I heard some terrible news over the weekend: The man in charge of the Kremlin’s property-management department believes the time has come to remove Vladimir Lenin’s body from public display. Vladimir Kozhingone advocates giving the former Soviet leader a proper burial and demolishing the mausoleum that’s been his home in Red Square for the past 88 years.
What’s the rush? As Globe and Mail writer Mark MacKinnon writes, “Lenin’s body could be maintained for another 100 years using current methods, which include a restorative glycerol and potassium acetate bath once every 18 months, and touch-ups with a mild bleach in the interim.”
I know that 67% of Russians want it to happen. Lenin himself wanted to be buried next to his mother in St. Petersburg. But I can’t help thinking it’s too soon. Why? Because I haven’t had a chance to see him yet, that’s why. When it comes to ogling the triumvirate of embalmed communist leaders, I’m only two for three. I kind of want to complete the set.
Don’t judge me, okay? I’m not a particularly morbid person, and I wouldn’t want you thinking that viewing the mortal remains of communist leaders has long been a cherished dream or anything like that. This whole thing started innocently enough, with my family and me standing in the middle of Tiananmen Square. How could we leave Beijing without a visit to the mausoleum of Mao Zedong?
Shaking off the kite sellers and tour guides, we joined the seemingly endless line to the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall and passed a kiosk that was doing a booming trade in flower rentals. We watched with interest as hordes of people came forward to buy wilted bouquets and lay them reverently on the cart in front of an imposing statue of the Chairman. When the cart was full, it was wheeled back to the kiosk and the flowers were resold — over and over, all day long. If that isn’t capitalism, I don’t know what is.
Aside from a sprinkling of Westerners, the visitors were overwhelmingly Chinese, and most appeared to be tourists from far-flung outposts of the Middle Kingdom. Although the mood was solemn, I got the impression that had more to do with the strong security presence than veneration for The Great Leader. Some pilgrims were quietly weeping, obviously overcome with emotion, but I’d say most were just out for a day of sightseeing.
The line moved with admirable speed. In no time at all we were briskly walking past Mao’s crystal coffin — and I do mean briskly, because heaven help you if you slowed down to get a better look. Opinion is divided as to whether or not that’s actually the Great Helmsman in there. You could certainly be forgiven for thinking you’d made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in Madame Tussaud’s by mistake. Mao’s skin can only be described as waxy, although from all accounts the lighting within the coffin has been painstakingly calibrated to make his skin tone look as natural as possible. His minders go to great lengths to ensure he stays fresh, apparently shutting him up in a freezer every night. Rumour has it his left ear fell off during the embalming process and had to be sewn back on.
Stepping out into the sunshine once again, I gave my head a shake to get the creepiness out. Then I asked Younger Daughter, “So what did you think about that?”
“Well,” she said thoughtfully, “I guess now I’ve seen a real live dead guy. Is it time for lunch yet?”
A year or so after our date with Mao, we experienced a déjà vu moment in front of remarkably similar building: the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a bleak-looking hunk of granite in Hanoi’s Ba Đình Square. I hear it’s closed for three months every year so Ho can travel to Moscow for maintenance, in the very same Moscow lab that regularly gives Lenin his chemical bath.
There were fairly strict rules about what you could and couldn’t do inside the mausoleum. I was holding Younger Daughter’s hand (she was six at the time) until a guard barked “one-by-one!” at us. Several prominent signs warned in no uncertain terms that putting hands in pockets was an ejectable offence, and that visitors would be refused entry if they displayed signs of “unsocialness” or “oblivion.” No, I don’t know what that means, either.
Ho was very well-guarded. I was expecting the rifles, but the bayonets were a bit of a shock. Long story short: we glanced at him as we shuffled past. He looked more real than Mao; or at least, less like a refugee from a wax museum.
* * *
I once went on a ghost-themed walking tour of Edinburgh, purely as a lark, but the deeper we ventured into dark alleyways and stone chambers, the more uncomfortable I became. By the end of the tour, I was literally shaking with fear. And then the guide, who had been so concerned for our “safety” just a moment before, broke into a laugh and told us that nothing she’d said during the previous two hours was true. Even the eerie noises we’d heard inside one particularly atmospheric building were fake — not the agonized moans of a tortured spirit, but 21st century sound effects. Surprisingly, knowing it was a hoax barely diminished the entertainment value — true or not, that cheeky young guide had put on quite a show, and it remains the best £10 I’ve ever spent.
So even though I’m not buying into the cult of personality surrounding the great leaders — I don’t believe for a minute that either of those waxen effigies ever drew a breath on this earth — I’m still hugely entertained by the spectacle. And if it’s okay with you, I really would like to have just one glimpse of Mr. Lenin before he takes his final curtain call.