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We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

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I Had an Experience in Lenin’s Tomb

Lenin\'s tomb.

Somehow or other I was the only one in there with Lenin (I think it’s usually crowded, but it seemed like maybe they’d just re-opened after lunch…there was definitely a feeling that “something was different,” if that makes sense) and I wound up kind of breaking down. Here’s how it all took place.

First off they totally strip you of possessions—keys, wallet, bag, laptop, match tickets, everything—and then send you through this pitch-black space until you emerge in a room that’s completely dark except for one soft light shining down on Lenin’s body. It’s kind of like the moment in the concert where everything goes black except the guitarist, wringing out his sorrows in the shaft of the single spotlight. Lenin looks little and delicate, like a stage prop that got left behind when the play skipped town. Skin like crayon shavings, puppet-style folded-up hands. He’s been embalmed to the point where he seems flaky and glutinous, like boot polish. But you can see each precise hair in his goatee.

Maybe it was the cool, private space and the sense of having been freed from my belongings. Maybe it was my hand, which had been hurting more and more all day. Maybe it was just the strangeness of being alone with a person who died in 1924. Whatever the reason, I suddenly found myself opening up to Lenin, just confiding in him, I mean out loud, telling him all my problems, everything that happened in Соко́льники, how I didn’t have a place to stay for two more nights, how I didn’t know anyone in Moscow. I started talking about how I was afraid my hand was infected, and I mean, I was just babbling and babbling, but it felt sort of good to share my troubles with someone, you know? Even if that someone was the embalmed corpse of the father of the Soviet state.

I guess at some point I’d sat on the floor and rested my head on the casket dais, because when I heard a powerful voice say, “Well, stand up, it’s no good getting yourself arrested,” I thought for a second that it was coming from inside the coffin. I kind of shakily got to my feet and looked at Lenin, but then I noticed that behind him, just barely leaning out of the shadows, there was a tall, stooped, muscular, crinkly-eyed man with a short white beard and white hair pulled back in a stringy ponytail. He had on a battered old corduroy jacket, but underneath it, if I wasn’t mistaken, was the telltale blue sheen of a Chelsea shirt.

CORDUROY MAN: So, a homeless American in Moscow. The shoe would appear to have fled to the other foot.

ME: Sniff…Sorry. I was…I was talking to Lenin. I’m sorry.

CORDUROY MAN: Ah, the stone himself. He can’t hear you, you know. They have yet to invent the formaldehyde for that.

He had a faint Russian accent (“they have yet” sounded like “they haf yit”) but his English syntax was flawless. Everything he said had this subtle dry irony to it, but I couldn’t tell if it was more detached sympathy or defensive arrogance.

ME: I know that. Obviously. Obviously.

CORDUROY MAN: But then, why should that stop you. He and I used to have many wonderful conversations. I found him cheaper than a psychologist, and precisely as effective. But we had a falling-out, and we have not spoken in years.

ME: Oh…

CORDUROY MAN: I continue to do my duty, of course. An injection here, a reconstruction there. The President came to my daughter’s wedding; not because I am sloppy in my work. Do you know he wears the same shade of lip gloss as Garbo? The stone here; not Mr. Putin.

ME: You’re a…you’re an embalmer?

CORDUROY MAN: (bowing) I think of myself as an artist. But who doesn’t.

It turned out that he was Lenin’s official embalmer (a position he inherited from his father) and that the reason the tomb was so empty was that he was there to do his daily touch-up routine. I had been let in, he said, only because “Yuri is an idiot.”

When I asked about the Chelsea shirt, he really brightened up. “You know football?” he said. “Allow me to introduce myself.” He said his name was Grigoriy, but before he shook my hand he made me swear that I understood that Chelsea don’t score touchdowns. I told him what I was doing in Moscow; it turned out he knew the site; and he got extremely excited about some incorrect things that someone had said about something (he started talking in Russian, and I couldn’t follow him). When I asked whether he liked Chelsea because of the Russian connection, he got wryly vehement and insisted that he likes Chelsea because they’re the most English team in the world. “The only thing that could make them more English,” he said with this sort of intense head-tilt, “would be actually moving to Moscow.”

He had opinions on all the players: Ballack (“an analogue of the American misadventure in Iraq”), Shevchekno (“the only way to prolong his career would be to employ me”), Drogba (“magnificent, but the only battering ram in history to develop a phobia of the gate”). He thought Grant was “definitive proof that Machiavelli was a fool.” He missed Mourinho, but thought “tap dancers should remember that they are only tap dancers.” Of Abramovich all he would say was that, “Roman once paid me a hundred thousand pounds to stuff a sheepdog, and I never speak ill of a patron of the arts.”

After a while he noticed the bloody bandage on my hand, at which point he became extremely active, and insisted on taking me into what he called “the staging area” to give me proper medical treatment. (He has a medical degree; apparently you have to, to practice embalming on that level.) What about Lenin, I asked, but he only waved his arm behind him as he walked out of the room. “Oh, rot, you old fishmonger,” he said. “I’m not speaking to you!”

After he’d shot me full of some drugs that he said would solve all my problems, Grigoriy told me that due to his position in the state he maintained control of a few minor pieces of property, and asked if I needed a place to stay. I am writing this from a seraph-sized bed in the center of a room that looks like what Versailles dreams about when it’s sick of being at Versailles. It’s mine for the rest of the trip. The doorman in this building is dressed like a cavalry charge. Napoleon once proposed marriage to the lobby chandelier. There are allegories on my bedposts and one of those prim high-cradled phones forged at ten thousand degrees out of hard ivory peppermint and truth. It pays to know about soccer. I feel absolutely wonderful.

Is it possible that Grigoriy gave me some of Lenin’s embalming fluid? Am I embalmed now? Does this mean I can’t die?

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I Had an Experience in Lenin’s Tomb

by Vandal-prone · May 18, 2008

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