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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiography/history

Lenin's Embalmers

Ilya Zbarsky

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To purchase Lenin's Embalmers

Title: Lenin's Embalmers
Author: Ilya Zbarsky
Genre: Autobiography
Written: 1997
Length: 207 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Lenin's Embalmers - US
Lenin's Embalmers - UK
Lenin's Embalmers - Canada
Lenin's Embalmers - India
A l'ombre du mausolée - France
Lenin und andere Leichen - Deutschland
  • Translated by Barbara Bray
  • Written with Samuel Hutchinson, originally published in French as Á l'ombre du mausolée (In the Shadow of the Mausoleum, a considerably superior, or at least less misleading title).

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Our Assessment:

B- : a strange story, interestingly (if incompletely) told

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A 31/10/1998 Vitali Vitaliev
Literary Review B+ 12/1998 Anne Applebaum
London Rev. of Books . 18/3/1999 James Meek
New Statesman . 13/11/1998 Natasha Fairweather
The NY Rev. of Books . 1/11/2001 Martin Malia
The NY Times Book Rev. B 29/8/1999 Derek Bickerton
Salon . 2/7/1999 Jonathon Keats
The Sunday Telegraph . 27/9/1998 Marcus Warren
The Sunday Times B+ 1/11/1998 Peter Millar
Time Out A 17/11/1999 Omer Ali
The Times A 22/10/1998 Thomas Lynch
TLS . 25/12/1998 Owen Matthews
The Village Voice . 2/11/1999 Ken Kalfus
Die Zeit . 28/1/1999 Mark Benecke

  Review Consensus:

  Fascinating story, well (if dryly) related -- and, bizarrely, many of the reviews call for Lenin's body to finally be buried.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) small and elegant tale, the story of one of the many bizarre lives that were lived in the Soviet Union (.....) It has no pretensions to mega-history, does not attempt to prove a world-historical thesis or reinvent a genre. But its simplicity is curiously compelling, the ordinariness of the prose enhancing the weirdness of the story." - Anne Applebaum, Literary Review

  • "(A) light but sprightly read." - Derek Bickerton, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) great read in a small package, well crafted inside and out, made more compelling by the ongoing unravelling of the Soviet experiment." - Thomas Lynch, The Times

  • "No writer, from Bulgakov to Sologub, has authored a satire of the Soviet system as ridiculous or as sublime as the true story of the first dictator's corpse, and Ilya Zbarsky's memoir, Lenin's Embalmers, does it remarkable, often hysterical, justice. Dead people don't lie, and the truth they tell isn't always what their mourners would like to believe." - Jonathon Keats, Salon

  • "While the noxious fumes of the embalmers' art - and the precisely annotated, grisly state of their subjects - sets the background for this wide-ranging historical work, the real fascination comes in the peculiar vantage point afforded to its author on Soviet society. The combined result is absolutely captivating." - Omer Ali, Time Out

  • "Lenin's Embalmers is a bizarre and fascinating little chronicle of one of the oddest footnotes of Soviet history (.....) Lenin's Embalmers is an idiosyncratic book, rambling charmingly in parts, but always morbidly engaging. (...) If the book has a fault, it is its irritatingly frequent inaccuracies" - Owen Matthews, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       There are few corpses that attract as much interest as Lenin's. Admittedly, not many are on permanent display, keeping the corpse in the public eye, but Lenin's earthly remains have attracted more than their fair share of interest. Tilman Spengler's bizarre Lenin's Brain documents the even odder story of the one part of Lenin's anatomy that is not in the famous glass case (cut up, instead, into paper thin slices to determine the root of Lenin's genius), and Zbarsky's book is an interesting complement to that earlier work (though curiously mentioning the removed brain only once).
       Father Zbarsky (Boris) was one of Lenin's Embalmers, and Ilya joined the embalming team for a while too. The story told here is, however, a much broader one. It is essentially Ilya's autobiography. Because of circumstances it is also a jarring and revealing look at the Soviet Union and the shifting situation there.
       Born in 1913, Ilya grew straight into the newly founded Soviet state. His father had studied in Geneva. Returning to Russia Boris had been unable, as a Jew, to get an official university appointment in the Tsar's state. In one of the most unusual cases of how to fall into a perfect job he was hired in 1915 by a wealthy and capricious woman to run her country estate, which included two chemical factories.
       Ilya's mother was relatively bored on the rural estate and to keep her occupied an acquaintance was invited to live with the family -- Boris Pasternak, of all people. Apparently he was very good at keeping Mother Zbarsky entertained .....
       Zbarsky then relates the ups and downs caused by the Civil War and the turbulent years after, leading finally to Boris Zbarsky becoming one of the people entrusted with embalming Lenin.
       The story of how Lenin came to be embalmed -- with which the book actually opens -- is telling, with Stalin overriding the many opposed to the bizarre idea (as he was so often to do in so many other areas ...). The technical aspects, though relatively superficially discussed, are also fairly interesting: it is, apparently, not very easy to preserve a body, and the upkeep is a real bother.
       Once he is a student Ilya Zbarsky joins the embalming team, and he gets to accompany Lenin's corpse and take care of it when it is sent to Siberia to sit out the war. Stalin's last years then also see the fall from favour of the Zbarsky family. Father Boris is arrested, Ilya loses his jobs. The capricious and brutal nature of Stalin's rule leaves a mark on the family as well. Afterwards Ilya is no longer involved in taking care of the corpse, but he describes how the scientists there go into business, first for their communist buddies, preserving what seems to be every other deceased Eastern European head of state, as well as Ho Chi Minh. Jumping ahead to the present time, the embalmers now find they have to go into private business and make most of their money by embalming Russian mafiosi. A sad and sorry end to the unusual tale.
       There are numerous fascinating photographs in this attractive little volume -- haunting ones of Lenin and just plain worrisome ones of the mafiosi and their tombs (life size pictures of the deceased, wearing Hawaii shirts, etched onto the tombstones...).
       The narrative is short and does not discuss matters in as great a depth as one might like, but it is very revealing, painting a simple, broad picture of the Soviet Union, from just before the Revolution to the present. The writing is simple, but generally effective. We would have liked more detail about many of the occurrences, but still found the report of value. Recommended to anyone with an interest in modern Russian history.

       All the critics -- and Zbarsky too -- said that it is high time to bury Lenin. Symbolic burying of the past ? We think that is too simple. Our idea: keep the corpse on display, but stop fixing it up. No more annual chemical baths, no more make up. Let him decay gracefully (or ungracefully) in the public eye -- that seems to us the only effective way of dealing with this historical oddity.

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Reviews: Lenin's Mausoleum (the actual place, not the book): Other books that might be of interest:
  • Midas Dekker explores The Way of all Flesh, presenting the details of decay, ruin, and vain attempts at stopping time.
  • Michael Paterniti's adventures with Albert Einstein's brain, Driving Mr. Albert

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About the Author:

       Professor Ilya Zbarsky (born 1913) worked as a biochemist -- and as one of Lenin's embalmers -- in the former Soviet Union.

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