We Will Bury You

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

Had they? It was not a simple question, and as I began to try to answer it, I found a very different story from the one I expected—and a very different Russia. The mobsters and murders and easy ironies were all from a happier time. There are new sheriffs in town, or possibly just new mobsters; they're not licking anyone's wounds, anyway, and they're not smiling.

The scientists who still work at the mausoleum lab are officially discouraged from talking with journalists (after many years of enforced silence they talked too freely during the 1990s), but I managed to find one who was quite eager. We met on several afternoons under the statue of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, on Tverskaya Street, and he would hand me documents as if it were 1973 and we were smuggling a human-rights letter to The New York Times. What he actually gave me were flattering articles about Tischenko, which he'd carefully annotated, pointing out errors of fact and interpretation. The scientist, whom I'll call Viktor, admires Tischenko; he is even, like most everyone I spoke with, afraid of Tischenko; but he was Tischenko's superior at the lab, and there were some things he wanted to make certain I understood.

"They never made it into the mausoleum," he said of Tischenko and the others who left in 1995. Only a select group of senior scientists, himself included, were allowed to work on Lenin, while the rest did research on Lenin-related topics. "They think they know the secrets, but they don't know them. They never found them out."

Viktor is in his late sixties, the author of more than a hundred papers on embalming science and postmortem cell behavior. He earns maybe $150 a month. The prestige of the mausoleum is all he has—and not so long ago it would have been plenty. The mausoleum's laboratory was elite Soviet science at its most absurd and extravagant. "Even now," Mayakovsky had written shortly after Lenin's death, "Lenin is more alive than all the living," and it was the task of the Lenin scientists to make sure this only became truer. Lenin's widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, remarked during a visit to the mausoleum shortly before her death that Lenin retained his youth even as she aged. Indeed, while the rest of the country suffered starvation, terror, and ruined complexions (from the horrific industrial waste), Lenin was coddled and cosmetically enhanced and bathed in a top-secret fluid. He was, incredibly, the first person evacuated from Moscow—in July of 1941, months before the Wehrmacht reached the city's outskirts. As in 1917, when he passed through Germany on his way to the revolution, Lenin rode eastward in a specially equipped compartment. "The train passed birch trees and oaks, then evergreens and pines," Alexei Abramov, the mausoleum's official historian, wrote. "It was as if nature herself had risen to form a thousand-kilometer honor guard." In Siberia, while armies slaughtered one another to the west, the corpse's condition actually improved under the care of the accompanying mausoleum scientists. Lenin even put on some weight.

After Stalin died, in 1953, he, too, received a thorough, permanent embalming, and was placed beside Lenin. Eight years later, after falling victim to the sort of nonperson campaign he'd done so much to perfect, Stalin was removed to a grave behind the mausoleum. But the lab continued to enjoy a very special relationship with Soviet officialdom, whose members were embalmed there in preparation for state funerals. Viktor recalled the terror of being roused by the black Volgas of the KGB in the middle of the night on February 9, 1984: Yuri Andropov had died.

But then, with youthful, fresh-faced Gorbachev, everything collapsed, and the lab became something of an embarrassment. "People wanted to cancel the laboratory and bury Lenin," Abramov recalled bitterly when I visited him last spring. "People wanted to change everything." Yeltsin threatened to find Lenin a proper grave, backing off only in the face of stiff Communist opposition and elderly nighttime picketers who gathered in front of the mausoleum whenever rumors indicated that Lenin might be removed under cover of darkness. Funding for the laboratory was eliminated, though the Institute for Medicinal and Aromatic Plants agreed to let the scientists devote some of their work time to Lenin's upkeep.

"They proved their civic courage then," Abramov says. "For a year and a half they worked on Lenin with no compensation." When the Russian press publicized this sad state of affairs, bleeding-heart Leninists from all over the former Soviet Union sent money to the Kremlin (just as they'd once posted personal requests to "Lenin, Lenin Mausoleum, Red Square"). Abramov formed a committee to accept and distribute the funds, and the committee continues to pay for a rotating group of scientists to visit Lenin—every Tuesday and Friday morning between 9:00 and 11:00.

Abramov and I were having a very pleasant talk about all this in his office at Gazeta Veteran, one of the left-leaning newspapers for which he writes, until I brought up the after-hours work of Tischenko and his crew. "No, no, that never happened," Abramov said. "It's true, there was some sort of janitor, he started a business, he fixes up mafiosi." Here Abramov, who is seventy-eight, formed both his hands into pistols and produced a few mobsterlike gestures. "But never at the laboratory." His eyes narrowed. "But I know where you heard those rumors. From Zbarsky! I know all about him."

Zbarsky, who is ninety, has earned the undying enmity of the necro-Leninists by—in addition to writing about the moonlighting at the lab—stating publicly that the dictator should be buried. "We used to go back and forth in the press on these topics," Abramov told me. "Then I wrote him a letter. I called him a cowardly rat! He never answered." Abramov seemed both pleased and disappointed by this.

To Abramov and to Viktor, Georgy Tischenko represents the first wave of the new capitalism, which overturned the country, and everything sacred, in search of profit. In fact Tischenko represents something else, something newer; the first wave of Russian capitalists had to start getting whacked, after all, for Tischenko's business to get going.

Now, Vladimir Panin, Tischenko's chief competitor in the Moscow funeral market, is a first-wave specimen par excellence. His office is enormous, marble-staired, tightly guarded. ("You should see the other offices," he said. "They're nice.") The art on his walls is terrible—outsize realist landscapes of Russia, in heavy oils. A large man with a flushed, appealingly childlike face, he wears expensive suits and extracts cigarettes from a gold cigarette case and talks and talks and talks.

A friend and former med-school classmate of Tischenko's, Panin was not invited to work at the mausoleum laboratory; unlike Tischenko, he had never joined the Komsomol, and unlike Tischenko, he is Jewish. Panin was no dissident, but he soon grew bored with his work as a cardiologist, and when, in 1987, the opportunity presented itself, he became the first of Russia's funeral capitalists, forming a cooperative to transport bodies from people's homes to city morgues. When that went well, he branched out: he placed ads in Russian émigré papers offering to care for the graves of relatives who'd been left behind; he also tried to interest Russians in cryogenics. He had more realistic ideas as well, and his business—Styx, he named it—grew. Panin was invited to join the prestigious Moscow English Club, where Russian aristocrats used to play whist and plot against the Czar. More prestigious still, his Mercedes was shot up in 1994. Panin escaped unharmed.

The funeral industry that Panin entered was, like all Soviet industry, in dire straits by the end of the 1980s. Though improved since the early years of Soviet rule, when the combination of forced centralization and revolutionary terror led to piles of bodies lying unburied at the gates of Moscow's cemeteries, it was still hamstrung by a sullen bureaucracy. In order to arrange burial services, one needed to procure a death certificate at the Registry of Deeds, which was closed evenings and weekends; when open it was certain to have long lines of people registering births, marriages, divorces, apartment sales. Morgues were filthy, and the people working there were often drunk. Gravediggers had to be bribed and cajoled into producing a sufficiently deep hole. Really, one was better off staying alive.

Free enterprise took care of the registration problem; it is no longer difficult to bring attention to the death of a loved one. Competing funeral companies, especially shadowy groups operating without licenses, now pay good money for "death tips": 1,500 rubles ($50) apiece. Police officers, nurses, and paramedics are among the top earners—one trouble being that many of these people like to supplement their meager incomes, and keeping their charges alive is not the way to do it. Tischenko finds these tipsters offensive; he thinks they're a scourge. But Panin is more philosophical. "Information is the lifeblood of business," he says. "If you don't have information, you don't know what's happening. And if you don't know what's happening, you'll lose business." But does he pay for it? "Gratitude, thankfulness —I think these have always been expressed in business relations, no?"

Panin is a Russian businessman writ large, and he was in especially good form when discussing the small shadow operations that were now encroaching on his turf. "When you enter someone's house," he explained, "you have to knock." And if one should fail to knock? "Then someone will come to you and say, 'Friend, you forgot to knock. That's not right.'"

Panin smiled. I smiled. I liked Panin very much, and I hoped he wouldn't get killed. Apparently, he'd been thinking the same thing. "No one wants a war," he said of the competition in the funeral industry. "A war is bad for everyone."

I used this opportunity to check the figure I had for the size of the Moscow funeral market, and Panin told me to double it; then he asked me not to print the sum. "It'll attract the wrong sort of attention."

"But it's public information," I said. "They can look it up."

"Then let them look it up," answered Panin, a man who began doing business at a time when criminal gangs were bribing bankers to show them companies' bank accounts. "No reason just to tell them."

Then he moved on. "I am very grateful to Gorbachev," he said of the early years. "Yes. Very grateful." He paused, looking, as his gratitude swelled, as if he were about to cry. "Yes," he repeated. "There is a poem, you know, by a man named Vladimir Lifshitz." And he began to recite the poem. I have met enough Russian businessmen of the first wave that their particular pathos no longer surprises me, but this was unprecedented. "'Your heads were numbed / with newspaper lies,'" Panin quoted. "'You were just a gray mass / in their eyes.' Yes, that's right. We were a gray mass. And Gorbachev allowed us, allowed me, to break out of that gray mass and become an individual. I'm very grateful to him for that."

Georgy Tischenko is an entirely different sort of entrepreneur. Like Panin, he is a large man, well over six feet. Unlike Panin, he is reserved and careful—and weary. In his mid-forties, he looks older, slightly worn out; he wears tinted eyeglasses, as if, should the opportunity present itself, he'd rather not be out in Moscow's intermittent sun. His office is that of a successful bureaucrat, not a magnate: a long conference table, a minimum of personal effects, a small model coffin on his desk. Perhaps Tischenko has made a lot of money, but he doesn't care to discuss it. (He does drive a 1998 300-Series Mercedes, and when he steered the conversation to the poverty of post-Soviet Russia, I pointed that out. "But it's an old Mercedes," he said. "And I bought it in Germany.") Although he was happy to recall the Lenin lab, I found him wholly uninterested in talking about the chaotic years of primitive capitalist accumulation. Pressed, he said that an evening's work of reconstructive necrosurgery back in 1993 was worth $500, which, though equal to many monthly salaries, was not yet a killing. "You make money on a constant stream of clients," he said, "not on a few elite jobs."

Tischenko is no longer the undertaker to the underworld; now he has to bury everyone. Unlike Styx, Ritual-Service is a municipal company, so Tischenko has social responsibilities. If someone is too poor to pay, Ritual-Service must cover the costs; it was compelled to bury the hundred-odd victims of the October 2002 Nord-Ost hostage siege without charge. But he has a close working relationship with the mayor's office—a good relationship to have. If committees need to be sat on, or funeral-industry regulations drafted, Tischenko and the company's lawyers are the ones to sit and draft. It's clear that compared with Panin, Tischenko is not rich. Nor is he a member of the Moscow English Club. After a detour of sorts into free enterprise he has re-entered the apparatus of the state. But Tischenko, like that state, is now krutoi, powerful, and his is the style—gray, competent, cagey—of the new Russian elite.

And he is unhappy. At the mausoleum lab, he said, he was a man of science, whereas now, out in the world, he is faced with the most untoward behavior. The death-tip scourge especially is eating him up. It's giving the funeral industry a bad name. It's repulsive. "They harass people, people whose relatives have just died," he said. "The agents call them up and ask them to use their funeral service. I consider this immoral."

It's also eating into his bottom line. "There are twenty funeral companies in Moscow," he went on. He took out a piece of paper and wrote the number 20 on it. "That's not including the shadow operations. But all right, twenty. Out of those there are just three companies that don't pay for information." He wrote the number 3 and circled it. The island of the good.

Alexander Tkachenko sat in on part of my interview with Tischenko. "We decided to run our business normally, honestly," he said. "Maybe that was our mistake."

Tischenko was not so circumspect. "We need to wash away all the scum," he said. "We need to change the law. Enforce licensing [for the funeral companies]. We need order." I asked him whether he thought his somewhat disorderly competitor Panin would soon have "problems." "I think he'll have problems with the law-enforcement agencies," Tischenko said. "That's what I think."

An appeal to law, a visceral distaste for the scramble of post-Soviet Russia, "order"—it was the familiar Putinist refrain. And like Putin's, Tischenko's rhetoric is leavened with occasional doses of nostalgia for the USSR. As he told me about the halcyon days at the mausoleum lab, I recalled a claim Viktor repeatedly made: that those who'd left the lab regretted it, that "their lives haven't worked out." This isn't true: they have responsibilities, and a decent income (Fomenko, who also decamped for Ritual-Service, told me that his salary increased tenfold the day he left the lab), and Tischenko is far more influential than he ever could have been at a research institute. But it is true that a certain elevated purpose, no matter how bizarre, has disappeared from their lives, and they miss it.

According to one legend, embalming Lenin permanently was Stalin's idea. In late 1923, with the leader of the world's proletariat incapacitated by a stroke and clearly beyond recovery, Stalin suggested to the Politburo that modern science could preserve Lenin's body—"at least long enough," as he touchingly put it, "for us to get used to the fact that he really is no longer with us." When Lenin finally succumbed, in January of 1924, an Immortalization Committee was set up, with Felix Dzerzhinsky at its head. The old-time Bolshevik Leonid Krasin took the initiative of refrigerating Lenin, but when the corpse began to deteriorate regardless, two specialists, Boris Zbarsky (Ilya Zbarsky's father) and Vladimir Vorobev, were tapped for the preservation effort. Six months after he died, Lenin reappeared in the middle of Red Square in a makeshift wooden mausoleum, for all the world to see. Six years later this was replaced by the red-granite Lenin Mausoleum, perhaps the only genuinely avant-garde building erected by the Soviets in the center of Moscow. After World War II the mausoleum's roof was retrofitted with a tribunal so that Soviet leaders could watch Red Square parades from locus sanctorum—the place, according to the old tradition of saints' relics, where earth and heaven intersected—or, in the militarized language of the postwar USSR, "Strategic Location No. 1."

Back in 1923 Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin, the most ideological of the Bolsheviks, protested vehemently against Stalin's plan: it smacked to them of religion. But the audacity of it, and the horror, was in the materialism. Where Orthodoxy asked the faithful to believe that the bodies of its saints had not rotted, the Bolsheviks would demonstrate it in the most graphic terms. They left nothing to either chance or faith. Purists—Krupskaya and Trotsky among them—would continue to find fault with the mausoleum, but in fact the thing summed up Lenin's world view exactly. If social conditions alone did not create the new Soviet man, science would help him along.

Looking up "Kvadraty," the poem that Panin had quoted, I was surprised to learn that Vladimir Lifshitz had actually published it in 1964—as a translation from English. According to Lifshitz's son, Lev Loseff, now a poet and a literature professor at Dartmouth, Lifshitz had found that he could write more freely and more autobiographically, that he could be more himself, under an assumed identity. To this end he invented an English poet named James Clifford, sketched him a short biography, and began publishing fake translations of his work. Lifshitz was driven less by a fear of censorship, Loseff has written, than by a desire to break with habit—and also, one thinks, to take for himself, living as he was in a deeply unfree society, the freedom he imagined was enjoyed elsewhere.

A similar idea of man's ability to re-create himself—a mania, really, for self-reinvention—gripped Russia in the early 1990s. Panin and the other New Russians, those shock troops of the free market, those knights of infinite currency speculation, actually believed that they were building another America on the bones of Soviet communism; that by buying low and selling high they were making a political statement; that by burying themselves in expensive American caskets (often, Tischenko said, with copies of Mario Puzo's The Godfather), they were following in the wake of Don Corleone. Panin was showing me photos of all the stuff he owns when I told him about Tischenko's old Mercedes. "And I have a new Mercedes," he said happily. "And a Chevy Tahoe, for hunting and fishing trips." Marx wrote that nineteenth-century revolutions would have to create their poetry from the future. These revolutionaries created their poetry from the West, or the West they'd imagined during years of Soviet rule.

And now the age of the Panins is finished; the Tischenkos will make certain of that. But they will crush the independent operators without the malice or the ideological fervor of the Communists, because Tischenko's class of Russian businessmen, like the new class of Russian politicians headed by Putin, is post-ideological with a vengeance. This is the meaning of Putin's sinister, implacable blandness, of Tischenko's aggressive professionalism. The insistence of Putin's champions on the incorruptibility and even neutrality of Putin's old employer the KGB—"the myth of KGB probity," as sociologists call it—finds a direct echo in the language of the Lenin morticians. "The laboratory was a place for science," Fomenko insists. "We lived under a system that from within was perfectly coherent. If you couldn't see outside of it, and very few could, it made sense. We certainly had arguments at the laboratory about how things should be, how it could be better, but it was not an ideological place. Sergei Debov"—the lab's director—"was an extremely erudite man ... When he spoke, there was no trace of ideology in it."

Ideology, even politics, is in this view a corruption, an indulgence for those outside the centers of power. "The KGB, the KGB," Tischenko said, sighing with mild annoyance when I summed up my feelings about Putin. "The KGB wasn't just an organization for terrorizing dissidents, you know. It was also a powerful intelligence service. They were highly qualified professionals."

Soon after I finished gathering material for this article, the Kremlin launched its campaign against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Jewish chief executive of the oil giant Yukos, who had made his fortune during the sell-off of state property in the early and mid-1990s. Speculation as to why Putin would make such an obviously destabilizing move against a darling of Western investors focused on Khodorkovsky's nascent involvement in liberal politics and his plans to conclude a mega-deal with ExxonMobil. But there seems to be a more fundamental dynamic at work, something in the very DNA of the new Russian elite, which insists that the 1990s upstarts be brought to heel. Tischenko, for his part, bears no grudge against Panin, in the way that Abramov bears a grudge against Zbarsky or Viktor against Tischenko; but in the new Russia, Panin—like Khodorkovsky—is the superfluous man.

The rest is irrelevant. "As long as there are people for whom this is holy," Tischenko says of Lenin, "we should let him stay." So Lenin's body, emptied not only of its inner organs (which leak toxins) and its brain (sent to the Brain Institute for a study of Lenin's genius) but also of all ideological significance, becomes simply a unique human experiment, like manned space flight or the genome project. Lenin's unburied corpse is the shared property of mankind. In which case perhaps he should once again share his mausoleum. In 1990 Sergei Debov was asked by a group of journalists about the embalming of Stalin, in which he'd participated. "This is off the record," he said. "But we embalmed Stalin so well that I think even now, if ..." He did not complete the thought, except to add, "Anyway, that spot behind the mausoleum is very dry and sandy."

I returned to the mausoleum on my last day in Moscow, a Friday. I set up shop outside the cool cubic structure, while scientists inside took care of Lenin. They checked to make certain the fluid inside him hadn't begun to seep out; they checked that the temperature and humidity had been constant over the past three days. When they hadn't appeared by 11:00 A.M., I began to worry that I'd missed them. Did they escape by a secret tunnel, with their secret fluid? And then, at 11:05, four elderly gentlemen emerged from an exit near Spassky Gate. They were slightly dour and very Soviet; if not for the flimsiness of their jackets, they could have been mistaken for old Politburo members, still haunting the grounds. I approached them and introduced myself. They ignored me.

"How's Lenin?" I asked.

"What Lenin?"

"Lenin. The body." Was I accosting the wrong elderly gentlemen? "You—work on him."

"We don't know what you're talking about."

They brushed past me. Two glistening white Volgas had pulled up at the southern edge of Red Square. The drivers got out and greeted the four men, who split up and entered the waiting cars. And then, as I stood there, the Volgas sped off, two white-hulled ferries disappearing into the river of Moscow traffic.

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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