THEY SAY YOU can’t tell a book by its cover, but sometimes you can. Lenin’s Embalmers is small and elegant, with a single image – the dead Lenin – superimposed upon its plain, black jacket. And that, more or less, sums it up. It is a small and elegant tale, the story of one of the many bizarre lives that were lived in the Soviet Union: a life centred around caring for the dead Lenin. It has no pretensions to mega- history, does not attempt to prove a world-historical thesis or reinvent a genre. But its simplicity is curiously compelling, the ordinariness of the prose enhancing the weirdness of the story.
Ilya Zbarsky, now in his eighties, was one of Lenin’s embalmers. That is, he is the son of one of the two scientists who together worked out how to save Lenin ‘s body from deterioration, so that it could be displayed in perpetuity to the eternally mourning Russian public in