A visit to Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square

Moscow held one more treat for me. Paula had very strategically and considerately pointed out that there was a last small window of opportunity in which to sprint over to Red Square to visit Lenin’s tomb in the first hour of opening, just before our bus was due to depart the hotel that day. I instantly assented, and took David the Younger and David the Elder on a brisk walk to the Mausoleum. We were there long before opening time and, curiously, there was not a single clear indication as to where to line up. We were however determined, and waited until, only a few minutes before the appointed hour, guards began hauling out metal fences to create an entry point.

I had expected vast crowds, but we were alone for some time, then only one small group came after us. It is a long walk along the elevated pavement flanking the Kremlin wall, and one then enters that vast, imposing mausoleum. Lenin has lain here since his death in January 1924, with the exception of protective removal during World War II. (His body was evacuated to Siberia in 1941, when it appeared that Nazi forces might capture Moscow). There has been talk of reburying Lenin where he wanted to be buried – near his mother – but President Boris Yeltsin failed to carry this plan through. The current president, Putin, is emphatic that Lenin must remain in Red Square.

Lenin died on 21 January, and architect Alexei Shchusev was ordered to design a first tomb made of wood; it was ready by 27 January, and Lenin’s body was placed in it. Over the next six weeks, 100,000 people filed past the body to pay their respects. Shchusev then proceeded to construct a more permanent tomb, completed by August 1924.

The wooden version of Lenin’s Mausoleum, March 1925 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-01169 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Lenin’s body had been immediately embalmed by Dr. Alexei Ivanovitch Abrikosov, but it was hoped that a superior construction might help preserve the body longer. By 1930, a more complex structure made of marble, granite and porphyry was completed. For some time, doing guard duty at the mausoleum was considered the highest military honour, known as Number One Sentry Duty. In 1997, this title was transferred to the guard of the nearby Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The costs of the monument were borne by the Soviet government until 1991, but after Glasnost government aid was discontinued, forcing the staff to seek private donations. In 2016, the government reversed this policy, and devoted some 13 million roubles to preserve the body.

Lenin’s Mausoleum today and the Kremlin wall on Red Square

It is indeed a powerful and moving experience to enter this space and to stand so close to the body of the leader. He is brilliantly illuminated, and seems to repose in peace. The reverence is palpable: no photography is allowed, no signs of disrespect such as talking, joking or putting hands in the pockets. Even though there was nobody else there, the guard tried to force me to leave after about two minutes, by aggressively clicking his fingers. I ignored him, and went to the end of the tomb to continue observing Lenin from a different angle. The guard clicked his fingers again. Once again, I calmly ignored him and walked to the further side of the glass case, and stood there taking a third view. Then I was clicked out. Still, I got six minutes rather than two…

Of course, in his presence, one recalls the events that befell Lenin. I am not sure that he deserves sympathy, but perhaps some degree of qualified admiration. After all, it was his decision to create a single-party state made up only of Bolsheviks, thus freezing out other socialists such as the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. Given that all of the revolutionary movement firmly expected a socialist coalition government, his decision is puzzling; his subsequent characterization of rival parties as ‘fake socialists’ and stooges of the bourgeoisie is as contemptible as it was inaccurate. It was this that led the Socialist Revolutionary Fanny Kaplan to walk up to Lenin as he left The Hammer and Sickle Arms factory in Moscow and to fire three bullets at him (30 August 1918). One simply went through his jacket, but  one went through his neck and another lodged in his shoulder. She never revealed her accomplices, and she was promptly executed a few days later (3 September 1918).

Vladimir Pchelin’s depiction of the assassination attempt

Her only statement to the Cheka secret police was clipped and precise: My name is Fanya Kaplan. Today I shot Lenin. I did it on my own. I will not say from whom I obtained my revolver. I will give no details. I had resolved to kill Lenin long ago. I consider him a traitor to the Revolution. I was exiled to Akatui for participating in an assassination attempt against a Tsarist official in Kiev. I spent 11 years at hard labour. After the Revolution, I was freed. I favoured the Constituent Assembly and am still for it.”

Fanny was summarily executed in the Alexander Garden by being shot in the back of the head; her body was then placed in a container, covered with petrol and set alight. Lenin did not order this execution; it was commanded by Jacob Sverdlov, who had also recently ordered the execution of the entire imperial family.

Not all the bullets could be removed from Lenin’s body, and in later years they generated the blood clots that would first paralyse him and then kill him. His trials were not over yet. His physical decline is poignantly measured by a series of photographs of him as an invalid. As early as 1921, the pressures of leadership were visibly taking their toll on him, and he complained of violent headaches and exhaustion, and may have been suffering a mental breakdown. His wife spoke of depression and fits of rage. Doctors speculated whether the two bullets lodged in him were giving him lead poisoning; one of them was successfully removed in 1922. In May 1922, the situation became clearer: he suffered a stroke that paralysed his right side and left him unable to speak for a time. Lenin now realized he was doomed, and requested a dose of poison to end his life. His family could not do this, and so Lenin asked Stalin for the release of poison. Stalin refused: a helpless Lenin, still alive, would be the most useful mainstay to his rise to power.

Lenin did appear to recover by September 1922, and even resumed the affairs of government, although by now Stalin had formed a triumvirate with his mates Kamenev and Zinoviev as a way of blocking Trotsky out of power. Then, on 15 December 1922, Lenin suffered his second stroke. This was when Stalin seized his chance, and gained permission from the Communist Party Central Committee to take charge of Lenin’s health, by controlling his visitors and his correspondence. Lenin was only allowed to dictate government business for ten minutes a day, and his two secretaries were spies put in place by Stalin to report his every thought and word.

Lenin again begged Stalin for cyanide, and Stalin again refused. This was a mistake, because Lenin now devoted his energies to writing a document commonly known as Lenin’s Testament. Written between December 1922 and January 1923, the document is critical of both Trotsky and Stalin, but also reveals that Lenin had finally realized that Stalin had become two powerful and needed to be stopped. He wrote:

“Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealing among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, namely, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc. This circumstance may appear to be a negligible detail. But I think that from the standpoint of safeguards against a split and from the standpoint of what I wrote above about the relationship between Stalin and Trotsky it is not a [minor] detail, but it is a detail which can assume decisive importance.”[1]

Lenin. Taken down by L.F.
January 4, 1923

He planned to read this critique at the upcoming Party Congress of 1923, but was prevented from doing so by a third paralyzing stroke in March 1923.

As he pondered his own physical decline, he had the painful duty to warn the Communist Party that it could be torn apart by a power struggle between Trotsky and Stalin. Stalin was by 1923-24 edging out of his carefully cultivated ‘grey blur transparency’ to take control of the party. Stalin suddenly became most anxious for the welfare of Comrade Lenin, and insisted that he should stay at home with five doctors to look after him; they monitored that he did no more than one hour’s work per day. We will never know whether these doctors truly were giving him medication to try to control his condition, or whether they were pumping the poor man with noxious substances.

In the end, it was Stalin who precipitated Lenin’s sudden deterioration: Lenin’s wife complained that Stalin had been rude to her, Lenin remonstrated angrily with him, and suffered the severe stroke.

One of his doctors described Lenin in moving terms: “Vladimir Ilich lay there with a look of dismay, a frightened expression on his face, his eyes sad with an enquiring look, tears running down his face. [He] became agitated, tried to speak, but the words would not come to him and he could only say ‘Oh hell. Oh hell. The old illness has come back’”.[2]

As I stood contemplating Lenin’s face – calm in the stasis of death – I wondered, as all historians do, what his last thoughts might have been about the course the revolution had taken. This is an imponderable. We only know textually that he was worried about a power struggle that might tear the party apart, and he recommended collective leadership.

But did he ever consider that the Great Experiment he had launched had gone disastrously wrong? Did he despair over the 10 million Russian deaths he had caused, half of them by famine, by his process of grain requisitioning, and the other half by civil war, caused by his policy of the single-party state? In this quiet, dark place, with strong illumination focused on this mute face and closed eyes, no answer presents itself…

[1] Source https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/dec/testamnt/congress.htm

[2] Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy. The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924, (London: Pimlico, 1997), p. 801.

Dr Michael Adcock

Dr Michael Adcock

Dr Michael Adcock is a social and cultural historian who specialises in the field of modern France. He has published works on the French Revolution with Cambridge University Press. Michael has over ten years’ experience in leading residential study tours in Paris and France. He has a strong interest in the interpretation of the arts in the context of the political and social moment in which they were created. Michael holds a Bachelor of Arts (Combined First-Class Honours in French and History), a Master of Arts (French History) and a Doctor of Philosophy (French History), all from the University of Melbourne. Michael led his first Academy Travel tour to Paris in 2006 and speaks fluent French.

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