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 inperpetuam. 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 elite. 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 elite it took a curious mixture of hard-nosed political savvy and almost mindless naiveté 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'sEmbalmers a compelling parable for the 20 th. century. --John Crace