Lenin and Stalin


Even today, photographers who attempt to take pictures inside the mausoleum on the Red Square where Vladimir Lenin lay in repose are stopped by the sentries. In 1955, that didn’t deter British tourist Christopher Scott, who had bought his first camera only fourteen days earlier.

Entering the tomb with his camera conspicuously hanging from his neck, Scott kept close to the person in front of him in the line, hoping to hide his camera from the guards. Reaching the bodies, he focused and took a single photo and walked out. Not only until three weeks later, when he returned from his holidays, did he discover the perfectly framed photo he took of the biers above.

All the more remarkable was that Scott captured a rare historical moment: For seven years, until his body was taken out and buried by the Kremlin Wall, Joseph Stalin’s embalmed body shared a spot next to Lenin’s. Although the photo above didn’t show it clearly, Stalin’s body was dressed in his uniform as the Marshal of the Soviet Union, decorated with golden buttons and epaulets and state orders, while Lenin was in a simple black suit, devoid of any awards. “Bathed by spotlights set in the ceiling, preserved by paints, cosmetics and all the arts of embalming science, their faces bear none of the marks of the bitter, turbulent years in which, by conspiracy, revolution and brutal dictatorship, they made modern Russia,” Life magazine wrote of their bodies.

At his death, Stalin had been the paramount leader of the Soviet Union for twenty-nine years – after years of unleashing his ire onto the peoples of Eastern Europe, he too succumbed to his own fickle terror. Having purged doctors of Jewish ancestry by accusing them of conspiring to assassinate Soviet leaders and having cowed his staff with orders not to disturb him during sleep under any circumstances (disobedience punishable by death), there was no one to revive him when he didn’t wake up at his usual time. Roy Medvedev, author of the dissident history of Stalinism, Let History Judge, placed the number of victims killed by Stalin’s regime at forty million people.

De-Stalinization began in 1956, with gradual removal of his decrees, photos, and statues all over the USSR. His embalmed body however remained in the Mausoleum stubbornly until 1961, when Dora Lazurkina, an arch-Bolshevik who had been an apartment mate of Lenin once and was exiled by Stalin, denounced its presence. Proving that ironically in a godless Soviet Union, such views still prevailed, Lazurkina couched her words in metaphysical terms: “I consulted with Ilyich, as if he stood before me as if alive and said: it is unpleasant for me to be next to Stalin, who brought so much trouble to the party”.

The very next day, the body moved out of the mausoleum and was reburied.


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The View From Lenin’s Tomb


As I mentioned before somewhere, Lenin didn’t wish to have a mausoleum to him, but Stalin ordered it be done. A design competition was held after it became clear that the attempts to preserve Lenin’s body were successful. Some alleged in 1920s, and 1930s that the body on display in the tomb was a wax dummy and that the embalmers had actually failed in their task, but I would say the process was thought to be successful, just because before Stalin died, he asked his body to be preserved and placed in the crypt alongside Lenin.

Above was a rare picture of the Mausoleum with the Cyrillic lettering denoting ‘Lenin’ and ‘Stalin’. When Stalin died in 1953, his body was placed on temporary display in the Hall of Columns, and thousands of people lined up in the snow to see it. The crowds were so dense and chaotic  that some people were trampled underfoot, others rammed against traffic lights, and some others choked to death. Some 500 people lost their lives while trying to get a glimpse of Stalin’s corpse.

On March 9, nine pallbearers carried the coffin from the Hall of Columns onto a gun carriage. The body was then ceremoniously taken to Lenin’s tomb on the Red Square in Moscow. In November 1953, seven months after Stalin’s death, the tomb was reopened. Eight years later, during a period of de-Stalinization undertaken by Krushchev, Stalin’s body was removed under cover of night and buried in a modest tomb alongside the Kremlin wall. Krushchev ordered thick layers of concrete to be placed over the tomb so that Stalin could never rise again. A few weeks later, a simple dark granite stone marked the grave with the very simple, “J. V. STALIN 1879-1953.” In 1970, a small bust was added to the grave.

From the ’50s through the ’80s, the American study of Soviet politics was dominated by the school of Kremlinology.  The pictures like the one above were intensely studied by the kremlinologists, for the packing order of the Communist Party and its ruling politburo. They examined the relative position of the Soviet leadership (all waxen, dour-faced apparatchiks) as they stood on Lenin’s tomb during major ceremonies, like May Day and the anniversary of the Great October Revolution.