By Jonathon Van Maren
Inside a crystal urn in Venezuela’s Museum of the Revolution, visitors can view the body of Hugo Chavez, the socialist strongman who died in 2013 and bequeathed his battered country to Nicolas Maduro. It was Maduro who decided that the people needed Chavez in perpetuity, citing the example of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, where the embalmed Communist leader who humbled the American empire is kept fresh and on public display. The father-and-son dictators of North Korea Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong Il were also embalmed and put into exhibits. While visiting Tiananmen Square several years ago and foolishly bickering with our guide about Mao Zedong’s legacy, I discovered that the man himself still lay in state a stone’s throw away.
Communist dictatorships, launched as they are by charismatic revolutionaries, inevitably become necrocracies. Mao Zedong was the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party from 1945 until his death in 1976, and his face is omnipresent in the militarized capital of Beijing. An enormous portrait of Mao hangs at the entrance to the Forbidden City; his face adorns the currency; he is the bulky shadow behind the shady machinations of Xi Jinping. At least 45 million people died during Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and historians estimate that up to 70 million perished before he followed them into the grave—although Mao was not cremated as he requested. His presence was too valuable to the Communist project, and thus he was embalmed and placed in a glass coffin in the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall within earshot of where the Tiananmen protestors would be gunned down in 1989. He is still attended by a military honor guard.
I had to wait in line to see him. People ahead of me bobbed their heads in genuflection at his coffin and left him bouquets of flowers. I will confess to gawking when I got inside. Mao lies like a sinister Snow White under a red Communist banner. He had been gone for 39 years when I came up to his coffin, but he genuinely looked like he was sleeping. I wondered if any of those coming to see him—many of them obviously old enough to remember his reign of terror, which touched nearly every family in China—were just there to confirm that he was, in fact, dead. If so, probably a few were not altogether reassured; I would have been shocked but not surprised if Mao had suddenly sat up and begun barking orders once again. The cool Memorial Hall was heavy with his presence.
The only similar experience I can recall was visiting Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow several years later. It was surreal to be staring at the corpse of Vladimir Lenin, dead nearly a century. He was felled at the young age of 53 in 1924 by a series of massive strokes, and although he asked to be buried next to his mother in St. Petersburg (renamed Leningrad the year he died, changed back in 1991 after the USSR imploded), the revolution required his services. Instead, he was embalmed and placed in a glass-sided sarcophagus for perpetual public viewing. He is pale and waxy looking, although the millions of roubles (13 million in 2016) spent on keeping him presentable mean that the only obvious signs of decomposition are browning fingernails. An electric pump was even installed inside his body to maintain constant humidity. Lenin’s body has lasted longer than the Soviet Union.