Out of Russia: Doctors in a pickle over Lenin's future

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MOSCOW - At 73, Sergei Debov would appreciate the courtesy of at least one last phone call. It could come any day now, though when exactly is out of his hands. 'It has nothing to do with me. I'm sure I will be the last to know,' he predicts. 'It was like that with Stalin too. They just phoned and said 'There is a decision. Come at once.' '

The last summons was in October 1961. Dr Debov was ordered to Red Square along with his then boss, Dr Sergei Mardoshov. It was 9pm and already dark. The only light came from Kremlin spotlights. Dr Debov watched as soldiers demolished eight years of painstaking work with a few shovelfuls of earth, a few anxious grunts and muttered curses. It was all over in a few minutes, with no ceremony and only a handful of witnesses.

The soldiers extracted Stalin from his sarcophagus next to Lenin, put his embalmed corpse in a closed coffin and buried it. 'They had dug the hole beforehand,' says Dr Debov, recalling a detail that, so many years later, still causes him to shake his head: only after the grave was ready did they bother to inform the people who had tended Stalin with unstinting dedication since his death in March 1953.

Dr Debov, master mummifier for the giants of 20th- century Marxism, now awaits a similar summons for Lenin, the alpha and omega of his craft. 'I know nothing about what is going on,' he mumbles in his vast, austere office at the Scientific-Technical Centre for Biological Structures. 'This is a political question. Political passions are running high about this. If you know anything please let me know.' Shelves in the room display a small bust of Lenin, a plaque decorated with the profile of the Bulgarian leader Georgi Dmitrov (another former - and now buried - client). And there is a painting of Ho Chi Minh, still intact in Hanoi thanks to Dr Debov.

Until told to do otherwise, Dr Debov will still visit Lenin every Monday and Friday to dab his face and hands with embalming fluid. Every 18 months he gets a complete overhaul - a six-week-long bath and a new suit. The next immersion is scheduled for March. Dr Debov worries it might not take place. His concern is not political: 'It is just a professional thing. I'm a scientist. All that wasted labour.' Eight years wasted on Stalin. Now, if the work of predecessors is included, seven decades wasted keeping Lenin.

The decision to bury Stalin was not taken lightly. It took three years for Khrushchev to deliver his 'secret speech' attacking his legacy at the the 20th Party Congress in 1956. It took a further five years before the 22nd Party Congress adopted a curt, two-point resolution on his corpse. Speaking in favour of its burial was D A Lazurkina, a veteran party member from Leningrad and one of only a handful of Old Bolsheviks to survive the Great Terror. Her argument was less than rigorous: 'I think that our wonderful Vladimir Ilyich, the most human of humans, should not lie beside someone who, although doing service before 1934, cannot be next to Lenin.'

Krushchev was impressed all the same: 'Right,' he shouted, an interjection which, according to the official transcript, elicited 'stormy and prolonged applause'. Ms Lazurkina concluded by saying Lenin had appeared in a dream the previous day to express his own views on the matter: 'I do not like being next to Stalin.' More stormy and prolonged applause.

What would Lenin say about his own corpse? According to the Mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, he never wanted to be pickled in the first place. His widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, opposed it too, writing to Pravda in 1923: 'Do not let sorrow for Ilyich find expression in outward veneration of his person.' Further light is shed by hitherto secret transcripts published last week by Izvestia. They record a stormy debate within the party leadership: 'Civilised people cremate the corpse. I was at Marx's grave and felt inspired,' said Marshal Voroshilov. The idea of embalming Lenin was 'nonsense'. 'Have we stopped being Marxist-Leninists?' The Secret Police chief, Felix Dzerzhinsky, and others disagreed. Lenin was preserved.

This whole laborious process is now being reversed. A goose-stepping honour guard has been withdrawn, Guard Post No 1 moved elsewhere. Boris Yeltsin ordered it transferred two days after tanks drove 'Communist-fascist' foes from the Russian White House. The Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, has submitted a plan to remodel the whole of Red Square: Lenin's Mausoleum should be pulled down, Lenin's body buried next to that of his mother in St Petersburg, Lenin's memory banished. The first stage of his plan got underway on Tuesday when city authorities closed down the Lenin Museum just off Red Square, transferring its red brick premises to the State Property Fund.

Dr Debov, as always, has been told nothing. The removal of the honour guard came as a suprise: 'I heard about it watching TV. The commandant heard about it 10 minutes beforehand.' As a scientist, though, he can relish the prospect of one last experiment: how long might Lenin last in the ground. 'It depends how long it is buried and how wet the soil is. I think it will be quite a long time.' And Stalin? 'It would be interesting to have a look. Of course he has changed but I wonder how much.'