One bitterly cold morning, I hopped aboard Moscow's gorgeous subway determined to visit Lenin's mausoleum before I had to return to Frankfurt later the same day. After the Kremlin, I noticed barricades and military guards. Then something occurred to me. I approached a cluster of Russian soldiers and presented my diplomatic passport, asking politely if it was possible to visit Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870-1924). They argued among themselves for a few minutes, then swung a barricade open for me to enter the vastness of an empty Red Square.
On the long walk to the granite mausoleum at the base of the burgundy Kremlin walls, it snowed so hard that the whimsical onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral soon disappeared from view. There was no sign of life near the tomb, so I braced myself for its closure. At the tomb's darkened entrance, two guards stood rigidly at attention.
I slipped into the mausoleum for a private audience with one of the last century's most controversial figures. I spent 10 minutes viewing the glass-encased Vladimir Ilich from various angles in the glum chamber, musing both on the historical ramifications he set in motion and how well the embalmers had preserved him (dark hair still slicked back after 81 years!). A soldier finally broke my meditation by barking orders at me to leave.
On a subsequent trip to Hanoi, I found myself the only Westerner in a long line patiently waiting to visit the embalmed Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969), president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and communist leader in the wars against both France and the U.S. A military guard, inspecting the visitors, halted beside me. Suddenly, he cracked a thin cane across my hands, both still buried in my pockets. It was a lightning strike of controlled violence, and to this day I wonder whether it was because of the perceived disrespect I was showing or if it reflected a deeper animosity - that a Westerner (particularly an American) had the temerity to pay homage to the embalmed father of a nation created from the suffering of millions of Vietnamese.
Stinging welts on my hands, and my arms respectfully at my sides, I entered the mausoleum with a group of Vietnamese to pay our respects to the glass-encased leader of the revolution. Ho Chi Minh looked in better shape than Lenin, but then he's only been embalmed for 36 years!
Most recently I visited Mao Tse-Tung's (1893-1976) mausoleum in Tiananmen Square. Surprisingly, again, I was the only Westerner in line, but unlike in Hanoi, the atmosphere was festive, as Chinese ran to purchase last-minute flowers. Chairman Mao's mausoleum is less oppressive, mainly because light pours in from the curio shop at the back of the memorial chamber. This, of course, is the irony of Mao's memorial: a market-based tourist shop in the mausoleum of one of communism's greatest leaders. Or is it a subtle reminder of the free market orientation the contemporary communist leadership has moved toward?
The striking thing about the glass-encased Mao's appearance is his hair. When did you see a picture of Mao with snow-white hair? If Mao's embalmers dyed his hair the color of Lenin's, he would look like his image on the gaudy curios for sale behind his glass-encased corpse.
While I didn't experience a private visit with Mao, at least I didn't get my hands whacked. This was all business.
After 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, these three embalmed leaders seem part of a bygone era. They not only symbolize the death of communism, but also the failure of their respective countries to leave the past behind. Perhaps if they buried or cremated these communist vestiges, Russia, China and Vietnam would be less hesitant to continue their move toward a market-based economy. One wonders when their citizens will stop displaying them in glass cases like sleeping beauties awaiting resurrection.
Now, for a visit to Kim Sung-Il's mausoleum!
Originally published in the Foreign Service Journal for May 2005. Republished by permission of the author and the Foreign Service Journal.