One of Moscow’s unforgettable highlights is a visit to the father of the Russian revolution: Vladmir Lenin. Adam Bennett depicts his encounter with the dogmatic politician who was embalmed and preserved over 80 years ago.
Staring into the bulletproof glass that separates me from the legendary Russian leader, I am surprised to see he’s still looking his best. Embalmed in 1924, just after his death at 53 years old, Lenin was displayed in Red Square where a staggering 750,000 citizens paid their respects over just 14 days. Nowadays, Lenin rests in his mausoleum with his Cyrillic name set atop the entrance, echoing a turbulent Soviet and Russian past.
The temperature is -15 and it's snowing as I join the queue for the mausoleum on a blisteringly cold January afternoon. Waiting in line to walk through airport-style metal detectors, get scanned with a handheld device and then patted down by armed guards, I learn from a disgruntled traveller that all mobile phones, cameras and bags must be turned into the Kutayfa tower cloak rooms, adjacent to the mausoleum. Once the checkpoint guards are satisfied I’m not dangerous, I join other visitors as we are ushered silently down three flights of stairs by more guards.
We reach a small dimly lit room, where the atmosphere intensifies; Lenin’s embalmed body rests in the centre. His head on a velvet pillow and retaining his trademark facial hair and 1920s suit, it is clear that – despite his sallow skin – Lenin is flawlessly taken care of and is treated to daily moisturizer and injected preservatives. He looks like a Madame Tussauds waxwork, and the lighting and temperature is carefully controlled to ensure that his body is preserved and will continue to be seen by people in the future.
Born Vladimir IIlich Ulvanov, he became known as Lenin whilst in exile in Siberia for his extremist political views. Establishing the Bolshevik movement, Lenin quickly rose to prominence during the early 20th century spreading political propaganda and liberating Russia from the socially destructive Tsars.
Climbing the stairs, back up into the cold Moscow air, the guards give us a few moments to gaze over the gravestones and busts dedicated to Russia’s most famous figures. Surprisingly, the Kremlin’s wall necropolis is by no means a grand area, even though Joseph Stalin, Felix Dzerzhinsky and Mikhail Kalinin are all buried here in a single line next to the wall – as was tradition under Lenin Bolshevik rule. There is also a plaque dedicated to Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.
After less than a minute we are swiftly moved on, around the perimeter of the mausoleum and allowed out through a gate into Red Square. The whole, rather bizarre experience lasted for a total of 20 minutes, which was perhaps long enough, in spite of the mind-numbing 4 hour queue.
Visiting the embalmed body of Russia’s most charismatic political leader is an experience (albeit brief) nobody could forget in a hurry. Every inch of Moscow’s infamous Red Square oozes with history as public executions, Soviet tank parades and, more recently, rock concerts from artists such as Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton, have all taken place there. Within 50 meters of Lenin’s mausoleum lie St Basils Cathedral and the Kremlin, both synonymous with Russian history. Paying respects to the Bolshevik father is only a small, but unforgettable, element of Moscow’s wonder.