Sep 14 2010

A Whole Lotta Lenin

After a seven-hour minibus ride back from Lake Baikal, we spent an afternoon wandering around Irkutsk before taking the train to Ulan Ude, a Siberian city best known for having the world’s largest Lenin head. I had read about this Lenin head before we arrived, how it was erected in 1970 and is thought by some to either a. be cross-eyed or b. perhaps in a snub to the party/tribute to the local population, have eyes that are vaguely Asian. (Fans of the statue claim that birds never poop on it, out of reverence for the deceased communist leader.)

I can’t speak for the birds, but I can tell you this: if Ulan Ude’s Lenin head is not the world’s largest, then lord help the place where that Lenin head is. Peter and I had arrived in Ulan Ude feeling a bit disoriented and were worried we might not be able to find our way to the statue. But we needn’t have feared – the statue, set in the town’s main plaza, is so big that I wouldn’t be surprised if its metal skull creates some sort of magnetic field. You wouldn’t know that the statue was a tribute to socialism, though – when we got there, kids were using the plaza to skateboard.

While definitely the most impressive, I should note that Ulan Ude’s statue head is far from the only Lenin head in the country — it is impossible to spend time in Russia without spending time with Vladimir Ilych.  We saw our first when our train from Helsinki arrived in the St. Petersburg station just in time for Lenin’s bust, prominently displayed at the end of the main hall, to be illuminated by a beam of sunshine – and our sightings haven’t stopped since. On our tours of the Moscow and St. Petersburg metro systems, we saw numerous Lenin heads scowling at the end of station platforms, plus freizes, carvings and mosaics of the great leader sprinkled liberally around station platforms (along with happy workers and pictures of Ukranians celebrating their inclusion in the USSR). There is Lenin giving a speech from atop a tank! There he is again with rejoicing proletariats!  Occasionally he is joined by Joseph Stalin, but for the most part it’s a one-man show.

Ulan Ude might have the largest, but the most impressive Lenin of them all has to be Lenin himself, who is on permanent display in a mausoleum on the side of Red Square. Having missed out on my chance to see the embalmed corpse of Chairman Mao (on the day I visited, he was having a “rest rest,” a guard explained) I was insistent on seeing Lenin, despite the long line and the fact that on the morning we set aside for the Kremlin, the air had once again filled with smoke from this summer’s fires. And so, as Peter set off in search of tickets to the Armory (he didn’t share my need to see a dead body that particular morning), I waited for my meeting with the Bolshevik leader.

A bit of background: Lenin died from a massive stroke in 1924. He actually requested that he be buried next to his mother in St. Petersburg, but Stalin, noticing the endless lines of mourners waiting to see the body, decided his predecessor might make a useful icon. So he had a tomb built in Red Square, and issued a political order to a Russian biochemist and anatomist, instrucing them to figure out a way to prevent the corpse from decomposing.

Whatever Stalin wanted, Stalin got – and so after several months of frantic research (plus some upgrades to the body itself, like bleaching dark spots, stitching its eyes and lips closed, and removing the brain so that it could be studied for secrets to his genius) they eventually came up with a secret method, which my Lonely Planet reveals as follows: “the body is wiped down every few days and then, every 18 months, thoroughly examined and submerged in a tub of chemicals, including paraffin wax” (apparently people can now pay $1 million to have this done to themselves). For a brief time after his own death, Stalin joined Lenin in the tomb (what’s creepier than one embalmed communist leader on display? Two of them!) but at the 22nd Party Congress in 1961, an old Bolshevik named Madame Spiridonova announced that Lenin had appeared to her in a dream saying that he didn’t like having Stalin as a roommate (let’s be honest, who would?). So he was relocated to a plot behind the tomb.

I had plenty of time to absorb this history, since the line for the tomb moved extremely slowly –every person had to go through a metal detector and, despite the fact that there were three of them in use, the guards were only letting one person through at a time. By the time I finally was let in, an hour had passed, the air had gotten smokier, and if I hadn’t been so focused on making it out in time for our timed entrance to the Armory, I might have noticed that the woman in front of me didn’t seem to be doing so well. Pudgy and short, she was walking slowly with a handkerchief pressed to her face, supported by a man on her side. As we entered the mauseoleum, she collapsed on the steps – perhaps from the smoke, perhaps because it was too dark to see the stairs. When she stood up, I noticed that her handerchief was soaked with blood.

But there was no time for medical emergencies – the line of people continued to process down the stairs, past more barely visible guards, and into the room where Lenin lay in a glass box, eerily illuminated by yellow light. The oddest thing about this – besides, of course, the fact that there was a corpse in a display case – was that none of the visitors paused. They just kept walking through the room and out the other side, as if somewhere in the process of waiting on line, they had forgotten what they had come to see.

Perhaps they were intimidated by the presence of the guards – I got the feeling that they didn’t like people to linger. But I still made a point of stopping. The verdict? For someone who’s been dead for 86 years, he looks fantastic. But I’m not sure if it’s really necessary to see the guy in person. It turns out that the giant head is quite accurate – and much less creepy.