End is nigh for mummified Marxists: Andrew Higgins meets Moscow's chief embalmer, who sees no future for his prized craft of preserving Communist leaders
Wednesday 02 June 1993
There were others, too: Klement Gottwald, President of Czechoslovakia; Georgi Dimitrov, Prime Minister of Bulgaria; Agostinho Neto, the Marxist nationalist who ejected Portugal from Angola; Forbes Burnham, the London-trained barrister who tried to turn Guyana into a 'co-operative republic'. Sergei Debov spent days with all of them. It was part of his job; in some cases still is. Dr Debov is Moscow's master embalmer, high priest of Communism's most ghoulish tradition: the mummified Marxist.
He trained as a doctor, did a PhD in biochemistry and, after serving with a tank regiment from Stalingrad to Prague, wanted to practise medicine. Instead of healing the living, however, he has spent more than four decades preserving the dead.
It started with a job as a researcher at a laboratory attached to the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square. At 73, Dr Debov is now director of the laboratory, greatly expanded since he joined in 1950 and renamed the Scientific- Technical Centre for Biological Structures. With 150 staff and large premises in the middle of Moscow, the centre is custodian of one of the former Soviet Union's most guarded secrets: how to embalm for eternity.
'In the West there are lots of people who know how to embalm a body, but they can only keep it for a short time,' Dr Debov says. 'We have a different approach. We embalm for long periods, forever if necessary. We preserve not just the body but the appearance, everything. As far as I know they cannot do this in the West.'
The mystery recipe was first prepared to pickle Lenin in 1924, and has been shrouded in secrecy from the start. When Lenin died, a scientific committee was set up to find a way of preserving his body. Its chairman: Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the secret police. The formula has been modified over the years but, says Dr Debov, remains basically the same.
Though not involved in the original work on Lenin, he has had dozens of encounters with Communism's best-known corpse. It gets a check-up twice a week, with the hands and face receiving a fresh coat of embalming potion. Every 18 months, Lenin gets a thorough overhaul: he is removed from his sarcophagus and soaked for days in a bath of preserving fluid.
The collapse of Communism has led to demands for Lenin to be buried in an ordinary grave. Orthodox Christians condemn the Red Square mausoleum as sacrilege; anti-Communists want it bulldozed as a hateful symbol of the old order. Dr Debov thinks Lenin should stay where he is: 'He represents a whole epoch, a whole chapter of our history. His mausoleum is a monument to our time.'
He is less sure about the future of his profession. 'It may well die. It has no real future.' The whole discipline is founded on a belief in political permanence. Today nothing is permanent. Funding has dried up up, fashion has changed. Mummified Marxists went out with five-year plans. 'If I could start life all over again, I would never do this job.'
It is not the first time Dr Debov has had doubts or seen his work challenged. In 1953 he spent months working on Stalin's corpse. 'They sent a car to collect me when he died and took me to the laboratory. . . . My hands were shaking. He was dead but his bodyguards still stood there watching everything we did to him.' They prepared the corpse for the funeral, scrubbing the skin and extracting the organs. Later they embalmed it for eternity and put it next to Lenin in the Red Square mausoleum.
Eternity turned out to be brief. Khrushchev ordered the body removed and buried in the Kremlin wall. 'It was an awful lot of work wasted, but it somehow seemed logical. I certainly didn't suffer any agonies over this loss.'
Still more frustrating was the job involving Forbes Burnham. He died in 1985 and the body was immediately flown to Moscow. Dr Debov and his team had it pickled, preserved and sent back. 'As is often the case in banana republics, everything changed overnight,' Dr Debov recalls. Guyana decided to dump left-wing policies as well as plans to put the corpse on display. 'He had to be buried. It was a terrible waste.' Others, it must be said, remember it slightly differently. Burnham, on display in the Botanical Gardens in Georgetown, started to go off and had to be removed.
Other jobs stir more pride. He is particularly pleased with his work on Ho Chi Minh. Tipped off in August 1969 that the Vietnamese revolutionary was ill, Dr Debov rushed to Hanoi with four other Moscow specialists. Two days later Ho Chi Minh died. They set to work. Two transport planes flew in from Russia with air- conditioners and other equipment to preserve the corpse: 'It was all very difficult. The war was on and there was nothing. Even distilled water had to be brought in from Moscow.'
First they prepared the body to lie in state. After this they did the full treatment, shifting locations to avoid US bombs. The whole process, completed in a specially-equipped mountain cave, took nearly a year.
Although Moscow's alliance with Hanoi has since collapsed, Dr Debov and his colleagues still check up regularly on their handiwork. Without them, Uncle Ho would rot away: 'Vietnamese doctors participated in the embalming but they do not know all our secrets.'
The one great 20th-century Communist corpse Dr Debov never encountered is that of Mao Tse-tung, who died in 1976 at the height of Sino- Soviet squabbling. 'We had no part whatsoever in doing Mao,' he says. He sniffs at China's efforts without Russian help. 'I have heard reports that he is not in very good condition.' Mao's body, kept in a crystal sarcophogus in Tiananmen Square, does seem to have gone a bit rancid and looks in worse condition than Lenin, dead half a century longer.
Past triumphs, though, offer little comfort. Like dozens of other Soviet institutes, Dr Debov's centre excels at what it does, but does something no one wants. To earn money it has branched out into herbal medicine and even considered the unthinkable: sharing its secrets. Foreign undertakers might be interested. 'Who knows what might happen,' Dr Debov says. 'Everything is so uncertain.'
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