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Lenin's Embalmers [Hardcover]

I.B. Zbarskii , Samuel Hutchinson , Ilya Zbarsky , Barbara Bray
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

15 Oct 1998
Professor Ilya Zbarski mummified Lenin two months after his death to maintain the Soviet founder's body in perpetuity. Between 1924 and the fall of communism in 1991, hundreds of millions of visitors paid their respects to the embalmed bodies of Lenin and later, Stalin. This text reveals the story of Zbarski, his family and of those who worked in the mausoleum laboratory. Lenin's body was plunged into a secret solution based on glycerine and potassium acetate. This story, unthinkable except in a totalitarian regime, is also that of the burgeoning Soviet Union and those who, disregarding Stalin and his growing antisemitic paranoia, believed that working in the shadows of the mausoleum would protect them forever. Abandoned by the State since 1991, the laboratory can only survive through the patronage of the "nouveaux riches" and the Russian mafia dynasties. The text includes both archival and contemporary photographs.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: The Harvill Press; 1st Edition edition (15 Oct 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1860465153
  • ISBN-13: 978-1860465154
  • Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 13.5 x 2.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,006,604 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

When Lenin died in January 1924, two races were set in motion. The first, to find a successor, was by far the most straightforward. For the six months prior to his death, Stalin had prevented Lenin from making any public appearances and had ensured that his misgivings about Stalin never became public knowledge. Come the funeral, the right wing of the Party, led by Stalin, was so firmly in the ascendant that Trotsky, the other leading contender for party leadership, took no part in the proceedings whatsoever. The race to preserve Lenin's body was a much closer-run affair. The Politburo had decided that the Soviet Union needed Lenin's body to be permanently on show as a symbolic focal point for the state; the only trouble was that scientists had no idea how to maintain a body for any length of time without it decomposing.

Various teams were delegated to come up with a solution. It was eventually provided by two scientists, Professor Vorobiov and Boris Zbarsky, who were then delegated the task of maintaining the body in the mausoleum in perpetuam. Ilya Zbarsky, Boris's son, was seconded in 1934, and continued to work there until 1952.

Lenin's Embalmers provides a fascinating insight into the procedures and technicalities of preservation, but its real merit lies in the unusual glimpse of life among the Soviet élite. The embalmers were considered a national asset and led a privileged, comfortable existence. Zbarsky brilliantly captures this world where nothing could be questioned too deeply, where you took the good things on offer and kept quiet about the blatant injustices for fear of what may happen if you didn't. The only measure of success was survival, and even for the élite it took a curious mixture of hard-nosed political savvy and almost mindless naivety to avoid the almost constant threat of the firing squad. Zbarsky's pages are littered with those who failed to find the right combination.

The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union makes the book even more poignant. These days the embalmers earn their living from the Mafia, by preserving the steady supply of corpses of gangsters who are gunned down in the battle to control the Russian economy. You may end up concluding that nothing much has changed; in which case you will find Lenin's Embalmers a compelling parable for the 20th century. --John Crace


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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rambling, but a weird gem ... 15 Aug 2001
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
This book is hard to classify - what it reminded me of most is the rambling monologue of an older person captured on tape.
The person in question being Ilya Zbarsky, a Russian scientist who for some time assisted in the "eternisation" of Lenin's body. His story is part autobiography, part biography of his father, part historical treatise, part criticism of Stalin and the Soviet system. And it is rambling, not strictly following chronology and sometimes presenting information that cannot be verified as fact.
What I enjoyed most about the book was the insight into the workings of the Soviet state, the paranoia, the submission of science to politics and the weird, macabre outcome of this. In this respect it is a gem.
In other respects it is too personal to be objective (which may or may not have been the author's intention). Zbarsky's attitudes towards his father (a love-hate relationship, yet he only managed to make a living through his father's position as Lenin's embalmer), his time with the Soviet army in Berlin (... showing him in a positive light, but slagging other Russians off), all are reflecting a personal attitude towards history and facts that should be taken with a pinch of salt. It also nearly always shows him as a critic of the regime, yet he seems to have suffered no special hardships for this (he blames his one major personal downfall on anti-semitism, not on politics).
Interesting, sometimes funny and certainly weird - read it as light entertainment (though some parts are too technical for this) or as a subjective and not totally reliable account of life within the USSR under Stalin. By all means, read it. Enjoy it.
Then why not 5 stars?
Just because some parts are annoying in their "me good, others bad" attitude (Zbarsky's love affair in Berlin for instance) and because sometimes the style gets too "realistic" - meaning that for clarity it should have been edited.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Most Unusual Book 1 Nov 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
You've probably never thought to wonder how Lenin's body managed to look so good for more than half a century, but if you're interested, this book provides both the technical details and a stark view of life in Stalinist Russia, where anyone could find his or her life destroyed overnight on a whim, as the result of a mistake, or because of their religious background. Prof. Zbarsky and his father, both Jewish, were treated well only until their unusual skills (embalming bodies) could be replaced.
Despite that fact, Prof. Zbarsky's description of life in Soviet Russia is remarkably objective. The extensive passages relating to the embalming, first of heads of state and more recently Russian mafia thugs, are frosting on the cake.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars If you want something really different 7 Aug 2000
By taking a rest - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I have read so many books about the Former Soviet Union, that I would probably not realize I had read some of them, until I had read into the books for some length. This book by Ilya Zbarsky "Lenin's Embalmers" is not one you will forget.
The book is not ghoulish nor is it sensational; it is an incredible story about an exceptional event and profession. The book is primarily about the initial embalming, and the decades of maintenance upon Lenin's corpse that have followed. The book is made much more interesting, as the Author meshes the story of Lenin's remains with Soviet History as he and his Family experienced it. The Author also includes the History of the tomb itself, from the earliest designs, through the modifications it has gone through over the years. Architectural drawings as well as construction photographs are included.
The book maintains that all of Lenin was initially preserved, and contrary to persistent rumors, that the entire body has remained intact. Whether or not the book is convincing on these points, I leave to other readers. This really is a great offbeat read. It also is a serious explanation of the History, not a tabloid distortion.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mostly fascinating 12 Jun 2000
By Robert J Dively - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A sort of autobiography written by the son of one of Lenin's embalmers who himself became employed as one. Overall, it's very interesting and full of fascinating little anecdotes about the USSR in the 20s and 30s, although I thought that the narration wandered pretty aimlessly after Zbarsky was more or less removed from his position and therefore from the stream of events. He finishes off the last couple of chapters with some stories related to him by his successors. The story about the Russians running around in the jungles of Vietnam hiding the corpse of Ho Chih Minh from the Americans is worth the price of admission alone.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A strange mix of politics and embalming... 29 Mar 2003
By Andrew Mendelssohn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Written by the son of one of Lenin's main embalmer's, this short book follows his family's personal history against the backdrop of Soviet politics. The book is at its most effective in relating the Zbarsky's personal history in the face of Stalinism. Behind all of this is the story of Lenin's corpse. Indeed, the author's father was head of the labratory maintaining Lenin. A fair bit of technical detail is given about the preservation and tomb.
This is a very personal memior. The author had a poisoned relationship with his father, and the book is laced with this acid. Good or Bad, Zbarsky blames his father for misdirecting his studies and his career. In between this, the history of political distortion of science during the 1930's from a personal point of view is fascinating and chilling. The book also tells the story of how his father rose to a privileged position in Soviet society, and some of the double think involved in this. The Zbarsky's thought they were untouchable, having survived the purges of the 1930's only to fall foul of Stalin just before his death. Evidently, with some irony Stalin's death probably saved the father, who was in the gulag by then.
The book concludes with some history of other embalming done by the lab, first for political reasons and then for financial reason after the collapse of the Sovient Union.
In some ways, I thought the poisoned relationship between father and son detracted from the history involved. Perhaps it was deserved, but at some point it color's the author's perspective on other events. Having said that, this book is a strange but interesting story of life in Soviet Russia.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not what you might expect, but a little gem nonetheless 24 May 2000
By Chris Lanham - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
When you buy a book entitled "Lenin's Embalmers" you might expect a work on the scientific process of embalming and maintenance of the body of the Soviet leader Lenin. However to be more precise, the book is really a biography/autobiography of Ilya Zbarsky and his father. The book shines when it does focus on the politics and science of modern embalming in the Soviet Union as well as the current business of preserving members of the current Russian crime gangs.
However the rest of the book should not be overlooked. Here is a facinating insight of what it was to be an intellectual under the Lenin/Stalin regimes during the first half of the 20th century. This is truly an extraordinary story of someone who has had a front row seat to one of history's most brutal regimes and the (eerie) hero worship that regime spawned.
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