What is at least one thing that Vladimir Lenin, Chairman Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and the first two of North Korea’s “Kims” have in common? Yes, they were all once leaders of communist nations. Yes, they are all dead. But there is at least one additional, common thread: Though dead, their bodies remain on public display! That’s right. Even though the idea is at once grotesque and macabre, these bodies are “resting” in mausoleums that are open to the public. In what is surely the most unusual travel article I have ever penned, I write about my visits to these four strangely interesting sites.
Perhaps the best known of the “resting” places for these communist dictators is the mausoleum where the body of Vladimir Lenin remains on display in Moscow’s Red Square–97 years after his death. After reading stories about the hours-long lines that form at Lenin’s tomb, even in the bitter cold and snow of a Russian winter, I was apprehensive when my son and I set out for Red Square in the early morning hours one August day. Imagine my amazement when we arrived to discover that we were the only ones at the entrance to the Lenin’s mausoleum!
Approaching the door I was stopped by a member of the Federal Guard who was standing watch. He made a gesture at his neck several times and finally he reached towards my throat tugging at the collar button on my shirt. I proceeded to button my collar and only after that did the faint trace of a smile come to his lips. He motioned me inside.
I walked down a few steps into the room that contained the glass case in which lay the body of Vladimir Lenin. There were another couple of guards standing nearby. The lighting in the room was subdued except for the illumination of Lenin’s corpse. I walked toward the sarcophagus and, almost immediately, these guards motioned for me to move along even though there were no other visitors behind me. The whole trip in and out could not have taken more than two or three minutes. It seemed as if the guards were concerned that I might see something that I shouldn’t if I were to remain but a brief moment inside the viewing room.
A team of scientists work year round to preserve Lenin’s remains. The viewing room is maintained at a temperature of 61° and the humidity remains at a constant 80-90 percent. Yet, despite all of these efforts, the body appears waxy and unnatural. I was suddenly reminded of my long-ago visit to Madame Tussauds’ Wax Museum!
Even with all of these Herculean efforts aimed at preserving Lenin’s remains, the number of visitors to his tomb has sharply declined since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The long lines of visitors waiting to pass by the sarcophagus–many of whom displaying a reverence akin to a religious pilgrimage–are simply a thing of the past. In fact, today there is often no queue at all. Although a handful of tourists occasionally wander in and out, the “magic” of the early days has definitely disappeared.
While Lenin’s mausoleum is relatively small, the resting place for the two former North Korean leaders is extremely large, grandiose, and far more elaborate. Actually, the Kim Mausoleum was once the palace of “the Great Leader” who founded North Korea. When I visited in 2009, the mausoleum housed only one body. Today, the body of the founder’s son has been added to the display. In order to get a visa that would allow me to enter North Korea, I had to agree in writing that I would wear a tie when I made my mandatory visit to this tomb and that I would literally bow before the body of the “great” leader.
The massive size of the place is underscored by the fact that visitors must ride moving sidewalks just to reach the first checkpoint deep inside. Here there is a huge lobby where I had to leave my camera, sunglasses, watch, and money belt–even my handkerchief! Next, I stood upon a machine with whirling brushes to remove any dirt and/or dust from the bottoms of my shoes. Then another moving sidewalk whisked me past hundreds of school children on their way out of the mausoleum dressed in their brightly colored school uniforms. This was truly an amazing sight. These small children were crying loudly, uncontrollably–sobbing and wailing, actually–and many of them were literally shaking and swooning, waving their arms, and rubbing their eyes. This was North Korea’s answer to the ever-dwindling crowds at the Kim mausoleum–a mandatory visit by easily swayed elementary-aged school children.
Right in the center of Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing is Chairman Mao’s mausoleum. Much larger than Lenin’s tomb, it still pales in size when compared with the “palace-turned-tomb” in which the bodies of the Kims–father and son–are displayed. There was a considerable queue to walk though Mao’s mausoleum on the day I visited. Plastic flowers are readily available to be dropped near the sarcophagus–only to be swept up and shoveled into large bins so that these may be recycled for use by the next group of tourists passing through. Again, the chairman’s body surely must have looked a great deal more natural in life! As jury-proof of China’s emergence as a capitalistic society, the sole exit from the mausoleum is through the gift shop where Western “hard” currencies are readily accepted.
During a recent trip to Hanoi, I visited the final member of this gruesome quartet of strange burial sites. I waited patiently in a long line to be able to walk through the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and see yet another rather waxy and “plasticky” looking corpse. This Vietnamese revolutionary, who died in 1969, is affectionately remembered as “Uncle Ho.” Because he died in the middle of the Vietnam War, his embalmers had to work in a cave in the North Vietnamese jungle to prepare his body. His tomb is on par, size wise, with that of Chairman Mao–except there are many more steps.
I remember my history professor at university lecturing about the inherent danger to any society when heads of state are afforded enormous reverence by huge segments of the population. In extreme examples of this phenomenon, super-human qualities have been given to these heads of state by some of their adoring citizens resulting in the formation of a cult-like following. Imperial Japan, the Inca, the Aztecs, Tibet, Siam (now Thailand), and the Roman Empire are especially noted for redefining monarchs as “god-kings.”
Thankfully, with the advance of modern science and critical thinking in Europe and North America during the 18th and 19th centuries, it has become increasingly difficult for governmental leaders to project this “god-like” aura. At least in these four instances, however, it is clear that there remains a path for cult-like leaders to emerge and cultivate a significant cadre of adoring followers who form an idealized, heroic, and often “messianic” image of them through their uncritical and unquestioning praise. The hope is that in this new century we will have seen the last of the kind of maniacal cult-like devotion to a leader that, in its most extreme iterations, has resulted in the bodies of long-dead leaders being put on “permanent” public display.