Today I saw the body of Vladimir Lenin, weirdly preserved in reddish half-light many meters under Red Square. He’s bald, as you probably knew, and smaller than I expected, with skinny little embalmed fingers (hands laid one delicately above the other, left over right) that I think I’d snap if I shook them. His face is difficult to see — his body is recessed in its red velvet cushion, and tipped slightly backward, leaving his feet a little higher than his head. I’m not sure if the light itself is red or if it’s distorted by that dramatic Soviet backdrop. But, his nose is pointed, his eyes closed; he could easily be napping and, if the mausoleum’s silence is any indicator, he’s easily roused.
Disclaimer: I’m realizing this post is not going to inform you.
I write in present tense because I am — he’s a stunning man in every respect, and eight decades after his death, remains so. I can’t get his head out of my head. I know a few of his words in translation, and I’ve been tossing them around tonight, mostly “any cook should be able to run the country.” Really? I have an awfully hard time believing that, unable to move my eyes from this wild, captivating body. Outside his mausoleum are graves, a long line of them, holding his comrades: Zhdonov, Dzerzhinsky, Kalinin, Brezhnev, Stalin. Stalin, there, in bones and dust, six feet beneath my feet. Stalin, a bouquet of roses drying on the stone below his bust. Stalin, who killed more people than Adolf Hitler. His were the last eyes I saw before Lenin’s. Even carved in stone, his are the heavy-lidded eyes I’m still seeing.
His eyes followed me around the corner into the mausoleum, where a guard eyed me subtly, thoroughly, ravenous for a mistake, I imagined — a stray hand in my pocket or a missed stair as I descended. My eyes never adjusted to the light as I rounded the corner and descended a staircase twice as long as the first, a single guard waiting for me at its foot. He did not gesture me onward; I merely turned right. His eyes did not follow. Stalin’s, though.
Then I entered the tomb, utterly isolated from the bustle of Red Square above, which will host a parade on November 7 commemorating not the Great October Revolution but the defense of Moscow against Hitler in 1941. Darker and entirely silent. The walls, black marble with a red stripe, barely visible in the half-light, which was far redder. Stalin used to lie here, beside Lenin. My steps slowed even more. Before I rounded the first corner of the three-sided path, I halted. I looked. He might wake up. He might remind me, lisping and using an alphabet that had three more letters than the one I use, that I should be able to run his country.
I have to wonder, of course, whether he believed that. Maybe, sure, in the first months of revolution. Maybe even at his death. But I can’t imagine he would if he found himself preserved so entirely unnaturally in a black marble crypt, on that red velvet that looks more like an altar cloth than a burial shroud.
If he woke up. When he wakes up.