YE OLDE CURIOSITY SHOPPELenin gradsLenin's Embalmers, by Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson, is the story of the eccentric crew who were handed the scientifically and politically volatile assignment of mummifying Lenin's body a task somewhere between deifying a pharaoh and preserving the bones of a saint. Naturally the book is illustrated with fascinating photos of characters living and dead.
Ilya Zbarsky, the son of one of Lenin's embalmers, tells the outrageous story of his father, the era, and the secret goings-on behind the mausoleum walls. Zbarsky's Kafkaesque portrait of the insanely secretive Soviet regime is both terrifying and bitterly amusing. It fortifies his account of the scientific challenge the embalmers faced, and of his father's and his own surprising survival through such a dangerous time. For all of his arcane expertise and high social position, however, Zbarsky's father was Jewish, and in time Stalin's fanatical anti-Semitism brought him down. Worth the price of admission here is the information about embalming and mummification, the methods invented by Zbarsky's father and his colleagues. As grisly as the tale of Tutankhamen, it is yet still timely. The methods used to preserve Lenin are now being exported to preserve leaders in places as far away as Vietnam. Back home in Russia the techniques are applied to the embalming of rich gangsters.
Surprisingly, Lenin's Embalmers is also a fascinating memoir of one man's relationship with an exploitative father. And there is a nice thread of celebrity literary gossip thrown in, too. The Zbarskys were friends with a young writer named Boris Pasternak. It seems that the talented Boris had an affair with the author's mother. In fiction they call that a subplot.