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Yurchak: Lenin's Body as Soviet Embodiment

April 27, 2011

The preserved body of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin embodies the doubling of Lenin’s figure: the banished Lenin and the canonized leader, according to Alexei Yurchak, associate professor of anthropology at the University of California in Berkeley.

The body, which has attracted millions of viewers over the years, is on display in a large tomb located on the Red Square in Moscow. Recent debates on whether the body should be buried have given rise to discourse on the meaning of the body’s preservation. Indeed, in a recent talk at the Watson Institute, Yurchak argued that the public display of Lenin’s body serves much more than propaganda purposes.

The only body parts visible to the public are Lenin’s head and hands. The associated “relevant understandings of authenticity and political rhetoric” pertain to this visible Lenin; the body that is not seen is associated instead with “endless elaborate procedures designed with [an entirely] different scientific and political rhetoric,” Yurchak said. Lenin’s body “was located outside of the sovereign polity – and from that external position [it] granted [that] polity legitimacy,” he said.

Generations of scientists have tirelessly worked on those parts of the body that always remained invisible to the public, Yurchak said. The laboratory charged with maintenance of the body, known as the Lenin Lab, is in fact an affiliate of the All-Russia Research Institute for Medicinal and Aromatic Plants. The lab has “developed a number of techniques for examining, tracing, and improving the body,” Yurchak said – but for a purpose larger than simply maintaining a memorable image of a past leader for public display.

A number of widely used modern medical techniques find their origins in the Lenin Lab, according to Yurchak. These include the “three-drop” test – a noninvasive method for measuring cholesterol that can be found in American pharmacies – and the instruments used in preparing isolated kidneys for transplantation. “The first set of instruments for that [procedure] were designed in Lenin’s Lab… and are still used today,” Yurchak said.

“[Lenin’s] body is not static, but dynamic, [undergoing] constant experimentation and re-embalming,” Yurchak said. Due to the ratio of matter that has been replaced in the body, “it cannot decompose on its own,” Yurchak said. Burying the body would mean “halting a process that… would not stop without externally imposed violent interruption,” he said.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, founder of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), died on January 21, 1924, after a prolonged illness. “The decision to preserve his body was not planned beforehand,” Yurchak said. An autopsy and temporary embalming, part of a common procedure in preparation for a pre-funeral display, were performed. Lenin’s body was placed in a temporary wooden mausoleum in the Red Square, to remain there before moving to a larger, permanent tomb.

In the years preceding his death, Lenin was subjected to increasing degrees of forced isolation, both in public and private spheres, by the Politburo. Sent to the village of Gorki just outside Moscow in the fall of 1921 to improve his health, Lenin was prohibited from discussing political matters with Party members, friends, and family alike. Public knowledge of the leader’s illness was “controlled [by the] Politburo… limited and selective,” Yurchak said.

During Lenin’s isolation, the Politburo “engaged in constructing a canonized figure” of the leader, Yurchak said. “Every scrap of paper bearing the inscription or mark of Lenin” was sent to the Lenin Institute in Moscow, as part of the production of the Leninist cult. The term “Leninism” was introduced in public circulation, “against [Lenin’s] protestation,” Yurchak said. The leader’s words in his later life and information on his wellbeing were actively banished from that canonized image. “The actual living Lenin was prohibited from publically changing his previous political positions,” Yurchak said.

This simultaneous banishment and canonization of Lenin’s figure, continuing throughout Soviet history, gave rise to the discourse of Leninism: “the enunciated unquestionable foundational truth of the Soviet project,” Yurchak said. The origins of this truth lay in an “abstract location that was external and prior to Soviet history,” and served as the basis on which any political entity could be legitimized or delegitimized.

Today, the Lenin Lab continues its experiments. Only five or six scientists at a time work on the original body; the team’s main task is not to maintain the body’s original biological substances, but the authenticity of its anatomical image, according to Yurchak.  “Authenticity [here is] understood in terms of the original form, shape, feel, flexibility, look, color, and weight of the body,” Yurchak said. To that end, the substances within the body are continuously changed and replaced with both organic and inorganic substances, in keeping with developments in the biomedical field. The lab’s specific processes are “treated as a top secret of the state,” Yurchak said.

The talk was cosponsored by the Watson Institute, the Department of History, the Slavic Studies Department, and the Mellon Workshop on Postsocialist Eurasia.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Anna Andreeva ’12