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If you want to assess the cultural capital of a corpse, look to the eagerness of the public to join it in the afterlife. Consider the Iranians extinguished in the melee of ritualized grieving accompanying the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini. Or the smitten youths from the U.S. to Japan who have linked their dooms to those of their favorite pop idols. Or their ’20s counterparts, Rudolph Valentino fans who couldn’t imagine life without the Sheik, though he’d never so much as uttered a word to them.

In 1953, a considerably more reluctant Ilya Zbarsky was nearly added to the list:

The day before Stalin’s funeral my wife and I went to Trubnaya Plochad, where a sea of people, their faces pale and their eyes filled with tears, was moving silently toward the House of Trade Unions where the corpse of the tyrant was lying in state, just as Lenin’s had in 1924. The crowd kept growing, and since the two hills on either side of the square acted as a bottleneck, the pressure became unbearable. The two of us found it very difficult to breathe, let alone to move, but finally we managed to elbow our way out of the mob. I found out later that hundreds of people had been asphyxiated, and some police horses trampled to death. And so, I thought, even after he’s dead Stalin goes on slaughtering the innocents.

The irony of Zbarsky’s crush story is that as part of the team of biochemists responsible for keeping the rosy flush in Lenin’s cheeks for 30 years, he was in no small way responsible for his comrades’ necrolatry. Not that he was an eager contributor to their fervor. Like many a member of the Soviet intelligentsia, he answered his calling foremost for survival reasons; only secondarily was it aligned with his passions and predilections. Zbarsky was the sort of person we might be tempted to call an opportunist—were not his alternatives starvation, imprisonment, and execution.

His autobiography, Lenin’s Embalmers, has little to do directly with the founder of the Soviet state. After all, Vladimir Ilich Lenin has only the look of life. Instead, the slender, generously illustrated book tells a bitter tale of life under Stalin and of a dead man’s ability to keep living ones alive. It’s a chronicle of frustration, as a man of science endeavors to outlast a “materialist” regime that regularly rejects the facts of material existence, even to the point of outlawing theories at odds with ideological whim.

In his patriarchal picture, Zbarsky is the son of three distant tyrants. His life is dedicated to the service of one dead dictator, one live one, and their go-between, Zbarsky’s real-life father. (The motherland isn’t present even as an abstraction.) The scenario would be Kafkaesque had not Ilya Zbarsky always known what his fathers expected of him: Boris Zbarsky required filial fealty to the pursuit of his own political and scientific reputation. Stalin required that a firm hold be maintained on the public imagination via the remains of his predecessor. And Lenin required regular baths in a “balsamic” dilution of potassium acetate, glycerin, and quinine chloride.

Ilya Zbarsky was born in 1913 to a mismatched couple who split up several years later. His mother, Faina Nikolaevna Zbarsky, perhaps hooked up with Boris Pasternak when the author lived with the couple; after the separation from her husband, she was reduced to working in a hospital lab and entertaining lovers in a communal apartment among her 22 snoopy neighbors. Boris Ilich Zbarsky dallied with starlets before marrying a woman who, in classic stepmom style, delighted in starving little Ilya and stealing his clothes. In 1924, Boris, then assistant director of the Institute of Biochemistry, teamed with Kharkov University anatomist Professor Vorobiov and made a successful pitch to preserve the corpse of the freshly deceased Lenin, which was to be displayed to the public in Red Square. Ten years later, the younger Zbarsky entered the employ of the mausoleum laboratory, where with the exception of the Stalinist purges, World War II, and some ill-advised experiments with mercury, everything went pretty smoothly until in 1952 state anti-Semitism caught up with the Zbarskys. Their specialized knowledge had been spread around to the point that Stalin no longer found them indispensable; Boris was imprisoned, while Ilya was merely fired. Father died in 1954, son eventually went on to a career in cell biology, and by the ’90s the mausoleum lab was vending its services to gangsters.

Throughout his account, Zbarsky leapfrogs from vulnerable revelation to stony silence. He lavishes the book’s most heartfelt passage on Helga, an 18-year-old Berlin girl the 32-year-old scientist bedded during a monthlong chemical plundering expedition in 1945, even quoting the song verses she wrote on the back of her photo and recounting how in 1973 he used his downtime from a biochemistry symposium to vainly search for her house. Zbarsky’s wife, Irina, meanwhile remains a virtual nonentity, even though, attracted to her “lively intelligence,” he married her in 1939 and she bore him two sons, whose lives likewise go unremarked.

The still center of the account is our stiff cover boy, a symbol so loaded and multivalent that his essence quietly seeps into every corner of the book. He’s the family protector and meal ticket, the national patriarch, the emblem of the stink of state that has animated narratives since the days of Sophocles. He does the Weekend at Bernie’s turn and plays the part of Hamlet’s father. He’s part Tutankhamen, part Madame Tussaud’s. Zbarsky fils is understandably defensive about him, insisting that at least until 1952 he was the genuine article and the science used to sustain him of the highest order. But Zbarsky, now himself near the end of his days, ultimately wishes to wash his hands of Lenin. A proponent of burial, he suggests that this grand metaphor be turned back into a thing.

Historical and anthropological thanatology has developed a significant literature over the past 30 years or so, but for a book that has a dead man as its centerpiece, Lenin’s Embalmers is rather unreflective. Zbarsky never lets you forget that he’s a physical scientist. Perhaps he views the concreteness of his field as a refuge from the official disinformation that clouded the waters of inquiry throughout much of his career, but he hesitates to interpret the cultural meaning of Lenin’s preservation.

When he does toward the end of his book venture a position, it’s a disappointingly ignorant, insensitive one. He runs down the list of heads of state preserved à la Lenin—”Georgi Dimitrov, leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party; Horloogiyn Choybalsan, the Stalinist dictator of Mongolia; Klement Gottwald, leader of the Czech CP; Ho Chi Minh, President of North Vietnam; Agostinho Neto, leader of the People’s Republic of Angola; Lindon Forbes Burnham, President of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana; and Kim Il Sung, the tyrant of North Korea.” He then notes the exception of Gottwald, whom the Czech CP had cremated three years later, at the time of the “post-Stalin ‘thaw,’” as well as the Czech party heads’ explanation: “Embalming is not part of our national tradition.” His conclusion? “While the preservation of Lenin’s corpse was a considerable scientific achievement, I cannot help believing that embalming is a barbaric and anachronistic practice, alien to the cultures of Western societies.” We can assume that by “embalming” Zbarsky means embalming for permanent display rather than for interment, but his statement chiefly serves to advance an old-school European’s contempt for Asiatics, Africans, and swarthy types. (Stalin’s Georgian ethnicity is brought sneeringly to the fore on more than one occasion.)

Stalin was indeed a monster, but he wasn’t a fool. He knew that once a populace has been addicted to the opiate of the masses, it always feels the craving. In 12-step parlance, recovery is never complete. Cultural memory as a palpable, enduring thing is vital to the survival of any body politic. Lenin’s corpse was a particularly calculated bit of tomb sculpture, designed to embody the perpetual glory of the state, and in this it owes much to centuries of Western tradition, particularly that of the representacion au vif, which Erwin Panofsky describes as “the image of the complete person…arrayed as befits his state and dignity and unaffected by decay.”

Photographs also show Lenin’s laying out to be consonant with 19th-century “beautiful death” iconography, whereby the deceased reposes in eternal slumber, a posture facilitated by modern embalming and makeup techniques. (Though commonly considered a Victorian practice, professional postmortem photography along these lines thrived in the U.S. well into the ’20s, with amateurs later taking up the slack.) The utility of this tradition to the Soviet state is clear. The message of the “sleeping” father figure was that the vigilance of his offspring secured him his rest. The fiction of sleep permitted Lenin to be as close to the faithful as a dead man can be. This emblem of national placidity was definitely a lie—and, given the very real history of Soviet barbarism, a cruel one. But to fail to comprehend the reasons for its efficacy isn’t to strike a blow against the evil empire; it’s to slight the millions of people who won’t live to see an end to the mundane absurdity that remains the Soviet legacy. Even chattels to tyranny want to be reassured that their lives haven’t been for naught. CP