leadership. In a modern era when even infectious diseases are the subject of stultifying partisan conflict, he at least had the vision and the will to get things done. That may help explain why there are those who continue to venerate an individual so blissfully unencumbered by critical self-doubt, or by qualms about the wrenching human costs borne by others in the pursuit of his ideologically pristine goals. This was a man who clearly felt no compunction about reversing course and breaking promises when the survival of the regime demanded it. “We repudiate all morality which proceeds from supernatural ideas, or ideas which are outside class conceptions,” Lenin once informed an eager audience of Young Communists. “In our opinion, morality is entirely subordinate to the interests of the class war. Everything is moral which is necessary for the annihilation of the old exploiting social order.… Our morality consists solely of close discipline, and in conscious war against the enemy.… We do not believe in external principles of morality and we will expose this deception.”

But perhaps Lenin’s real legacy to our modern society in the West is the continuing delusion that the state might properly interest itself in every aspect of our lives, down to the smallest details of how we forgather, communicate, or educate our children—a distortion of the original founding ideal largely dependent on the apathy of the majority and the existing culture’s loss of faith in itself. These factors may be glimpsed at work in America today just as they were in the Russian Empire of more than a century ago.

On the more corporeal issue of the proper disposal of the physical shell of the departed, there remains of course the central example of Christ’s own interment described in the Gospel narratives. As St. Paul reminds us, the mortal body is “sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption” (1 Corinthians 15:42). The frequently presented image of the dead being asleep (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18) is also one consonant with burial as opposed to cremation, or any of the other variants of the traditional funeral service that have proliferated in recent years. None of these would have troubled the proudly atheistic Lenin, although he might conceivably have noted the paradox of the abundance of Christian relics variously preserved and exhibited for the benefit of the faithful over the years, such as the Shroud of Turin and the mummified head of the fourteenth-century Catholic mystic Caterina di Jacopo di Benincasa, displayed to this day in the church in Siena bearing her name. Lenin’s definitive remarks on the subject came, again, in his speech to the Young Communists: “Religion is one of the forms of spiritual oppression which everywhere weigh upon the masses crushed by continuous toil for others, by poverty and by loneliness. The weakness of the exploited classes in their struggle against their oppressors inevitably produces a belief in a better life after death, just as the weakness of the savage in his struggle with nature leads to faith in gods, devils, and miracles.… Religion is the opiate of the people, a sort of spiritual liquor, meant to make the slaves of capitalism drown their humanity and their desires for a decent existence.”

A century after its founder’s entombment, Leninism lives on, at least in the sense of the state’s relentless interference in our lives, and of the widespread vilifying of organized religion Lenin so advocated. On what might be called the higher philosophical level, with each passing year it becomes more of an irrelevance.