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Lenin's Embalmers [Paperback]

I. & Hutchinson, S. Zbarsky
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct. 15 1999 Panther
Between 1924 and the fall of communism in 1991, many millions of visitors paid their respects to the embalmed body of Lenin in Red Square. This is the story of the mausoleum, told by the only survivor of the family that plunged the founder of the Soviet Union into a solution of glycerine and potassium acetate to preserve him forever. Alongside the story of the laboratory and its close ties with Stalin, Ilya Zbarsky also tells his family's story. His father's responsibility for Lenin's mummification brought him scientific repute and political prominence but he lived in fear, initially of the body deteriorating, later of the regime. This eye-witness account throws a mordant and original light on a surreal aspect of the Soviet regime at a moment at which the future of Lenin's corpse is finally a matter of debate.

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"Comrades, Vladimir Ilich's health has grown so much worse lately that it is to be feared he will soon be no more. We must therefore consider what is to be done when the great sorrow befalls us.... Modern science is capable of preserving his body for a considerable time, long enough at least for us to grow used to the idea of his being no longer with us."
On January 21, 1924, just three months after Joseph Stalin spoke those words, Vladimir Lenin died. Trotsky, already falling from favor, argued that turning Lenin's remains into a relic ran counter to Lenin's own beliefs. Eager to strengthen his new regime, however, Stalin saw that preserving the body was a good way to harness the religious sentiment of the nation's masses for his support. The Committee for Immortalization was duly founded, and--after much debate--scientists Vladimir Vorbiov, Boris Zbarsky, and their assistants were selected to embalm the great leader. Lenin had been dead for two months before they were able to begin working in a laboratory housed inside Lenin's mausoleum in Red Square. Despite constant refrigeration and tentative preservation attempts, the body had deteriorated--"the left hand was turning a greenish-grey colour; the ears had crumpled up completely." Vorbiov developed a successful solution of glycerin, alcohol, water, potassium acetate, and quinine chloride, which restored the body to a lifelike appearance and is still used for preventive maintenance today.

Boris's son Ilya Zbarsky recounts this strange history and his family's experiences in Lenin's Embalmers. Technical details regarding the embalming process are interspersed amongst stories about Lenin, moving the body during World War II, and even traveling abroad to embalm other Communist heads of state. Zbarsky also reveals the political infighting that dogged the scientists, and how, even in the shadow of Lenin's mausoleum, it was impossible to hide from Stalin's purges. Finally, Zbarsky brings the book to its ironic conclusion: when their funding was cut by 80 percent, the mausoleum's scientists began embalming the former Soviet Union's nouveaux riches to support Lenin's upkeep. Full of interesting detail--and remarkable photos--Lenin's Embalmers makes for an engaging read. --Sunny Delaney --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Mention of Lenin and corpses might indicate intrigue and topics of dark fascination. However, this vanilla account of Soviet life doesn't quite plumb the depths. Zbarsky was a member of the nomenklatura, and his privilege stemmed from a job in the world's most famous mausoleum. It was the author's father, Boris Zbarsky, who was in charge of the mausoleum; Ilya had a supporting role as a chemist, ensuring that Lenin did not spoil. While Zbarsky's account might resemble that of any Moscow pensioner, his employment did offer ringside seats for the Stalinist show trials in the 1930s. Although he skims over what could have been interesting personal detail (a competitive relationship between the young scientist and his playboy careerist father; the antipathy between the young man and his stepmother), Zbarsky shines when it comes to corpse preservation: he recounts the evacuation of Lenin's body to Siberia during WWII and includes a chapter focusing on the process used to preserve the leader of the World Proletariat. Zbarsky's personal relationship with the corpse ended in the 1950s, when he was dismissed from his post. The institute responsible for Lenin's upkeep later embalmed the leaders of several other Socialist countries (including Klement Gottwald, head of the Czech Communist Party, and Ho Chi Minh), and today the mausoleum laboratory provides mortuary services to all paying customers, including the Russian mafia. Offering little new information on the mysteries behind Lenin's tomb, the book will prove most interesting to those curious about Communist worship of their leaders' remains.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A strange mix of politics and embalming... March 28 2003
Format:Paperback
Written by the son of one of Lenin's main embalmer's, this short book follows his family's personal history against the backdrop of Soviet politics. The book is at its most effective in relating the Zbarsky's personal history in the face of Stalinism. Behind all of this is the story of Lenin's corpse. Indeed, the author's father was head of the labratory maintaining Lenin. A fair bit of technical detail is given about the preservation and tomb.
This is a very personal memior. The author had a poisoned relationship with his father, and the book is laced with this acid. Good or Bad, Zbarsky blames his father for misdirecting his studies and his career. In between this, the history of political distortion of science during the 1930's from a personal point of view is fascinating and chilling. The book also tells the story of how his father rose to a privileged position in Soviet society, and some of the double think involved in this. The Zbarsky's thought they were untouchable, having survived the purges of the 1930's only to fall foul of Stalin just before his death. Evidently, with some irony Stalin's death probably saved the father, who was in the gulag by then.
The book concludes with some history of other embalming done by the lab, first for political reasons and then for financial reason after the collapse of the Sovient Union.
In some ways, I thought the poisoned relationship between father and son detracted from the history involved. Perhaps it was deserved, but at some point it color's the author's perspective on other events. Having said that, this book is a strange but interesting story of life in Soviet Russia.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An odd, but interesting, book March 20 2001
Format:Hardcover
I had never heard about this book until I saw it sitting on a shelf at a small bookstore. The title intrigued me, so I purchased it. While a lot of the work, at least initially, discusses the embalming of Lenin's corpse, there was a considerable amount of material about life during the purges of Stalin. The author was a witness to many events, albeit from a priviledged position in the Soviet hierarchy, and his recounting of the "show trials" and the terror of the "knock in the middle of the night" is revealed explicitly. There is also some recounting of other Communist leaders being embalmed by Russian experts, the section concerning the work on Ho Chi Minh during the height of the American bombing of North Vietnam being particularly interesting. Read this book to learn many different and interesting things about life under Stalin, and also the early days of the USSR.
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4.0 out of 5 stars If you want something really different Aug. 6 2000
Format:Hardcover
I have read so many books about the Former Soviet Union, that I would probably not realize I had read some of them, until I had read into the books for some length. This book by Ilya Zbarsky "Lenin's Embalmers" is not one you will forget.
The book is not ghoulish nor is it sensational; it is an incredible story about an exceptional event and profession. The book is primarily about the initial embalming, and the decades of maintenance upon Lenin's corpse that have followed. The book is made much more interesting, as the Author meshes the story of Lenin's remains with Soviet History as he and his Family experienced it. The Author also includes the History of the tomb itself, from the earliest designs, through the modifications it has gone through over the years. Architectural drawings as well as construction photographs are included.
The book maintains that all of Lenin was initially preserved, and contrary to persistent rumors, that the entire body has remained intact. Whether or not the book is convincing on these points, I leave to other readers. This really is a great offbeat read. It also is a serious explanation of the History, not a tabloid distortion.
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Format:Paperback
When you buy a book entitled "Lenin's Embalmers" you might expect a work on the scientific process of embalming and maintenance of the body of the Soviet leader Lenin. However to be more precise, the book is really a biography/autobiography of Ilya Zbarsky and his father. The book shines when it does focus on the politics and science of modern embalming in the Soviet Union as well as the current business of preserving members of the current Russian crime gangs.
However the rest of the book should not be overlooked. Here is a facinating insight of what it was to be an intellectual under the Lenin/Stalin regimes during the first half of the 20th century. This is truly an extraordinary story of someone who has had a front row seat to one of history's most brutal regimes and the (eerie) hero worship that regime spawned.
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