Better Dead Than Red


In 1934 a Soviet biochemist named Boris Zbarsky offered a job to his son Ilya. Ilya would have preferred to pursue a laboratory career in chemistry, but he had been told by the academic authorities that research was no longer “useful to the socialist economy.” Reluctantly, he joined his father at work and spent the next 18 years in the service of the corpse of Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet state.

Among the rewards bestowed upon the Zbarskys for their work were a gray Pobeda automobile, a large apartment near the Kremlin, and a seven-room dacha. Joseph Stalin kept close watch on the embalmers. “We were not allowed to examine the corpse alone; at least two of us had to be present. . . . We knew that every remark, our every gesture, was being carefully noted and reported to the NKVD.” As Stalin’s purges of the Communist hierarchy emptied the flats of his neighbors, Ilya realized that his well-being depended on the physical condition of a dead man.

The story of how and why Lenin’s body was embalmed is told for the first time in this deft memoir. Having survived the great patriotic war, and the collapse and repudiation of Leninism, the corpse functions today as one of Moscow’s chief tourist attractions and a vigorous source of political strife. Zbarsky lived in mortal fear of the regime on which his labors bestowed a mystical legitimacy; nevertheless, he can’t suppress a scientist’s pride in the animate glow still emanating from a man now dead 75 years. In these personal contradictions lies the drama of a life passed in the mysterious, red-hot center of the Stalin era.

The Zbarskys served the regime until 1952, when Stalin became convinced that he was the target of a conspiracy on his life by an ever-widening circle of Jewish doctors. The Zbarskys, nonpracticing Jews, were both fired. Ilya Zbarsky has stayed in touch with his former colleagues, who have not only kept Lenin preserved, but also pickled Stalin after his death in 1953.

Today the embalmers have been incorporated into a private firm, Ritual Services, whose most lucrative work is to pretty up fallen gangsters for their funerals. Zbarsky shows us a photograph of one such thick-necked, short-haired, expensively attired worthy laid out in his casket. His expression conveys a beatific peacefulness, if not pretensions to Leninist intellect.