We Will Bury You

How the caretakers of Lenin's corpse have made a killing in post-Soviet Russia

At around one in the afternoon on October 17, 1994, barely a year after President Boris Yeltsin ordered tanks to shell the Russian parliament and then, with his inimitable flair, ordered the honor guard to abandon Lenin's Mausoleum for the first time since 1924, a popular young journalist named Dmitry Kholodov returned to his desk at the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. He carried a briefcase he'd picked up earlier that day from a locker at the Kazansky train station. MK at the time was Russia's most crusading, muckraking paper, and Kholodov, who was investigating corruption in the military, had been led to believe that the briefcase contained valuable documents. It turned out to be booby-trapped. The force of the explosion, which Kholodov almost wholly absorbed, would have been enough to derail a train. It tore the fingers from his right hand and partially severed his right leg from his body.

The memorial service for the journalist was attended by thousands of Muscovites—the largest such public mourning since the beloved dissident Andrei Sakharov died, in 1989. Wishing Kholodov to appear in an open casket, the newspaper's editors asked a group of scientists at the laboratory of the Lenin Mausoleum—the same scientists responsible for maintaining Lenin's body—to get him into shape.

"His face was very badly singed, so we applied a chemical bleaching agent," Georgy Tischenko, one of those scientists, told me last spring when I visited him in Moscow. A metal rod was inserted to reattach the leg. "We had two or three teams working all night. We used prosthetic bones for his fingers."

Tischenko and his colleagues had been performing freelance embalming at the laboratory for more than a year. The moonlighting was Tischenko's idea. A specialist in anatomy (his dissertation work was on the properties of postmortem hair), he had come to the lab in 1983, had headed its branch of the Communist Youth League (Komsomol), and had traveled to Vietnam, Angola, and Bulgaria to monitor the state of their immortalized revolutionary heroes (including Ho Chi Minh). But the collapse of the Soviet empire had put a crimp in the dictator-embalming business. The lab was staffed by some of the country's top biochemists and had been taken over by the Institute for Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, which hoped to use the scientists' expertise for pharmaceutical research—but the anatomists didn't know from aromatic plants. "There was no money coming in for us, and we had to live on something," Tischenko said. "At first I applied for work as a dentist, but they had plenty of their own specialists. Then I thought maybe I could find something in my own field." Tischenko, who was in his mid-thirties, approached the head of Ritual-Service, the city's largest funeral company, and soon Ritual's agents were directing their wealthier customers his way.

The Komsomol leader had discovered what U.S. investment bankers call an "unmet market opportunity," and what Russian entrepreneurs more romantically term a "free theme": as the state relinquished not only its property but also its will to enforce the laws on how that property would be divided, Russia became a shooting gallery. In 1993-1994 Moscow, a city not known for its record-keeping, counted some 5,600 murders—2,000 more than in equally populous New York. The majority of these were drunken or domestic altercations, but as many as 20 percent were business-related contract killings. Renting space from the laboratory, Tischenko and his crew worked in the evenings. Kholodov and some luminaries aside, the bulk of the customers requiring serious reconstructive necrosurgery were bankers and crime bosses and combinations of the two.

"One time," a scientist from the laboratory told me, "these guys came in with their chief, who'd been shot up, and he was lying there, and the next in charge, his lieutenant, got down on his knees and started licking the chief's wounds. One of the girls working with us fainted. We had to carry her out. A few days later that lieutenant was shot, so his boys brought him in. And then, those boys were drinking, they all got in a car accident. In a couple of weeks we embalmed the whole crew."

Lenin might have chortled ("the worse, the better!") at the brutality of actually existing capitalism, but the caretakers of his corpse felt no ideological vindication at the fate of the new exploiting class.

"They brought us bodies, not bandits," recalled the anatomist Alexander Tkachenko when I met with him and his colleague Pavel Fomenko. "And it was very interesting work. Our teachers, Sergei Debov and Yuri Lopukhin"—the laboratory's longtime director and one of its senior scientists, respectively—"would come down and say, 'See? That's what I was talking about, right there.' It was very interesting work."

At the laboratory Tischenko or Tkachenko would meet with the relatives—or, just as often, the business associates—of the deceased in a small office near the front of the building. They would discuss the work that needed to be done and how much it would cost.

"The people who came had a certain humility," Fomenko, a courtly, soft-spoken man with a drooping moustache, told me. "In a normal morgue, I think, there'd be more of"—he spread out his arms and thrust forward his chest—"'I'm so-and-so, I'm this-and-that.'"

"These were people," Tkachenko explained, "who, on the streets—it was difficult sometimes to get along with them. They might push you, or say something rude."

"But when they came to the laboratory," Fomenko said, "they found themselves in a different world. For the Soviet person, there was something very powerful about the image of Lenin. It pressed on their minds. And then suddenly they met people who were specialists, who weren't after money. There were never any moments when they threatened us or told us what to do."

"Actually, there was one," Tkachenko said, smiling. A specialist in postmortem facial skin, he is the most stylish and up-to-date of the anatomists, with a trim black beard and black turtleneck and an Audi in the lot. "A group of them came in with their 'brother.' He'd been shot, and they were all drunk. We were in that little office, and they were all standing around me and the body, saying, 'Why ain't he breathing? Why ain't he breathing?'" Finally an elder statesman from the group arrived and told the boys to leave Tkachenko alone.

As the scientists stitched and inserted fake bones and fended off bereft bandits in the evenings, they were rapidly becoming legends. Tales spread about the Soviet-era magicians who roused the New Russians briefly back to lifelikeness. Western journalists had a hoot when the former mausoleum scientist Ilya Zbarsky described the gangster-beautifying business in Lenin's Embalmers, a book he co-authored in 1997 with the French news photographer Samuel Hutchinson. The symbolism was irresistible. Trotsky had called Stalin's bureaucrats the gravediggers of the Bolshevik revolution; Tischenko and company were, far more literally, the embalmers of the capitalist one.

In 1995 most of the anatomists left the mausoleum laboratory to launch themselves in the world. Tischenko became the head of the city-owned Ritual-Service, which at the time had a chokehold on the Moscow funeral industry, and Tkachenko became the first director of a modern million-dollar morgue constructed by Ritual-Service in southern Moscow. It was rumored that the Lenin scientists, undertakers to the underworld, had all become fantastically wealthy.

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