The Secret Fate of Lenin's Brain
Where is Lenin’s brain and why was it removed from his corpse? Learn the strange story of what happened after his death and the startling truth scientists concluded about his brain, as excerpted from When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain by Giles Milton, the basis for the podcast, Unknown History.
The mold is regularly wiped from his face and his body is occasionally bathed in glycerol to prevent it from rotting. But despite being on display for almost nine decades, Lenin’s preserved corpse is in remarkable condition. He looks as if he has drifted into a deep sleep.
But Lenin is hiding a secret, one that is almost invisible to the naked eye. Before being embalmed, scientists sliced open his head and carefully removed his brain in order that it could be studied in microscopic detail. The Soviet regime wanted to know the exact nature of Lenin’s genius.
An Everlasting Symbol
Lenin’s Politburo colleagues wanted his corpse to become a permanent monument to the revolution. Felix Dzerzhinsky, chairman of the Lenin Funeral Committee, said: ‘If science permits, Lenin’s body must be preserved.’
When the distinguished Soviet pathologist Aleksei Abrikosov was asked if it was possible, he replied that ‘science today has no such means’. Others disagreed. Vladimir Vorobiev, a professor of anatomy at Kharkov University, argued that ‘many anatomical compounds can be preserved for decades; this means we can try and apply them to an entire body.’
The most important organ to be safeguarded was Lenin’s brain. It was removed intact from his skull and placed in formaldehyde. For two years no one dared touch it. But in 1926, the German neurologist Oskar Vogt was invited to try to unlock the key to Lenin’s supposed genius. Professor Vogt established the Brain Institute in Moscow, with Lenin’s organ as the focus of its studies.
The Preservation Process
The body had meanwhile been placed in the capable hands of Professor Vorobiev, who was given the weighty responsibility of saving Lenin’s flesh from ruin. He was aided in his work by another expert, Boris Zbarsky; both men knew they would be executed if they failed.
Lenin’s blood, bodily fluids and internal organs were removed shortly after the brain, as part of the initial embalming process. (The whereabouts of his heart remains a mystery to this day: it seems to have been lost shortly afterwards.)
Once the internal organs had been removed, the corpse was immersed for many weeks in a special solution that contained glycerol and acetate.
It was essential to keep the eye sockets from collapsing: artificial eyes were inserted into the holes as replacements for the originals. It was also important that the face looked as lifelike as possible. Lenin’s eyebrows, moustache and goatee were therefore left untouched.
Examination of the Brain
While the body underwent a lengthy embalming process, the brain was given a detailed examination. Professor Vogt had long argued that there was a direct link between brain structure and intelligence. If correct in this assumption, there was no reason why he couldn’t map the origins of Lenin’s supposed genius.
The professor chopped the brain into four chunks and then had each chunk sliced into 7,500 microscopically thin sections.
Vogt and his team of Soviet scientists spent years studying the slices of brain and trying to make sense of their findings. The results of their scientific tests were eventually set down in fourteen volumes bound in green leather and embossed with a single word: LENIN.
But neither the professor’s work, nor that of the scientists that followed in his wake, was ever published. It was not until 1993 that Dr Oleg Adrianov, one of the Brain Institute’s most distinguished technicians, was finally allowed to publish a paper on Lenin’s brain.
There was good reason why the findings could not be made public earlier. Lenin’s brain did indeed hold a secret, one so shocking that the Soviet hierarchy was determined to keep it under wraps.
What was it?
To find out the answer, listen to the full episode of our new podcast, Unknown History, in the top right hand player of this page or on iTunes, Stitcher, and Spotify. Plus, connect with Giles on Twitter and Facebook.