In the center of Moscow, Russia lays the Red Square. All of Moscow’s streets originate from it. It is the heart of the city and the country. The nearby Kremlin, the seat of power of the Russian government, with huge ruby stars perched upon its towers overlooks the square’s many famous buildings. At one end, the majestic St. Basil’s cathedral looms over the skyline. The other boundaries of the square are marked by the Russian state’s historical museum and the famous GUM department store. Yet, the most famous and interesting building in Red Square is the mausoleum of Vladimir Lenin simply known as Lenin’s Tomb.
Vladimir Lenin was a Russian revolutionary and politician. He was head of state from 1917 to 1924. During that time, he oversaw the transition from the Russian Empire government to the formation of the Soviet Union in 1922. When he died in 1924, the Communist Party decided to make him a symbol of the Soviet Union. They had his body chemically preserved and put on display. To this day, over 90 years later, Lenin still rests inside his tomb where thousands of tourists each year are able to view his body.
In 2012, I made a trip to Moscow. I had always been fascinated that there was such a place as Lenin’s Tomb in the world. It seems so outlandish to me. More than that, I was amazed at how popular visiting the tomb was for the Russian people. During the height of the Soviet Union, hundreds of people would wait in long lines each day for a brief glimpse of Lenin’s body. Luckily for me, the tomb wasn’t that popular an attraction any more. Nevertheless, each day I was in Red Square, I noticed a steady trickle of tourists entering the tomb. I decided to drop my bag, buy my ticket, and join them.
The first thing you notice about the tomb is how serious the Russians are about it. I was forced to remove my hat as if I was entering a holy place and then warned to keep quiet and keep moving by stern faced, Kalashnikov toting soldiers in full uniform. After a brief walk, I reached the center of the tomb. Lenin’s body was in the center of the room in an open receptacle. I use the word receptacle because it wasn’t a coffin. It was more like a huge display case. He was lit up with pomp and regalia as if he was a medieval king of old who had perished in some great battle. But, what really caught my attention was how life-like he looked. It seemed as if he had died only yesterday; that he could all of a sudden rise from his tomb and continue his fiery speeches against the wealthy czars of the Old Russian Empire. I was dumbstruck as my eyes wondered over his waxen features. Suddenly, a guard came up behind me and reminded me to keep moving. Sorry, I replied to the guard in my best Russian.
My friend and I exited the tomb’s back entrance. The whole experience had lasted only a handful of minutes, but I was still reeling from what I had just seen. How did I feel about seeing Lenin or anyone so memorialized? It would be like George Washington’s body on display at Mount Vernon. No, I thought. The whole thing is just too creepy. In fact, opinion polls show that many Russians feel exactly the same way. There are large groups in Russia who are always advocating for Lenin’s burial. Yet, the government always refuses saying Lenin is a link to the past—to important Russian tradition and values.
I needed some time to decompress from what I had just seen. We made our way back into Red Square, chose a nice café that overlooked the tomb, and settled into several cups of coffee to discuss what we had just seen—something I am sure I will never see anywhere else in the world.