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Seeing Lenin’s Body in Moscow

Lenin’s Body is Moscow’s Most Morbid (and Least Interesting) Attraction

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Lenin's Tomb, Moscow

Lenin's Tomb, Moscow

Ian Walton/Getty Images
By national dictate, Lenin’s body is free to view. And that may be the most novel thing about the whole spectacle. However, if you’re in Moscow, you’ve got to see the Communist dictator before they finally lay his mummified remains to rest for eternity, right?

Well . . . maybe not. The time investment may not produce adequate returns. First of all, you have to get to Red Square early and wait in line for a couple of hours. The Tomb is only open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends from 10am to 1pm, when Red Square is cordoned off especially for this occasion. Small groups of 12 or 15 people at a time are let in to see Lenin’s Tomb, but people who have shelled out the cash for the honor may be allowed to bypass the line entirely. This is frustrating as the line grows longer and longer but never seems to move.

While waiting, act somber, even though you may find waiting in line to see a formaldehyde-soaked evil icon bemusing. Security guards will be on the prowl for any foreigner who behaves inappropriately; you do not want to be identified as such. While in the past this may have occurred out of enforced respect, today it is more for exploitation’s sake. Moscow police sometimes intimidate naïve travelers out of cash on illegitimate bases. In case you sneeze or crack a smile, though, make sure you have your passport on you. Getting caught without it means any uniformed official will have good excuse to detain you—and then they’ll have a legitimate reason to insist you pay a fine.

If large tourist groups get in front of you in line, it’s best to make a fuss only if you can pass as a Russian citizen. Tour guides have been known to threaten foreigners with promises to call security for impromptu passport checks. This line hierarchy seems as much for show as the demand for deference.

Bags are not allowed, so you will be turned away you are carrying anything that looks like it might contain a camera. Cameras are absolutely prohibited, so don’t even try it.

Follow the other tourists and devoted former-Soviet citizens into Lenin’s Tomb. This is not the time to make jokes. Lenin is still revered in Russia, mostly by members of society who have seen a decline in their quality of living since the democratization of the nation. The “ceremony” of seeing Lenin’s body is a holdout of Soviet times when the power of authority was complete. You might as well be stepping back in time a few decades, so just keep your head down and your hands out of your pockets. Look casual, but not too casual. You want to at least seem like you bear the proper amount of veneration for the fallen leader, even though this may be another one of the oddities you endure just so you’ll have a story for the folks at home.

Lenin’s Tomb is appropriately dark and cool, made of black, highly-polished stone. Stock-still guards are posted in every corner. The line keeps moving, so don’t stop and gawk. Today, you probably won’t get a gun pointed at you, but you don’t want to tempt fate. The line curves around the embalmed figure of a blanketed Lenin in a suit, so you’ll get views from his right side, left side, and from the feet up.

Lenin is really nothing special. Underneath the glass case, he’s a poor substitution for Sleeping Beauty, appearing less real and more like a wax-cast replica. Indeed, it’s rumored that disintegrated bits of him have been replaced with other substances—or that what you see is a complete stand-in for the long-decrepit corpse. The hands are perhaps the creepiest part of him. Lifelike and blue-tinged, they make you wonder how many national decrees and death warrants he signed.

Ushered out into the daylight, you can breathe fresh air again and shake off the clinging chill. After a quick perusal of dead Communist grave markers, you can reflect upon your experience as you traverse Red Square. To your right is St. Basil’s Cathedral, recently renovated. Tomorrow or the next day it will be open to view . . . and you can spend hours exploring this 16th Century architectural wonder. Which is, in reality, a much better use of your time. Russia will never bury its past, but it is certainly high time to bury the freakish sideshow of 20th century Russia’s main event.

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