The Egyptians did it. The Mayans did it. The Tibetans did it. Even the Koreans and German Housewives do it, en masse and with gusto – in the latter’s case with the resulting treasures to be stashed in some cellar shelf to collect dust, or to be given to secretly reluctant friends at Christmas so that they in turn can clog up their dusty cellar shelves. They all pickle stuff.
Preservation of food nowadays takes just a few choice chemicals, so participation in this activity is often down to taste and nostalgia. The more grizzly ancient practices of human embalming however, were widely exercised to ensure safe journey into the afterlife – for those fortunate or tyrannical enough to be able to afford the entry fee to the afterlife. So what is it, in these modern secular times, with communists pickling their dead leaders?
Our Epic Journey has taken us through Russia and China, the biggest countries on the globe influenced by communist ideology, as well as some little ones such as (North) Korea and Vietnam. We have previously studied and travelled Latin America extensively, and this continent’s ongoing toying with the idea of the ideal socialist state is also apparent whenever you witness yet another disgruntled citizen complain about the corruption of the government, the marginalisation of the working class and the inherent ‘stupidity’ and hypocrisy of anyone who gets into capitalist power. The Revolution will come – it’s just that no one seems sure of when and how.
You may be surprised to hear that Fidel Castro, one of our potentially soon to be pickled protagonists, wasn’t originally out to turn Cuba communist. He was in fact only persuaded by this very intelligent, but for Fidel’s liking somewhat too radical left-wing guy by the name of Ernesto Guevara (that’s ‘Che’ for all you cool kids out there). Che, counter to the beliefs of one of the kids in our 9th grade way back in the day, did not “die fighting for the legalisation of weeeeeed, maaaan”. But it was the Revolution with a capital R (i.e. people’s rule over themselves and freedom from the meddling US and USSR) that pulled both men’s heart strings.
Importantly, something about the structure of both the Revolution and socialism make it most effective in creating and retaining political power – and this very thing might just explain these governments’ fondness for formaldehyde. No matter how much any leader may bang on about the ‘power of the people’, the most widely used tool in maintaining structure and leadership has been a very simple one: a solidly entrenched personality cult.
“Religion is the opium of the people” said Marx, and did away with it. Just like throwing your board shorts out to sea during a tipsy skinny dipping session seemed like a good idea at the time, some people would be absolutely fine crawling back to shore butt naked and proudly stomping off to get a towel. For others though, getting rid of what used to be an arguably somewhat fantastical but nevertheless very emotionally supporting trust in a guiding figure left a void only another supreme being could fill.
With even the Flying Spaghetti Monster out of bounds due to the whole anti-religion doctrine, the Maos, Stalins, Lenins, ‘Uncle’ Ho Chi Minhs and Kim Il Sung’s of this world got ready for a field trip. Guiding their people through wars, struggles for independence and the turning inside out of the political system needed a well-oiled propaganda machine, of which symbolism is one of the most effective tools.
Walk down a street in Moscow, Beijing or Hanoi and you’ll have to be blind or completely engrossed in Tinder to not see the victorious faces of Lenin, Mao and Uncle Ho everywhere. The machine is ticking over, the saviour everywhere and the country in control. But then – he gets old, sick, loses interest, maybe even his mind… the authorities who have been happily building this one figure of reference suddenly start to sit up and take notice. Unlike other forms of government, there is no automatically accepted son to follow in the king’s footsteps a royal bloodline, no new supreme leader chosen by God – or in a democracy, the people… although there are sound arguments against the existence of such a democracy even in our modern, enlightened, ‘Western’ world. But that is another debate within itself.
As admiration, guidance seeking and numbers of followers grew throughout the ‘liberator’s’ lifetime, of course always assisted by a vast network of propaganda, government officials found themselves incredibly concerned how the system would fare once the figurehead of it all kicked the proverbial bucket. Then, 15 months after the hype surrounding the discovery of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen’s preserved body, the genius idea struck one of Lenin’s homies. “Pimp my dead leader!”, he exclaimed, and Lenin (Moscow Mausoleum) was preserved and put on public display in 1924.
Paradoxically, the idea of preserving bodies of communist anti-religious leaders may also on a subconscious level be likened to the Christian Orthodox belief that one of the dead giveaways of someone having been a Saint was that parts of or even their entire body would not decay. Nevertheless, this dappling in religion didn’t seem to deter the ministers surrounding Mao Zedong (Beijing Mausoleum), Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il (both in the Kumusan Palace of the Sun, Pyongyang), Ho Chi Minh (Hanoi Mausoleum), Mongolia’s Khorloogiin Choibalsan, Angola’s Agostinho Neto, Guyana’s Forbes Burnham and, most recently, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela (not Dagenham).
Klement Gottwald of Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria’s Georgi Dimitrov and Joseph Stalin were also given the star treatment, but after a botched procedure, the fall of communism in Bulgaria and a general hate of Stalin’s guts respectively, the bodies were removed and put to rest using alternative methods.
Interestingly enough, the afore mentioned embalmees were rarely asked whether they would agree to the procedure, with Ho Chi Minh explicitly instructing to be cremated. The preservation of the state over personal wishes may have been the last sacrifices these leaders made to their countries. It certainly worked on some levels as millions of local and international tourists flock every year to catch a glimpse of particularly Lenin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh, always in a solemn atmosphere and with some tears shed as well amongst the more nostalgic of the socialist era.
We defy you to tick them off like trump cards on your travels around the globe, but witnessing the power one person’s image can hold is a truly thought provoking experience. Let us know what you experienced when probably seeing a dead body for the first time – we’d love to know your thoughts.