The curious and complicated history of Lenin’s brain


Joseph Stalin slaughtered millions, but even genocidal totalitarian despots need to catch a break.

After all, everyone needs a hobby.  And he had one.  Lenin’s brain.

It’s not like the two leaders had been the best of buddies.  The friction between the two men had become so toxic that Vladimir Lenin, dying from his fourth stroke (possibly complicated by syphilis) in 1924, warned on his deathbed that Stalin should be jettisoned as the party’s General Secretary.

Too late.  And Stalin got his brain instead.

Not exactly buddies

This riveting story is told in 2008’s  Lenin’s Brain and Other Tales from the Secret Soviet Archives.  On his way back to Houston, author Paul Gregory had pressed it into my hands as a thankee after my article on his current book, Politics, Murder and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina.  One thing I learned after listening to Paul speaking about the book last summer: He’s a great storyteller.  He summarizes the Soviet situation:

The Institute of Lenin served as a repository for Lenin’s writings and for other Lenin memorabilia.  Among its most unusual items was Lenin’s brain, preserved in a formaldehyde solution in a glass jar.  This is the story of the study of Lenin’s brain from early 1925 to 1936 as told by the sixty-three-page secret collection of documents from the Central Committee’s special files.  It is not necessarily a tale about Stalin, although Stalin’s guiding hand can be seen throughout. … Throughout the story Stalin was either acutely aware of what was going on or was guiding events.

The display of Lenin’s embalmed body and the publication of this writings was a PR move to raise the fallen hero to the Immortals — but a team of physicians insisted that his brain receive scientific study.  Not surprisingly, Russians needed scientific proof that Lenin was a genius. This was decided while the body was still warm.

A specimen of the brain was sent to a leading neurologist, Oskar Vogt, at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin.

Embalming: A kind of immortality

Their bad:  “Whether Lenin was a genius or dullard would be decided by a foreigner!” Gregory exclaimed.  Their worst fears were realized.  In 1932, one party hack wrote that the fragment of Lenin’s brain was being kept under intolerable security conditions, without guards, and that no work was being done on the brain in Berlin.

Moreover, “Vogt’s presentations are of a questionable nature; he compares Lenin’s brain with those of criminals and assorted other persons.”  One of the “indices” associated the structure of Lenin’s brain with mental retardation.

Voices were raised against Vogt, bearing the hallmarks of Stalin’s operations. But how to get rid of Vogt without creating an international scandal?

Enter Adolf Hitler.

The Russians had been holding out for their own “Institute of the Brain” — and they got one.   A delegation was sent to Berlin, ostensibly to beg Vogt to lead the new institute – but actually, to put the kibosh on him, while blaming Hitler.

It really does look like a walnut

Vogt had already fallen into disfavor with the the Führer, and his apartment had been searched, his telephone bugged, and any visa to Moscow out of the question (not that he’d been to Russia much in the last few years).  Mission accomplished!  But don’t cry:  Vogt, too, had kind of a happy ending, as much as could be expected in the circumstances.  The German government punished him by drafting him into the army (although he was in his 60s), but he was discharged after six weeks.

Meanwhile, the Moscow Institute of the Brain had not been sitting idly on its hands.  It had managed to collect better brains from better people.  No more would Lenin’s brain be compared with the man in the street, but instead he would be ranked alongside poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexander Bogdanov, and even Nobel laureate I.V. Pavlov, who had died in February 1936 and whose brain could now be added to the collection.

The Institute built the case it needed to:  “Its report cites the indices proving the extraordinary nature of Lenin’s brain, while pointing out that the Institute could provide even more convincing evidence if the Politburo awarded it new funds and new premises.”  Just like academics everywhere.

Meanwhile, the 1936 report concluded with a resounding recommendation:  “The final point is an order to the Central Executive Committee to organize a specialized equipment for the the preservation of the brains of leading personalities.”

A happy ending for everyone, really.

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