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."

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Keith Gessen left Moscow with his family in 1981. He now lives in New York City. His work has appeared in Dissent, The Nation, and feedmag.com.

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