On March 5, 1953, Joseph Jugashvili, also known as Stalin, died at Kuntsevo, a dacha outside Moscow, after a nearly 30-year reign that left millions dead and changed world history forever. The rise to power, iron-fisted rule and many crimes of Stalin are well documented. This article isn’t about that, but rather, about his corpse–the “zombie Stalin” that was, despite the great generalissimo’s death, still hanging around uncomfortably nearly eight years later. In fact, it wasn’t until 52 years ago today, October 31, 1961, that Stalin was finally buried, which makes this a very appropriate Halloween tale.
The story of Stalin’s death is interesting enough. He appears to have had a stroke at the Kuntsevo dacha on the evening of March 1, but his cronies, including Lavrenty Beria (himself responsible for the deaths and torture of millions) and Nikita Khruschev (his successor), were awfully slow in summoning help. By at least one account they left Stalin lying on the floor in his pee-soaked underwear for several hours–perhaps a surreptitious attempt to make sure he was beyond all help. Once Stalin’s terrified underlings figured out how best to announce his death, they put his body on display at the Hall of Columns in the Kremlin. Hundreds of people died in the crush of the crowd waiting in long lines in snowy weather to pay their respects to their leader. After his state funeral, then came the question: now what?
Back in the 1920s, when Lenin died, Stalin himself had invented the bizarre Bolshevik funerary ritual of making sure the Soviet people were never without their leader by preserving and displaying his body permanently. Indeed, by the time Stalin shuffled off this mortal coil, Lenin, who died (also of a stroke) in 1924, had been permanently refrigerated in his Red Square mausoleum for nearly three decades. Stalin made himself out to be even more important to the Revolution than Lenin had been, and even in death it seems people feared him, because plans were made to treat Stalin the same way and in fact lay him next to his comrade-in-arms in Lenin’s tomb.
There was just one problem: the undertaker who zombified Lenin, Vladimir Vorobyev, died in 1937. By at least some accounts he did a terrific job that no one else could match. (Despite this, there were persistent rumors until the end of the Soviet era that the body of Lenin had decayed long ago and Soviet authorities had long since replaced his remains with a wax doll). Still, Khruschev and his friends did the best they could, calling on Boris Zbarsky, Dr. Vorobyev’s assistant, who had helped mummify Lenin. Evidently the job they did on Stalin wasn’t quite as impressive. He might not decay right away, but it didn’t seem like Stalin’s corpse was going to last the decades that Lenin’s had been hanging around.
Two zombies, Lenin and Stalin. I think they did a better job on Lenin. Can you imagine what it smelled like inside that glass case?
There was also another problem: who really wanted to see the body of the brutal dictator who had murdered 60 million of their fellow citizens? Stalin’s crimes were not acknowledged by the Soviet government at first, but by 1956 Khruschev had begun to dismantle the “cult” of the leader, giving a secret speech to the Politburo where he accused Stalin of crimes against the Revolution and terrible abuses. It was the first step in breaking the hold of fear by the leader. After 1956, the presence of zombie Stalin lying like pals next to zombie Lenin was becoming embarrassing.
At the 22nd Communist Party Congress in October 1961, an old woman stood up and claimed she had spoken to the spirit of Lenin, who complained to her about being next to Stalin who had done so much damage to the Party. This speech was, of course, staged, probably by Khruschev, but it was the impetus for removing his corpse. On October 31, zombie Stalin got the boot from the prime real estate in Lenin’s Tomb. He was relocated to a grave at the far end of the Kremlin Wall, reserved for minor leaders of the Revolution. Even American John Reed, author of Ten Days That Shook The World, has a better spot than Uncle Joe.
No one seems to have cared much about Stalin since the relocation of his grave. By contrast Lenin remains a popular tourist draw. After the fall of the USSR in 1991, there was constant talk of finally burying him too, but a website referendum in 2011 seems to have settled the question in favor of keeping zombie Lenin on display–but just barely. Only slightly more than 50% of respondents favored keeping him where he is.