For most people, seeing a dead body is a bit weird. I mean, my little brother is a doctor, for example, so I can imagine for him and his colleagues its something you might get used too.
But for people like me – lilly livered arts faculty history graduates – its a pretty grim experience to see any body.
So imagine my reaction to seeing a body which is not only dead, but which has been dead since 1924. A body which has been preserved since then using a range of weird and wonderful pickling techniques. And a body which isn’t just any body, but which is the body of one of history’s most important figures: Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov. Probably better known to you as Lenin.
Lenin’s mausoleum is found in Red Square, next to the Kremlin. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and on weekends, people are permitted entry to see the body lying quietly on display.
Debate rages on about whether or not this is the right way for Lenin to be remembered. Some say he should be buried in St Petersburg, apparently according to his own final wishes.
But alas he remains lying ‘in state’.
…So, what can I say? I saw the body of one of the giants of 20th century political history, and indeed of the history of mankind. That sort of does something to you. I’ve got to admit to having been really rather blown away by the whole thing. I couldn’t figure out straight away what I thought of it all. I had to let it turn over in my head a little.
For example. Afterwards our guide asked me ‘So, did you like it?’ Obviously ‘Like’ isn’t the right word. Who else comes out of seeing a dead body and goes ‘That was so much fun! I loved it!’
Rather, I was really quite profoundly moved by the whole thing. I did get a sense that I’d got very bloody close to actually touching history itself. I’m not sure precisely how much of what remains is Lenin. His corpse appears like a wax work, a strange rubbery figure that has kept its likeness quite disturbingly well. Its sort of like Cliff Richard – when he looks just like he did decades ago, you sort of know something a bit less than natural is going on, and it becomes hard to believe. I do realise I’ve just compared Cliff Richard to Lenin.
But the dead body and its physical state aside: I saw the remains, the actual physical remains of Lenin. The man who essentially founded Russian communism. The man who’s legacy was subverted and distorted by Stalin. The man who remains revered across Russia. And that was really quite something.
On the one hand, I do think its done respectfully. There is no charge to get in to see Lenin’s body. They’re not cashing in on it, when they could easily make an absolute mint out of the whole thing. The powers that be do genuinely deserve applause for that. It’s free to get in, and fair play to them. The mausoleum is cool, quiet, respectful. They don’t allow cameras. The tomb is watched over by military guards. So, yes. It is done respectfully.
But on the other hand, how far can you go with publicly showing off a dead body and still be respectful? There are graves of famous people all over the world. Surely burial would be a better way of honouring Lenin’s life than leaving his dead body open for all to see? Surely leaving his body as it is risks turning him into another tourist attraction? I don’t know. Honestly, I can’t make my mind up.
One thing did strike me. Ten minutes after seeing the dead body of Lenin, one of the founders of communism as we understand it, you’re back at the gates of the Kremlin seeing people dressed up as Spongebob SquarePants, surrounded by KFC, McDonalds and Starbucks.
Take that whichever way you want.