On This Day: Stalin's body is buried after being removed from Lenin's public tomb

Julian Gavaghan

OCTOBER 31, 1961: Josef Stalin’s embalmed body was moved from lying beside Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin’s publicly displayed corpse and buried on this day in 1961.

Taking the brutal dictator’s remains from the mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square would have been unthinkable at the time of his death eight years earlier.

He was revered for industrialising the country, leading it to a hard-won victory over Nazi Germany and turning the USSR into a superpower during his 29-year rule.

A British Pathé newsreel marking his death in 1953 shows the dictator watching parades of adoring workers and explains how he used terror to maintain supremacy.

But a wave of criticism – over Stalin’s purges and economic policies that had killed millions - followed his denunciation by successor Nikita Khrushchev in 1956.

The new Communist Party boss first took a swipe at Stalin’s personality cult, which he claimed had reached “monstrous size” and transformed him into a “godhead”.

Aside from the legions of statues erected in his honour, there could be no better example of his “dissolute” glorification than preserving his body for posterity.

The Soviets had perfected the art of embalming – removing organs and using chemicals to prevent corpses from rotting – following Lenin’s death.

And Stalin demanded that his body lie beside the leader of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, who thanks to charity remains on public display in now capitalist Russia.

Around 1.5million people visit the tomb each year, although since communism collapsed in 1991 there have been calls to bury Lenin.

The cost of maintenance has long been steep.

To avoid rotting or drying, the bodies were kept within glass cases in which the temperature was cooled to 16C and humidity kept between 80 and 90 per cent.

Also, once a week their skin is moisturised and each year the corpse gets a thorough cleaning and a new suit is provided.

The Russians became so good at this that teams were sent to Vietnam to help embalm communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh’s body and still service it every year.

In 1994, they also preserved North Korean despot Kim Il-sung’s corpse and returned in 2011 to embalm his son Kim Jong-Il.

But by 1961, few in the Soviet Union could continue to justify maintaining the body of a man who began life as the son of a Georgian shoemaker but became a despot.

In a bid to rapidly transform the USSR from an agrarian society into an industrial one, he seized peasants’ land, collectivised farms and triggered a catastrophic famine. 

Between six and eight million people are estimated to have starved to death between 1932 and 1933, decimating villages.
And at the same time, in the Great Purge, Stalin liquidated rivals other “anti-Soviet” elements – even going as far as to remove them from photographs.

Between 1937 and 1938 Around 680,000 people were executed and another 500,000 are believed to have been worked to death in notorious Siberian gulags.

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Among those killed were hundreds of Red Army officers, including seven generals and 80 per cent of colonels.

This left the USSR with a severe shortage of skilled military leadership when Nazi Germany abandoned its non-aggression pact and invaded in June 1941.

Up to 27million Soviet citizens – from a pre-war population of 168million – died.

Nevertheless, in spite of Stalin’s apparent inhumanity and failed policies, many Russians  - even right-wing ones - continue to idolise him and his strongman image.

President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer whose own 13-year rule has become increasingly authoritarian, has praised the communist dictator.

School textbooks, introduced in 2010, also claim his ruthless purges were ‘entirely rational’.