CEPI Curiosities: The Public Afterlife of Vladimir Lenin

CEPI Curiosities: Tales from Medical History's Strange Side

Greetings, fellow historico-medico aficionados, and welcome to the latest installment of CEPI Curiosities, our monthly dive into the medically interesting or unusual.

There are a variety of notable objects and specimens on display here at the Mütter Museum, from wax specimens to human remains to even select parts of heads of state (including parts from the heads of heads of state). Today’s episode offers a blending of these topics as today we examine the medical science and history behind the preservation and display of world leaders.

Those of you who recall their world history classes may be able to identify Vladimir Lenin (aka Vladimir Ilyich Ulianov). Lenin (1870-1924) was the founder of the Russian Communist Party and was the first Premier of the Soviet Union; in 1917, following the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, Lenin and his Bolsheviks successfully wrested control of the Russian government during what is known as the “October Revolution.”

Portrait of Vladimir Lenin by Pavel Semyonovich Zhukov

Vladimir Lenin in 1920 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Following his death on January 21, 1924, there were no initial long-term plans to preserve Lenin’s remains, and he was embalmed so as to temporarily lie in state in Moscow prior to burial. These intentions are actually reflected in his body, as pathologist Alexei Ivanovich Abrikosov severed many of Lenin’s blood vessels and arteries after conducting his autopsy (embalming would be easier were the circulatory system intact).

Flocks of mourners gathered at Red Square in Moscow to send off the Bolshevik leader; the throngs combined with a characteristically cold Russian winter led officials to keep Lenin’s remains on display for two months. When a thaw risked accelerating Lenin’s decay, a commission of scientists gathered in March 1924 to discuss the ultimate fate of the deceased premier. They weighed the scientific and ideological pros and cons of keeping Lenin on display and solutions ranged from immersing Lenin in a vat of embalming chemicals, to storing him in a refrigerated coffin, to simply burying him. Ultimately Vladimir Vorobiev, professor of anatomy at Kharkov University, and Boris Zbarsky devised a method of preserving Lenin through periodic embalming and preservative treatments, a process that could theoretically allow him to be preserved indefinitely.

Image of Lenin's preserved remains

Image Source: sid (via Flickr Commons); Reproduced under CC BY-NC-DD 2.0, no alterations to original.

During the initial procedure, the pair removed Lenin’s organs and immersed his body in a vat of special chemicals. As an aside, they removed and preserved his brain, eventually allowing a German scientist named Oskar Vogt to examine it in order to understand the source of his genius (an act quite similar to what befell Albert Einstein, whose brain is on display at the Mütter Museum). After the initial preservation, this process is repeated roughly every eighteen months, during which time the body is removed from its mausoleum, bathed in chemicals, purged of embalming fluid, and re-embalmed. Typically, embalming fluid is introduced through the body via the circulatory system; however, since much of Lenin’s was severed during his autopsy, scientists administer the preservatives through a series of localized injections. Most surprising (to this author), Lenin’s joints are left articulated, making his body easy to pose or useful in the unlikely event of him rising from the grave to crush capitalism.

However, despite their best efforts, the process is not a perfect system and over the last ninety-three years even this method has not completely arrested decomposition. Not long after Vorobiev and Zbarsky first performed the procedure, Lenin’s eyelashes disintegrated and had to be replaced. In 1945, Lenin’s team of conservators discovered to their horror that a section of skin from Lenin’s foot detached from the body and was never seen again. As his body shifts and changes, parts of him have to be occasionally reformed or replaced to maintain its original shape. One person involved with the process has described Lenin’s corpse as a “living sculpture,” a blending of human tissue and artificial parts designed to resemble Lenin as he looked in life, a grim tribute to the fallen communist leader made out of his own remains. While his presence in Moscow has been a subject of debate in the decades following the fall of communism, Lenin (pardon the bad pun) remains on public display in his mausoleum in Red Square to this day.

Lenin's Mausoleum in Red Square

Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square; Image Source: American_Rugbier (via Flickr Commons) Reproduced under CC BY-SA 2.0

While Lenin is perhaps the most famous example of a preserved head of state on permanent display, he is far from the only one. Other preserved world leaders include Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, Chinese ruler Mao Zedong, and North Korean dictators Kim Il Song and Kim Jong Il. Initial reports following the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in 2013 suggested his preserved remains would be displayed in a glass case at the Revolution Museum; however, these plans were scrapped soon after his funeral as his body became too decomposed.

If you are looking for more stories on the handling (and in some cases, mishandling) of human remains, be sure to check out our articles on whether Joseph Hyrtl had Mozart’s skull among his collection, the case of a body made to impersonate a Persian princess, and the story of John Scott Harrison, a man who was the son and father of Presidents who also had his remains stolen by body snatchers.

Until next time, catch you on the strange side!

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CEPI Now Accepting Applications for the Karabots Junior Fellows Program

Three students in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program take part in a cow eye dissection.

Are you a Philly 9th grader with an interest in health care or medicine? If so, you might be perfect for the Karabots Junior Fellows Program! CEPI is now accepting applications for the Summer 2017 installment of the Karabots Junior Fellows Program. The Program seeks to cultivate the health care professionals of the future through hands-on learning and interaction with real professionals.

The next summer program will take place for two weeks, August 7-18, 2017, and consists of an intensive series of hands-on activities, meetings with healthcare professionals, and field trips focusing around a specific healthcare field. This year’s theme is Anatomy and Armor: exploring natural and artificial forms of protection against disease and trauma and learning about careers in healthcare and medicine related to those subjects.

Based on behavior, in-class participation and student interest, members of the two-week program may be asked to stay on for our multi-year after-school program focused on healthcare, STEM, and college preparation that goes through twelfth grade.

Students interested in joining the Karabots Junior Fellows Program must fulfill the following requirements to be considered:

  • Must be entering the 10th grade in Fall 2017.
  • Must be a Philadelphia resident.
  • Must be attending a Philadelphia public, parochial, or charter high school.
  • Must have an interest in biology and the healthcare professions.
  • Will be the first in their immediate family to graduate from a college or university.
  • Must qualify for a FREE or REDUCED PRICE school lunch.
  • Not have any disciplinary problems on their school record.
  • Must have permission from a parent/guardian to take part in the program.
  • If selected for this summer program, applicants must also be interested and available to participate in programming throughout the school year and summer through my senior year of high school if chosen to do so.

Interested students must complete an application form, including an essay and letter of recommendation. (Full instructions are available on the application). Completed applications can be submitted via email (subject heading: Karabots Junior Fellows Application) or standard mail to the following address:

Attn: Kevin D. Impellizeri (Karabots Junior Fellows)
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
19 South 22nd Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

The deadline to apply is FRIDAY, APRIL 28, 2017 (all mailed applicants must be postmarked by that date to be considered). If you have any questions, please contact Kevin Impellizeri, Youth Program Coordinator (215-372-7313). For more information about the Karabots Junior Fellows Program, please consult our website.

The Karabots Junior Fellows Learn to Make a Good Impression

Jon Goff, Associate Director of Fellow Ship Relations for the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, conducts a mock job interview with Quran, a student in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program. The two are seated opposite each other (Goff in the center, and Quran to the left). Several other students are seated in the foreground and background.

As part of the curriculum for the Karabots Junior Fellows Program, we are dedicated to helping our students prepare for their future careers, regardless of whether they ultimately find themselves in medical/heathcare fields. To that end, we recently held a session devoted to professionalism.

The Fellows learned the importance of carrying oneself in a professional manner both in their in-person and virtual interactions. Kevin went over some tips to a high-quality résumé and the art of constructing a professionally-worded email. Guest speaker Jon Goff, Associate Director of Fellowship Relations for the College of Physicians of Philadelphia as well as a former CEPI educator, gave them tips on the interview process by conducting one-on-one mock interviews (complete with common interview questions) with several of the students. Jeanene talked about the importance of body language and how people (including potential employers) measure a person’s engagement based on their physical behavior. Observing graduate students from Drexel University were also o hand to share their experiences with the job hunt.

Jon Goff, Associate Director of Fellow Ship Relations for the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, conducts a mock job interview with Viviana, a student in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program. The two are seated opposite each other (Goff to the left, Viviana to the right). Several other students are seated in the foreground and background.