Lenin’s Corpse Won’t Look This Good Forever
"Preservation" by Maria Lioutaia, from the penultimate issue of Tin House magazine
INTRODUCTION BY THE STAFF OF TIN HOUSE MAGAZINE
For us on the Tin House magazine staff, one of the top privileges of the job was the opportunity to meet, each summer and winter at the Tin House Workshops, a crew of writers we’d get to know as people first, without the cloud of editorial decision hanging over our first impression. Knowing that these writers had each in some way impressed our colleagues on the workshop admissions board, we could meet them openly, trusting that if they did ask us to look at a manuscript, it would likely impress us, too.
When we first met Maria Lioutaia, long before her story “Preservation” appeared in what would be our penultimate issue, she was writing under an English translation of her Russian last name, with no first name—just initials. She was called M.V. Fierce, and we expected someone standoffish, cold, maybe a little intimidating. Yet when Maria arrived as a scholarship attendee to the Summer Workshop, she was anything but that imposing alter-ego we expected. Already moving toward shedding the pseudonym and embracing her vowel-heavy last name (which we assured her was not so difficult to pronounce, likely butchering it all the while), Maria was warm and funny. Her speech was inflected with idiosyncrasies both Canadian and Russian—she had come to us from Toronto, though she’d been born and partially raised in Moscow. She was a writer coming into her own, and doing it fast: Tin House was her first writing workshop, and in fact she’d only just begun to seriously write fiction, yet within only a few years, she’d be appearing in our pages—and it wouldn’t even be her first published story.
This story, “Preservation,” is a return to Maria’s birth country, and in fact to quite a heavy Russian symbol: Vladimir Lenin, or more precisely, his publicly displayed body. Maria’s protagonist is Valentina, the woman tasked with keeping Lenin’s corpse looking pristine decades after his death. This task is impossible, and kind of gross, though Maria finds nothing but beauty in the subtleties of it: Valentina “savors the intimacy of knowing someone after death,” finding comfort in the familiar “wiry bristle of his copper chest hair across her palm.” The story dwells on the calm power of consistency and stability—the inspector from the Ministry of Culture laments that “Everything used to be proper, by-the-book. Culture was respected, but now it’s all pell-mell, now who can tell what’s going on?” Yet by the end of the story that inspector has witnessed some sort of post-Soviet miracle, a private moment of deep and living change in Valentina’s life.
Valentina, who dwells personally and professionally on endings in her and her nation’s past, is given an opportunity to embrace her current moment, and to open her arms to the next. Ultimately, the story suggests, the preservation of culture may have little to do with immortalizing the masters or even their works. Culture is not only the great, dead thing under glass. No matter how righteously we labor to keep the past alive, the culture is defined by the literally living—by the present that welcomes the future. It’s a powerful story, and one that only grew in personal poignance for us while preparing our final issue.
Good fiction always feels like a miracle. By adding some layer of complication, a revelation occurs. Here, in “Preservation,” Maria Lioutaia is that revelator. It’s an honor for both the Tin House Workshop and Tin House magazine to present her work here.
-The staff of Tin House Magazine
Lenin’s Corpse Won’t Look This Good Forever
by Maria Lioutaia
Over the past month, Valentina had attempted every procedure, from reputable to highly experimental. She’d bathed Lenin’s body in hydrogen peroxide and potassium acetate, employed benzene wipes, adjusted the dosages of intravenous polymer, applied refined paraffin wax in a thin layer over the face to maintain the appearance of skin, even resorted to botulinum. But the corpse had ceased all cooperation. After seventy years of successful maintenance, Lenin’s body was deteriorating faster than the morticians and biochemical scientists could keep up. Patchy dark spots bloomed across the dome of Lenin’s skull. His eye sockets collapsed like sinkholes. That morning, as Valentina inspected a gray fleshy protrusion on his temple, his left ear had fallen off into her hand like the handle on a poorly made clay mug. Most worryingly, there was a new smell about him. A damp, ghoulish, subterranean stench.
Valentina took the creaking elevator from her basement office at the Red Square mausoleum to the viewing chamber, where she could peek into the main room through brocade velvet curtains. Lenin was arranged on the central dais, as always, strategically spotlit by a soft peach wash over his recessed features. Today he was dressed in a black wool suit with double lapels and a maroon pinstripe tie. They’d had to change his suits almost daily this week, to keep up with his skin secretions. His face was serene, as though he were simply indulging in closed-eyed contemplation after a busy day of guiding the proletariat. Despite the flattering shadows of the room, Valentina could see the cluster of fungus on his bald pate through the glut of concealer.
The bare-headed procession of schoolchildren, pensioners, and tourists shuffled by on a cordoned walkway. Attendance had noticeably declined in the past year, since the dissolution of the USSR. For most visitors, dead Lenin was now just a morbid curiosity, one more thing off the Red Square checklist, after buying ice cream plombir at GUM and a photo with a celebrity impersonator. Biting editorials in the newspapers suggested that Lenin should be put to real rest, buried in the Kremlin’s walls so the country could move on into a post-Soviet future without its history so prominently on display. Valentina listened to the hush, the whisper of feet on carpet, watched the shadow-chiseled faces passing under the peach light. And in the middle of it all Lenin, glowing on the dais, magnetizing attention toward himself, the epicenter of their gaze.
Most people thought of death as an instant: a transition from being to not-being, like flipping a light switch. But Valentina understood it as a progressive condition everyone was born with, a deterioration that was irrevocably intertwined with life. Cellular degradation began long before—and continued long after—the ceasing of the heartbeat. To be able to contain the process this long, to keep Lenin’s body looking nearly alive, felt almost like commanding time itself.
Valentina savored, too, the intimacy of knowing someone after death. Her relationship with Lenin had exceeded her marriage. She knew that pale, waxy body better than her ex-husband’s and better than her son’s. Living bodies changed constantly. Acquiring new moles and stretch marks, growing hirsute or bald, wracked with new aches and smells and destructive bad habits. The encroachment of menopause was rendering Valentina’s own body alien, from the hot flashes that left hives under the folds of her breasts, to the relaxation of her jawline, its slow sag. Some mornings she looked down in the shower and barely recognized the landscape.
Lenin’s body, on the other hand, had been comfortingly consistent. Valentina had memorized the mole constellation on his back, the soft skin valleys between his ribs, the gaping maw of his abdominal incision, how the wiry bristle of his copper chest hair felt across her palm. But now he, too, was changing, rejecting all attempts to preserve him.
Valentina watched as each person came level with Lenin’s head: their chins lifted, eyes flickered at the body in nervous confusion, nostrils flared. That dendritic smell threaded itself through the room and announced with certainty that Lenin was decomposing.
“Valentina Nikolaevna, phone for you downstairs,” said Katya at her back.
As Valentina stepped off the elevator, Boris walked by with a stack of fresh gauze, trailing the smell of formaldehyde down the hallway. She entered her windowless office, lowered herself into the chair, brought the receiver to her ear.
“Valentinushka, how’s Comrade Lenin? Back to tip-top shape?” It was Anton Antonovich Saratin, the director of the Institute of Cultural Preservation.
Valentina twisted her fingers into the telephone cord. “Unfortunately, he’s not cooperating just yet.”
There was a pause at the other end. A long pause.
“Well, make him—I just had word that the Ministry of Culture is sending an inspector tomorrow morning, since there’s been some public reports of a rotting stench. And do you know what will happen if they find him ready for burial? Kaput, that’s what. For all of you down there. Possibly for me as well.”
Under her sternum, Valentina felt the sprouting of panic. “I need more time.”
A sigh on his end, the scrape of a heavy chair against wooden floorboards. “I don’t care what you have to do, shove Plasticine up his ass, lacquer him with nail polish, just make him look presentable tomorrow.” And there was the dial tone in Valentina’s ear.
She sat for a long time staring at objects on her desk—a pen, a conjoined tail of paper clips, a little figurine of a knight constructed out of acorns, twigs, and prodigious blobs of glue that Yurik had made in school years ago. What could be done? They’d already tried everything within budget and scientific reason. Could they make a wax figure of Lenin to temporarily replace the body? This required expertise, carvers and painters they didn’t have on staff and wouldn’t have been able to pay anyway. Plus, there was the issue of time. A wax copy would take time, and she had fewer than twenty-four hours at her disposal. There was really nothing to do. She’d already failed.
“Katya, get everyone in here,” she called into the hallway.
The half-dozen mausoleum staff made their way into her office, and Valentina glanced around in preemptive farewell. Her long-suffering ficus plant, its leaves in need of dusting. A gold tinsel garland pinned over her doorway and a miniature plastic fir tree decorated with tiny baubles in a ceramic pot on the corner of her desk. Two days before New Year’s. And now Valentina had to announce that Grandfather Frost was bringing everyone unemployment.
She explained the situation, but didn’t have to explain the impossibility of passing the inspection.
“Is there nothing we can do?” said Boris, leaning against the doorframe, a smear of something brown and Lenin down the lapel of his lab coat.
“What, dress you up as him and hope for the best?” fired someone from the back, and there was a dry chuckle, followed by resigned silence.
Valentina looked at all of them. “There’s no use you being here tomorrow for the inspection. Go home early, try to enjoy the New Year’s holidays, and may ’93 be kinder to us all.”
They closed the mausoleum early, removed Lenin from display into the laboratory downstairs. Her colleagues stopped by her office one by one to shake her hand and wish her happy New Year in mournful tones, before departing. Even Boris left eventually, after attempting final, futile attempts at resurrection. Then she was alone. She ripped the gold tinsel down from the doorway and wrapped it around the acorn knight before tucking the figurine into her purse. She wasn’t sure if the ficus plant counted as government property, so didn’t risk taking it. She put on her raccoon-fur coat, picked up her bags, locked her office, and walked down the hallway to the refrigerated laboratory.
Lenin rested supine and naked on a metal table under UV lamps, a square of quinine-soaked gauze plastered onto his forehead. There were new gray striations along the veins of his feet, and his skin looked like old tights: too taut and threadbare in some regions, too loose and wrinkled in others.
Valentina stood over him a long time, then took his cold, stiff hand in hers and said, “Traitor,” before bursting into tears.
She tied her wool scarf around her head and gathered the collar of her coat tight to her neck against the bluster of damp wind racing across the expanse of Red Square. A blind sun smeared low across the sky, and the clouds on the horizon were leaden with coming snow. On the front steps of the mausoleum, Valentina rearranged her bags into the crook of her arm, ducked her head low in the wind, and took a diagonal direction past Saint Basil’s. She had no particular destination in mind. It felt too early to go home. The cobblestones under her boots were slick with gray slush.
Her wedding portraits had been taken not far from where she walked now. On the other side of the square, in front of the Eternal Flame. The memory was more painful than tender. The Moskvich auto-body factory where Alexei had worked for a decade had closed three years ago, and he’d started moonlighting in small garages, where vodka and despair were ever present. The verb spilsya had always intrigued Valentina with its accuracy. It implied not just drunkenness, but a concluded descent into drunkenness, as though taking regularly to the bottle was a slide covered in noxious slime, with no way back up. It implied a process, a degradation of will and faculties and resistance. She’d tried begging, coaxing, threatening. She’d tried hiding the money, but while she was at work Alexei hawked her jewelry and her father’s photographic equipment at bazaars for a fraction of their worth. She’d brought him to countless specialists, including a hypnotist in the suburbs. She’d even bribed an old school friend—now a doctor in a government hospital—for a referral to the high-end sanatorium in the invigorating pinewoods north of Moscow. Alexei spent two weeks there, then the day after returning home fell off their third-floor balcony drunk and broke his collarbone. Once the sling came off, Valentina told him to leave, for their son’s sake more than for her own.
This square held nothing but reminders of how things altered cruelly and permanently. Her life was in its autumn, lonely and losing leaves. Valentina made it to the fir alleyway that ran parallel to the Kremlin’s wall, where wide-backed benches stood at intervals along the walkway, though most were damp with snowmelt or tagged with loopy graffiti. She walked until she found one sufficiently protected by a sprawling blue fir and cleaner than the others. A man behind an issue of Pravda occupied one end. Valentina wiped the slats on the other end with her handkerchief, then sat down.
The day was quickly withering. People hurried toward the metro to beat the rush hour, here and there impersonators walked about alone or in pairs looking for tourists to take a photo with them for a couple of rubles. There were a few Stalins, a Marx or two, a random smattering of Pushkins and Tolstoys, but the majority were Lenins with varying degrees of physical resemblance and comportment. How dare they presume to look like him, thought Valentina. It was, in fact, hard to pick the worst resemblance. Perhaps the gangly Lenin trying to light a cigarette in the wind, his too-short army-issue pants showing hairy ankles. Or the one barely in his midtwenties, hiding his full head of curls under a cap. Posing with a young couple in front of a Kremlin wall was a doughy Lenin with the red-veined potato nose and under-eye paunchiness of a committed alcoholic. Worthless imitations, the lot of them.
Valentina heard an “Excuse me” and glanced up. But the woman holding a small boy by the hand wasn’t talking to her. She was addressing the man with the Pravda on the other end of Valentina’s bench. “Excuse me, could we take a picture with you?”
The woman gestured vaguely at her son, who sucked on a mittened hand. The man on the bench slowly and carefully started folding his newspaper, and Valentina realized that he was another Lenin impersonator, with a black overcoat open to a slightly bulging vest. Before Valentina could take a good look, the woman extended to her a boxy chrome-and-black Zenit. “Could I ask you to take the photograph, please? Do you know how to work a camera?”
Valentina nodded. Her father had taught her, and she’d taken all of their family snapshots herself, developed them in the bathroom, before Alexei had sold the camera and lenses.
She took a few steps away as the Lenin stood and mother and son posed stiffly beside him. She pressed her right eye against the viewfinder and twisted the lens, bringing the scene into focus. As the Lenin’s features sharpened, a surreal prickling of recognition made Valentina freeze. Something about the way he held himself, stiff but commanding. The carefully trimmed mustache and ruddy beard framing that familiar thin-lipped mouth. That sharp ridge of cheekbone. And those eyes, with their almost Asiatic narrowing in the corners.
She lowered the camera.
“Did you take it?” the woman called.
Valentina lifted the camera once more, wound up the film, counted out loud, “One, two, three,” heard the snap of the shutter, and handed the Zenit back to the woman, all in a haze.
The woman extended a handful of coins, asking the impersonator, “Is this enough?” He nodded curtly, then dropped the change into his overcoat pocket with a little pat. Then he sat back onto the bench and raised the Pravda back up to his face.
Valentina waited until the mother and son were far away. The only thing she could make out beyond the open swath of newsprint was the man’s left ear—small, delicately sculpted, with a defined and well-curved rim, an ear that was painfully familiar to her after she’d spent the past week trying to get it to stay on Lenin’s head. Valentina felt a kaleidoscoping of reality that made her clutch the bench slats to offset a sudden swirl of dizziness.
After a couple of moments she finally found her voice. “Pardon me, comrade?”
The Lenin tipped one corner of the newspaper and faced her. It really was uncanny. The only thing that allowed Valentina to be sure was the eye color. Lenin’s eyes had been dark brown, almost black. Beady. Those who’d seen them in person said that gaze perforated their thoughts, left gashes for his ideas to blow through. This Lenin had eyes of warm honey, amber-sealed, kind and tired.
“It’s incredible,” Valentina murmured. “Are you by any chance related?”
It would’ve been a ridiculous question even a few years ago, Lenin’s relative busking for change on Red Square, but was a reasonable possibility in the present confusion. Chemists were quitting broke universities for open-air market stands, mathematicians added spare cash as gypsy cabbies, policemen supplemented their income in the employ of mobsters.
Only after she spoke did Valentina realize she hadn’t specified whom she meant, but by the definitive shake of this Lenin’s head, it was evident she didn’t need to.
His face darkened. “Devil take it all, no. A genetic curse, a cosmic joke.” He spat on the ground as if he’d bitten into lemon peel.
The vehemence was so pronounced, Valentina drew back. “Is it really so terrible?”
He looked at her for a long silent moment, and Valentina felt herself blushing.
“You have no idea, believe me. Did you want a photo, too?”
“Not quite,” whispered Valentina.
She explained to this Lenin—his name was Sergey—the plan that had formed at her first glance of him. Once he understood what she was asking of him, he bolted up from the bench. But instead of leaving, he began pacing back and forth under the fir trees along the pavement, folding and unfolding his newspaper, flushed pink continents materializing on his forehead. On the one hand the risk of being found out, arrested, charged with—what? Surely not treason. Tampering with a dead body? Valentina wasn’t sure what the charge would be, save there would be one if they were caught. On the other hand, his overcoat was threadbare in the elbows, his shoes scuffed and thin-soled. He stopped sharply in front of Valentina and asked, his eyes downcast to the cobblestones, “So, say I do. How much?”
Valentina offered the entirety of her week’s salary. She and Yurik would get by, and a successful inspection could buy time. Maybe over the holidays she would figure out how to restore the real Lenin back to normal.
Sergey looked up at the Kremlin’s walls as though there were still snipers positioned at the embrasures. He kept rubbing his head, smoothing his hand down toward his face. Then he looked at Valentina again, carefully and steadily, for so long she became suddenly aware of her puffy post-cry nose, the fine lines around her mouth, the gray starting to show at the roots of her brunette bob. He nodded.
Valentina had little memory of how she got home. The press of silent bodies in the train car, the looming of her apartment building in the swirl of snow, her hand trembling so much that the key scraped against the metal of the lock before finding the keyhole. The apartment was silent. Only the quiet ticking of the stove clock and the muted shouts of the neighbors’ television. A scrawled note slipped under a dirty plate on the kitchen table informing her in Yurik’s disheveled handwriting that he was studying tonight at Dima’s. She drew one finger through the remnants of strawberry compote on the plate. She felt she was operating in some ether, the ether of dread of the next day.
Valentina moved over to perch on the windowsill, then drew the telephone into her lap. She picked and pulled at the numbers one by one, the rotary disk clicking back with each circumnavigation of the dial. She took a deep steadying breath.
“Oh, Annechka, you’re still at work, good.” Annechka was one of her oldest friends, a veterinarian. “Listen, I need a big favor. My cousin, she’s got this dog to transport from Lithuania, a guard dog, and it’s not exactly an aboveground transportation, if you know what I mean. They’ve got to keep him completely quiet in the truck over the border. Is there something they can give him, to make him stay asleep for a couple of hours? One of those big drooling beasties, with the thick coat. A Caucasian Ovcharka, yes. Oh, I’d say—” Valentina had lifted embalmed Lenin’s body often, but it was a different matter when it was full of blood and organs. Miscalculation could be deadly. “I’d say around seventy-five, eighty kilos. Yes”—she laughed—“a big one. They’re willing to pay, you understand, more than the usual rate.” Valentina glanced at the small soup tureen stored on top of the fridge, where she’d hidden some sparse savings meant for Yurik’s new winter boots and perhaps eventually a Black Sea vacation for herself. “Oh, Annechka, I’ll pop over right now. You’re a lifesaver.”
She couldn’t fall asleep. Headlights from passing cars chased each other across the ceiling and twice she got up to check that the vial was still in her coat pocket. Around midnight she heard the soft click of the door latch as Yurik snuck in well past his curfew, the stumbling and quiet swearing as he tripped taking off his shoes in the hallway, the gurgle of urine hitting the toilet bowl, the creak of the foldout couch springs in the other room. Now an adolescent, he seemed too tall and angular for their cramped apartment. The first time his voice had broken, Valentina was so startled by the man’s timbre that came out of her small son that she dropped the pot of water she’d been carrying to the stove. Just yesterday she’d caught him smoking near the building entrance. As she’d swatted him upstairs, he walked slowly, with a new swagger, something insolent and foreign in his eyes. By dinnertime he was back to himself, but that insight into her son as no longer her child had terrified Valentina.
At five, she gave up on sleep and headed to the mausoleum. She spent the early hours packing up Lenin’s body. He looked worse than the previous day. The gray striations now threaded over his thighs and up to his groin, as though time were collecting him in monstrous tentacles. Before zipping him up in a white bag and sliding him into the storage pod, she leaned down and pressed her lips hard against his cold, damp forehead.
“Where do you want me?” Sergey stood awkwardly in front of the dais, hands shoved deeply into the pockets of his navy tracksuit.
“First, change into this,” Valentina said, handing him one of Lenin’s black suits along with a white shirt and striped gray tie. It was a suit they hadn’t used in the rotation in a while, and it had been cleaned, but it still emanated subtle pickle-like notes of fermentation.
Sergey drew his hand across the wool, slightly frowning. Then he flipped up the manufacturer tag of the suit and laughed a short sad bark of a sound.
“I made this suit,” he said.
Valentina didn’t understand.
“You think I’ve been busking on the Red Square my whole life?” He fingered the suit collar. “I used to have a real job. Supervisor of production at the wool factory in Yekaterinburg.”
“So why did you leave?” Valentina asked.
Sergey sighed. “I was liquidated ten months ago. The official cause was the plant’s restructuring, but an old colleague higher up told me the real one. They’d determined that, for the purposes of proceeding into a post-Soviet future, it wouldn’t do to have such a walking, talking, daily reminder of the old guard. In a managerial role, even.” He chuckled. “I tried finding another job, but everyone took one look at me and doubled over laughing, sent someone to find a camera for a quick snap with their arm around the great man’s shoulders before telling me the position’s already been filled. What else can I do? I’m alone, no parents, no wife, so I come to Moscow. I drive a cab at night. The drunks think they’ve got delirium tremens when they see me. Who’d believe it was Lenin giving them a lift? Who needs a Lenin in these times?” He shrugged.
“I do,” Valentina said, and he looked up at her with those warm brown eyes. Valentina was the first to break their gaze. “Now, change.”
She ducked behind the brocade curtains, but instead of turning away, found herself compelled to watch. She gripped the velvet and leaned into a crack between the fabric. Sergey inspected the stack of clothing in his hands, rotated it slowly, then placed it on the dais and unzipped his sweat suit. Valentina had been expecting to see that familiar body, waxy and dessicated, so Sergey’s pale manly vigor sent a bolt through her. Yes, there was that ruddy chest hair, which made her palm tingle in recognition, the bare feet she knew so well flexing against the carpet. But this body was whole, living, pulsing with life and blood. Watching the muscles shift under his skin as he bent down to pull off his slacks made Valentina’s breath run shallow. This feeling brought a new awareness to her body, a trembling that made her heated with shame.
When Sergey finished dressing, she waited before slipping back through the curtains. The suit fit as if it were made for him, which she supposed it was.
“I need you to climb up here.” Valentina nodded at the empty black silken indentation where real-Lenin had lain just a day ago. Sergey eyed it reluctantly, then, hiking up his pant leg, he hoisted himself onto the raised platform. Valentina began arranging the heavy brocade covering over his feet up to his waist, as she used to tuck Yurik in at night, except here she was tucking in Lenin to his final rest, making him nice and dead again. Sergey lay still as she tweaked his collar and tie, arranged his hands in position on his thighs. His hands were warm and dry, making a comforting papery sound against her own skin. As Valentina smoothed back the hair on the side of his head, Sergey closed his eyes.
“Would you like to hear a joke?” he asked her. She expected some variant on a German, an American, and a Russian are shipwrecked on a desert island, but Sergey said,
“How do you describe all of Russian history in just one sentence?”
“And then it got worse,” he said.
She reached down into her bag and laid out the syringe, a bottle of rubbing alcohol and cotton balls, the small glass vial of cloudy liquid. “I’m going to give you the sedative now,” she said. She couldn’t decide whether Sergey’s agreement to the plan was a sign of immoderate optimism or terminal pessimism. Considering his life, she guessed the latter. Valentina inserted the syringe into the vial’s rubber stopper, flipped it upside down, drew back the plunger. The liquid swirled in hypnotic tendrils.
“Don’t worry,” she said, pulling up the sleeve of his suit and rubbing down the bulging vein in the crook of his arm with an alcohol-soaked cotton ball. “I’m basically a doctor.”
He was looking up at her with an expression she couldn’t decipher. As she touched the needle to his skin, he quickly placed a pausing, callused hand on hers.
“Say, after this,” he said, so quietly that she had to lean in close to hear, “would you want to get some tea with me? Maybe catch a play?” He looked more nervous about her reply than the needle. Maybe she had him pegged wrong, she thought as she stared at him in confusion, as she stabbed the needle into his arm, as she pushed the plunger. Maybe he was, after all, an optimist.
“Okay,” she said, as his breathing deepened, the eyelids coming down like stage curtains, and there was Lenin proper in front of her, motionless and serene.
It was a possibility that hadn’t occurred to her, despite the heat she’d felt watching him get undressed. A life with Lenin, outside the mausoleum. But living bodies were deceptive, they changed. She imagined Sergey fatter, balder. Sergey, taken to drink. Having to watch him grow older than Lenin, deteriorate in real life. And here he was now, so trusting, so perfect, just her and Lenin’s body in the cocooning silence of the mausoleum. Dust swirled through shafts of soft electric light, and everything felt right again.
Valentina’s hands reached to arrange the silken pillow beneath his head. Then her hands slipped the pillow out from under him, gently, gently, laying his head back against the dais. And then her hands hovered the pillow over his face, brushed his skin with the black silk, stroked his face with it like a mother would touch the face of her newborn. That was another possibility, right there, and she found herself surprised that she was capable of it. Her hands placed the pillow lightly against his mouth and nose, then lifted it again after a moment, like a bee alighting on a flower. It was as if the universe had brought her this Lenin as a replacement for the old one, as a way of restarting, of trying again. The staff would come in after New Year’s and she would tell them, a miracle, comrades! I have solved it, I solved it for all of us. Everything is exactly as it was before. A deteriorated body could be disposed, there were ways of doing that. In this troubled time, many people went missing, and who would look for him? He had said it himself: no parents, no wife. If anyone did search for him, they wouldn’t suspect the body that’d been lying there for seventy years, observed by hundreds of people a day.
What loneliness it was, to choose.
“Statute four hundred and ninety two, Valentina Nikolaevna, deterioration of cultural relics, this is a serious allegation,” sighed the inspector from the Ministry of Culture, removing his fur hat and placing it on a ledge by the door. A sparse comb-over of white hair gleamed wetly in the dim light. “This isn’t how it used to be, you know. Everything used to be proper, by-the-book. Culture was respected, but now it’s all pell-mell, now who can tell what’s going on? It’s not polite, to have Vladimir Ilyich rotting and out on display, just not polite.”
“Goodness, who is rotting?” said Valentina, trying to keep her breathing deep and even. She smiled pleasantly. “A small skin fungus we didn’t catch in time, and someone noticed. We dealt with it promptly. Properly. Come, see for yourself.” She extended her arm like a tour guide to indicate the body on the dais.
The inspector straightened his jacket, cleared his throat, smoothed his hair. He ascended the two steps with difficulty, leaning on his cane. Valentina stood shoulder to shoulder with him, looking down at Sergey’s face.
“See,” said Valentina. “He’s no worse for wear.”
“My lights,” the inspector coughed. “He really does look quite lifelike. Quite lifelike indeed.” He leaned in. “You’ve done a tremendous job. Why, he looks like he just died yesterday.” He reached out a hand slowly, as though hypnotized. As his hand descended reverently toward Sergey’s face, in that gesture Valentina recognized a man unmoored, reaching toward a familiar past he could not admit he missed.
She quickly put a firm hand on his sleeve, catching his fingers just before touchdown. “Please, do refrain from touching. We suspect the fungal infection came from unprotected contact.” She knew that even an old, fumbling man would be able to tell the difference between a warm, pliant body and one dead for seventy years.
“Of course, of course. Protocol. Well done.” He wiped his hand on his trousers, then continued to stare down at Lenin’s face.
“Well,” he said finally. “Well.” Valentina heard a faint tremor in his voice and wanted to tell him, It will be okay. Maybe this time it won’t get worse.
The inspector cleared his throat. “No matter. I will confirm with the ministry that Comrade Lenin is as spry as ever. God grant such good health to us all.”
They shook hands at the door. He backed out of the room, wishing her a happy New Year, his gaze on Lenin to the last.
As the inspector left, it seemed to Valentina that he took all sound with him. There was a ringing in her ears. Valentina turned slowly toward the dais. Sergey’s profile glowed serene and heartbreakingly beautiful. She began to walk across the room back to him, every movement caught in thick light. Her shoes rustled against the carpet, the room swallowing sound. As she walked, a strange fear began to unfurl inside her at the sight of the perfectly still body on the dais, and the air transmuted. Reality became suspended, sealed in amber. Time trembled, a tangible curtain she could brush aside and walk through, and the body on the dais was no longer Sergey as Lenin, but Lenin himself, Lenin as he had recently died, so recently that no one except Valentina knew about it yet, or else Lenin as he had not yet died, as no one except Valentina knew he was going to die. As if she had finally succeeded in truly pausing time, preventing anything from ever changing. She sank down on the carpet, her back against the dais, and closed her eyes. She sat like that for what felt like minutes, hours. Finally, she heard a ragged inhale above her, a soft moan. She stood up, bent over Sergey, and touched his face. He slowly opened his eyes. Then he smiled, and it was the guileless, drug-drunken smile of Sergey completely, not of Lenin at all, and Valentina found that she liked it quite a lot. She brought her lips to his face, kissing his wide forehead, trailing her mouth down to the contours of his thin, pliant lips.
The inspector from the Ministry of Culture stood in the doorway of the viewing chamber, clutching the fur hat he’d forgotten and returned for, and watching Valentina and the corpse of Lenin hold each other tenderly under the shimmering peach lighting streaming down like heavenly approbation. Tears etched his lined face. For the rest of his life, the inspector never told anyone about the impossible moment he was witness to. On his deathbed six years later, the final crackling gasp of his mind recalled the image of Valentina’s reverently closed eyes as Lenin lifted a hand and softly cupped it against her cheek.