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Lenin looks better than the day he died, his embalmer brags | (KRT) MOSCOW — Vladimir Lenin has been dead these 80 years, but the founder of Soviet communism has never looked better. Just ask his curator.

"He looks quite fine, as good as he did 30 years ago," said Yuri Denisov-Nikolsky, the Russian doctor who just supervised an extensive makeover of Lenin's corpse. "He looked terrible when he died, but what you see now is Lenin's face, not someone else's."

Denisov-Nikolsky has been working on Lenin since 1970, and in a rare interview he pulled back the shroud of secrecy surrounding the body, its original embalming and its periodic makeovers.

When Lenin died of a stroke and heart attack on Jan. 21, 1924, his widow said he'd wished to be buried next to his mother in a simple cemetery plot.

But the communist elite had other ideas.

They originally planned to freeze their beloved leader, but his body began to deteriorate badly as a super-freezer was being built. Instead, using an untested chemical process, Lenin was embalmed and his skin carefully treated to preserve a lifelike appearance.

He's entombed in a granite-and-marble mausoleum in Red Square. The body is sealed in a glass sarcophagus, cooled to 61 degrees, with the humidity between 80 and 90 percent.

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Some say Lenin appears to be sleeping. Others compare him to waxed fruit.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian government stopped financing the preservation of the body, Denisov-Nikolsky said. Private donations pay the meager salaries of his 15-person staff at a research lab called Medical Biological Technologies. The physicians and professors on the team, he said, earn $200 a month.

The mausoleum staff also visits Vietnam to check on the body of Ho Chi Minh, on display in Hanoi. Denisov-Nikolsky was on the Soviet team that secretly embalmed "Uncle Ho" in a North Vietnamese jungle cave in 1970.

Denisov-Nikolsky, 71, said he'd never talked or sung to Lenin's corpse when he'd been alone with it in the mausoleum, and he sees nothing odd or macabre about his work. But he does remember that his hands trembled when he first began working on the body.

"Not every expert is allowed to restore such treasured historical objects, like a Raphael or a Rembrandt. Those who do it, we tremble. I feel a great responsibility in my hands."

About 1.5 million tourists visited the mausoleum last year, despite the fact that hours are limited and it's not always easy to find the entrance. Red Square is often closed for security reasons: There can be no more tempting target for a suicide bomber in Russia than Lenin's tomb and its body-under-glass - the Russian equivalent of the Statue of Liberty or the Washington Monument.

Mausoleum security was improved this winter, Denisov-Nikolsky said, but the mausoleum and sarcophagus were never built to be bombproof. (During World War II, fearing a direct hit by the Nazis, Soviet authorities secretly shipped Lenin - code-named "Object No. 1" - to a warehouse in central Russia. They put him back on display in March 1945.)

Specially filtered lighting gives Lenin's face a warm glow. Botox, collagen and modern cosmetics aren't used, Denisov-Nikolsky said, with a polite harrumph. A mild bleach is employed to combat occasional fungus stains or mold spots on Lenin's face.

The skin is examined closely each week, using precision, Russian-made instruments that measure its moisture, color and contour. Dehydration - and time - are the principal enemies.

Lenin gets an extreme makeover every 18 months or so. The mausoleum is closed for two months and the body is immersed in a bath of glycerol and potassium acetate for 30 days. The skin slowly absorbs the solution, regaining its moisture and pliancy.

With current techniques, the body could last "many decades, even for 100 years," said Ilya Zbarsky, 90, a doctor who worked on the body from 1934 to 1952. His father, Boris, participated in the original embalming in 1924.

Lenin's blood, bodily fluids and internal organs were removed as part of the initial embalming. His eyebrows, moustache and goatee are his original hair - no molting. And his genitals are intact.

No one seems to know what's happened to Lenin's heart, but Soviet ideologists were sure that his brain was something special. They brought in a renowned German scientist to examine it for clues to the great man's genius, but nothing came of it.

The brain is still kept at a Moscow institute. "But it's not easy to see it," Zbarsky said. "It's mostly dissected."

A poll last month by the Public Opinion Foundation in Moscow found that nearly 60 percent of Russians younger than 50 want Lenin to be removed and buried.

"Only people over 50 more frequently reply that they're against Lenin's burial," said foundation President Alexander Olson. This age group views "suggestions that the body be removed as blasphemous."

Others argue that an emerging democracy - even if it's a democracy in name only - shouldn't maintain monuments to a dictator responsible for decades of suffering and millions of deaths.

"The body should be removed, yes, and it should cease to be an object of worship," Zbarsky said. "It should be buried or kept in a laboratory somewhere."

Lenin himself never wanted any of this.

"Do not put up buildings or monuments in his name," his widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, said in the days after his death.

But the communist propaganda machine already had begun turning out heroic posters, worshipful biographies and everything from massive statues to miniature busts. Boulevards, hospitals, schools, train stations, collective farms and the city of St. Petersburg were renamed in Lenin's honor.

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of the secret police, pushed for the preservation of Lenin's remains. Red Army soldiers quickly began building a wooden mausoleum, using dynamite to blast open the winter-hard earth in Red Square.

A special commission decided that freezing would be the best method of preservation, so a massive freezer was ordered from Germany. But the appliance took months to build, and as winter turned to spring, Lenin's body began to deteriorate: His face and hands darkened, body wrinkles began to appear and his lips were cracking.

The freezing method was abandoned in favor of embalming and an experimental method of chemical preservation. Bodies had been embalmed before, of course, but never with the idea of maintaining a lifelike appearance. A team led by Vladimir Vorobiov, an anatomy professor from Ukraine, did the work.

"This was an unprecedented task," Zbarsky said. "It would have been dangerous to fail."

But Vorobiov's experiment worked. A stolid new mausoleum was built along the Kremlin wall, and the mausoleum scientists received perks and privileges not available to most Soviet workers. They had nice apartments, decent food, country cottages and well-equipped labs.

At one point, however, the scientists became perplexed - and terrified. A mysterious black spot had appeared on Lenin's right cheek, a bloom of mold that resisted all known treatments. They didn't want to ponder what would happen to them if they couldn't fix the problem.

"They might have even killed us," said Zbarsky, who eventually bleached away the mold himself. "The atmosphere of fear and terror was there for us scientists, just as it was for everyone in the society."

Zbarsky and his father were arrested without warning in 1952, during Stalin's wave of terror, accused of being German spies. Boris Zbarsky was imprisoned and his son was placed under house arrest.

When Stalin died soon after that, in 1953, he was embalmed by the Zbarskys' former assistants at the mausoleum.

Stalin shared the Red Square mausoleum with Lenin for eight years, then he was officially discredited and was quietly taken away and buried under the Kremlin wall.

In the new mood of anti-Stalinism at that time, according to Ilya Zbarsky, Muscovites created a new saying: "Don't sleep in a mausoleum that doesn't belong to you."

The first calls for Lenin to be removed from Red Square came 15 years ago. Communism was about to collapse and most reformers wanted Lenin buried along with Marxism-Leninism.

President Boris Yeltsin, saying Red Square "must not resemble a cemetery," suggested a national referendum in 1997 on the disposition of the body. But this proposal, along with numerous other demands for Lenin's eviction, was met with outrage by the Communist Party.

Last month, on the 80th anniversary of Lenin's death, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov laid a wreath at the mausoleum and proclaimed, "The bright, clever cause of Lenin lives and thrives."

Zyuganov and the communists were resoundingly beaten in parliamentary elections in December, and their defeat opened the way for another possible campaign to remove Lenin. But no new groundswell has emerged, and President Vladimir Putin, whose re-election seems assured March 14, has skirted the issue.

One of Putin's closest advisers, Parliament Speaker Boris Gryzlov, said, "The problem of the removal of Lenin's body should be solved in due time - probably in 2024, after the 100th anniversary of Lenin's death."

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© 2004, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services