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Last Look

June 2024
4min read


In the fall of 1961 I was practicing law in Springfield, Illinois, and feeling restless. The thought of running for Congress passed through my mind more than once. We were in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, a conflict that seemed on the brink of turning hot. I decided to go see for myself what was going on.

It was not difficult to make reservations for Moscow; for good Cold War reasons the route was hardly crowded with tourists. I arrived on the afternoon of October 28, and the next day my In-tourist guide took me to Red Square, where she inserted me near the front of a long line of people slowly shuffling toward the entrance to the tomb where Lenin and Stalin lay. The line stretched clear out of the square almost to the monument of the Soviet Unknown Soldier, and I objected politely to what I considered rudeness to those who had been waiting, but my guide insisted this was a courtesy regularly granted foreign visitors. Then she left for the day.

The tomb, about a story and a half high, had been built in 1930 on the site of a temporary crypt erected soon after Lenin’s death. It was made of large blocks of porphyry, a very hard dark purplish or red rock, and black granite. On May Day Soviet leaders would stand on top of the building to review their military might. Behind the tomb, just outside the Kremlin Wall, was a narrow grassy strip with a few special burial plots for top Communist leaders. The American Communist John Reed is buried nearby, in the wall itself.

When the line in Red Square came even with the tomb’s doorway, it made a ninety-degree turn and headed straight for the entrance, above which, engraved in the stone, were the names LENIN and STALIN . At each side of the door an armed soldier stood at attention. In a brief, snappy ceremony the guard changed every hour (every half-hour in bad weather). When the big clock in the Spassky Tower struck, the new guards would goose-step out of the Kremlin. They turned left toward the tomb and proceeded up a couple of steps to the entrance.

What impressed me most was that they did not carry their rifles on their shoulders. They marched holding the rifles upright, with the butt balanced in the palm of the left hand. That is not easy.

I made it into the tomb without a glance from the guards. Once inside we went down a flight of about thirty steps. At the bottom we turned right into a small dimly lit chamber. It reminded me of my grandmother’s root cellar, a room with a stone floor and stone walls under the kitchen of her old Midwest farmhouse. The only difference was that she was storing milk and garden produce, not corpses.

I looked in the chamber and saw a guard keeping the line moving and quiet. Someone ahead of me whispered and drew a sharp rebuke. Then I entered the chamber and found myself staring at Lenin. He lay there in his glass-topped coffin, looking as if he were having a nap. Two or three feet beyond, in a similar coffin, lay Stalin. I peered intently into his face. Proceeding past his feet and then along his left side, I could hardly imagine the horrendous harm this man and his mausoleum mate had perpetrated on Russia and much of the rest of the world. You might think these two were friends, but they became enemies. The two of them, it seemed to me, deserved to be cooped up there together.

Just to Stalin’s left was the exit, a flight of stairs leading directly up into the light outside. As I was leaving, I glanced back for a last look and noticed that no one else had followed in line behind me. I happily climbed the stairs into the fresh air, but when I stepped out onto the sidewalk, I discovered a commotion going on. In the few minutes I had been inside, soldiers had swarmed into the square, dispersed all those still standing in line, and closed the entrance. No soldier had to tell me to leave; I got out of there quickly and headed back to the Metropol Hotel.

There was great tension in the air. I had no one to ask what was happening, though shortly after my arrival I had learned that the Twenty-second Congress of the Communist party was meeting in Moscow and that I had been lucky to get a hotel reservation, so my guess was that the tomb line had been dispersed as a security precaution.

After dinner at the hotel I put on my trench coat and walked back toward Red Square. The square was brightly lighted, but there were no people moving up or down the streets that led to it. There were, however, small groups of police or soldiers—it was hard for me to distinguish between them—standing at the corners of both streets. No one else was in sight. I passed by the first guarded corner and continued on toward where I had joined the line earlier in the day.

A man wearing a trench coat like mine appeared. He nodded to the guards and kept on walking up toward the square. They barely seemed to notice him. Imitating him, I turned up my collar and nodded as I passed the guards. I did not get very far. After three or four steps I had men on each side of me with a firm grip on my arms. They whisked me around without a word (and without the slightest resistance from me) and marched me back to where I had started. Then they turned me loose, encouraging me to keep walking. I did, right on back to the hotel. I went to bed believing something big was going on.

During the night I was awakened by loud and continuous rumbling in the street below my hotel window. I got up, looked out, and saw an endless line of light tanks rolling past in the direction of Red Square. The tank commanders had their heads out of the turrets. I figured they weren’t coming for me, so I went back to bed. The rest of the night was quiet.

The next morning I again walked to Red Square and once more found the streets guarded and blocked. The following day I learned what had happened. Inside the Kremlin, in a speech to the Communist party congress, Nikita Khrushchev had startled everyone by denouncing Stalin and his cronies. As a result, the congress had passed a resolution closing the tomb. Stalin had been hauled out that night, placed in a fresh grave in the burial plot out back, and covered with cement. Much later a stone pedestal topped by a bust was placed at the site to identify the occupant. Busts of three other Communist leaders stood in a row to keep him company.

Before I left town, I did get back to Red Square one more time. Across the tomb’s entrance, covering the two engraved names, was a canvas banner that read simply LENIN . I said, “Good-bye, Joe,” left Moscow, and came home.

So, as it happened, I was just about the last person on earth to see Joseph Stalin. I think of Lincoln’s tomb in my hometown, where people from all over the world come to pay homage to him. He too is buried deep under protective cement. There all similarities end.

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