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Forever Lenin

by Xavier Villetard
First Run/Icarus Films, Brooklyn, NY, 2006
VHS/DVD, 52 min., color
Sales: VHS, $75; DVD, $390
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Fred Andersson
Kämnärsvägen 7J: 238
226 46 Lund


Some years ago, the French filmmaker Xavier Villetard described his new project in an email to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: “I want to show how your existence, post mortem, holds a mirror to the Russian revolution”. Villetard's documentary about Lenin and his mausoleum begins with this email to the other side. We also get a short tour into the virtual mausoleum on Internet (see www.lenin.ru). Then we are told the sad story of the utterly unmarxist deification of Lenin, and the dogmatic reification of his work. It begins with his last years, when he gradually lost control of his government and his legacy, and it ends in today's Russia — a Russia where the dominating right-wing establishment repeats in a strangely similar way the mistakes of historical times.

Villetard doesn't adopt a particular stand as regards Lenin's own politics and ideas. However, he reminds us that Lenin, knowing that he wouldn't live much longer, tried to secure the balance between the Soviet state and the ruling Party in a political testament that was later darkened by Stalin and his men. The present mainstream view of Lenin as nothing but a murderer and dictator, a view nurtured by all liberal Western media, makes it hard to get such facts through. What Lenin tried in vain to stop was the Stalinist situation, i.e. the eradication of the Communist Party and its loyal members by a totally corrupt police State.

The turning of Lenin into a God and the erection of a temple instead of a grave was a symptom of the continuity between Tsarist and Stalinist rule. The old gods were dead, but without much proof the people were expected to demand new ones. Villetard shows, with a fine selection of archival footage, how the cult of the diseased leader increased and developed before and after the War. He also introduces us to some of the more macabre details of the science of human tissue preservation. It is wrong to call Lenin's corpse a mummy we learn. It is embalmed, but the first measures turned out to be insufficient when the body started to rot after two months.

Top scientists were called in to solve the situation, and they developed the routine that the whole body be soaked regularly in a specially composed chemical bath. This routine is still followed, and as we see in the film, the same expensive treatment was given to a number of socialist leaders in the satellite states. In this way, the business around Lenin grew into a whole medical institute that provided a living for a number of professionals. And, what is maybe the strangest thing in this whole story is the fact that the institute still exists (with considerably reduced funds; it now falls under the State Department of agriculture!), and new corpses are still being embalmed. The difference is that nowadays the business is commercial, and the clients come from the new economical elite of Russia.

Villetard's interviews with past and current employees at the institute, and the documentary footage that even allows us to watch the revered corpse being treated in the chemical bath, give a close and memorable view of a bizarre practice. One can almost feel the sickening smell of formaldehyde and death. After the film a lingering question remains: Isn't this actually a kind of grave desecration? And would the international public image of Lenin get more nuanced if the cult of his body would come to an end?






Updated 6th June 2008

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