Keeping The Russian Revolution Alive

When Vladimir Lenin — leader of the Russian Revolution — died, Stalin hired two scientists to preserve his body. A new play called Lenin's Embalmers explores the story. Stuart Firestein and Vern Thiessen explain how the play brings together science, politics and, strangely enough, humor.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. And we're going to talk about the theater. Imagine this one. This is an interesting play that's just running here in New York. Imagine that you're a scientist working in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, and suddenly Stalin's secret police are knocking at your door and they're saying that the government orders you to do something that is, well, at that time scientifically impossible. You have to keep a body that's already two weeks old, a dead body, from decaying forever.

And it's the body of Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Russian revolution, and it's Stalin who's ordering you to do this, and you'd better do it or, you know, you'll be paying the consequences. And this is actually - this is what happened. The story is the basis for the plot of a new play called "Lenin's Embalmers" that's showing at the Ensemble Studio Theater in New York until March 28th.

If you'd like to see a short clip from the play, we have a short clip here on -go to sciencefriday.com/arts on our Web site and you can see some bit of that play.

Let me introduce my guests. Stuart Firestein is a science advisor to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. He's a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University. And full disclosure, of course, Sloan is one of our funders of SCIENCE FRIDAY. And Vern Thiessen is the playwright for "Lenin's Embalmers" here in New York. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. VERN THIESSEN (Playwright): Thanks. It's great to be here.

FLATOW: How did you decide on a theme like that for a play...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: ...to write a play about that?

Mr. THIESSEN: Well, there was a book called "Lenin's Embalmers" by Ilya Zbarsky that was given to me a number of years ago and it tells a lot longer and much more complicated tale about the whole, you know, industry of embalming in Russia. But the story of these two scientists really grabbed me. And a couple of years later I was actually with Stuart at a Sloan project, kind of meeting, meet and greet, and thought, hey, this would make a good play.

I applied for some money from the Sloan Foundation and EST and we started development of the play. And here we are.

FLATOW: And this is a play - this is where the scientists, Stuart, don't have any choice in the matter, right?

Professor STUART FIRESTEIN (Columbia University): Yes.

FLATOW: You'll come up with a way to embalm Lenin, who's already dead a couple of weeks, and make him look good forever?

Prof. FIRESTEIN: Yes. A science with a gun at your head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FIRESTEIN: We almost all feel that way anyway. So - but to actually see it on the stage...

FLATOW: So you relate to that kind of pressure, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FIRESTEIN: Very much.

FLATOW: Why did Stalin need these scientists to make a breakthrough? What was the state of embalming then?

Mr. THIESSEN: Well, and maybe Stuart can comment on this, but to my knowledge, the state of embalming was, you know, was at a very low level, that were able to preserve tissues and things like that. But to actually try to embalm somebody and make them look like they were alive forever, which is what Stalin wanted...

Prof. FIRESTEIN: Right.

Mr. THIESSEN: ...right, for a very, very long period of time, was really unheard of at the time. And so it wasn't as much as the embalming itself, it was doing it in a way that they could re-embalm him every six months and make him look forever for an extended period of time.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THIESSEN: That was really the hit.

FLATOW: Yeah. And they - do you want to comment?

Prof. FIRESTEIN: Well - I think that's exactly right. And of course, the whole issue of tissue preservation is a very legitimate scientific area, continues to be an important area of scientific research, how to preserve a tissue so that we can work with it and do pathology on it and experiments and so forth and so on.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. FIRESTEIN: Not to mention the whole bodies, of course, which are important to medical schools, remain actually important...

FLATOW: There's a great scene - I'm going to play a little clip of it. There's a great scene in the play where they're actually doing the embalming, right?

Prof. FIRESTEIN: Yes.

FLATOW: And there's a lot of beautiful smoke that comes out. How close was that, and the chemicals and everything that they talked about, how close was that to the real stuff that they were doing?

Prof. FIRESTEIN: So you understand embalming is not actually my field.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FIRESTEIN: Tend to be more interested in the living organism and its function. But you did - there was a science advisor on the play. There was an embalming advisor.

Mr. THIESSEN: That's right. Dorothy Hutchins from the American Academy really was my embalming advisor. And she was a great help on this. But also, there's a lot of stuff in the book and that's known historically about how they actually did it and the potassium acetate being the key ingredient that was used in various different parts of the embalming, which took almost four months to do the initial one.

FLATOW: Wow.

Mr. THIESSEN: So, you know, what you see on the stage is a pretty accurate representation of the actual historical - scientific historical...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THIESSEN: ...what happened at the time.

FLATOW: Well, to give our listeners a little flavor of the pressure that these scientists were under, let me here's a little scene where the two scientists, played by Scott Sowers and Zach Grenier, are figuring out how to embalm Lenin and the pressure on them is mounting.

(Soundbite of play, "Lenin's Embalmers")

Mr. SCOTT SOWERS (Actor): (As Boris) What happens if we cannot raise the temperatures?

Mr. ZACH GRENIER (Actor): (As Vlad) Well, then the body won't accept the solution.

Mr. SOWERS: (As Boris) And then what do we do?

Mr. GRENIER: (As Vlad) Well, in that case, we shoot ourselves. That's what we do. I don't know.

Mr. SOWERS: (As Boris) We cannot make a mistake.

Mr. GRENIER: (As Vlad) (Unintelligible) so much.

Mr. SOWERS: (As Boris) We have one chance to get this right.

Mr. GRENIER: (As Vlad) I know.

Mr. SOWERS: (As Boris) If we fail...

Mr. GRENIER: (As Vlad): I know. This has never been done before.

FLATOW: Never been done before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Just a little bit of pressure.

Mr. THIESSEN: That's right.

FLATOW: Right?

Mr. THIESSEN: And it wasn't just like, okay, you have to embalm this tissue and this body. And if - you know, the pressure wasn't only that they had a gun to their head, the pressure was that if they succeeded, they were going to basically create a new icon. They were going to create a new god for the Soviet Union, which is kind of what they did. And that god is still laying there to some extent to this day.

And in fact there was a story recently where - I think it was just last week, somebody tried to get in there and do something to the body and - because he thought it was the anti-Christ or something like that.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. THIESSEN: So it still raises - that body still raises a lot of questions in the Soviet Union today.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. But even though they were successful, the two scientists did not have a happy ending.

Mr. THIESSEN: No. And I've played a lot with what actually happened to them. Both of them did have fallings out with the Soviet regime. And Zbarsky was -Boris Zbarsky was sent to prison for a long time without a trial. And eventually he got out and died a poor man. I have something else happened to him in the play. And Vladimir Vorobiev died under some very mysterious circumstances. They did - the KGB - what they were called at the time (unintelligible) came up to him and said, yeah, there's something wrong with your kidneys. We're going to take you to the doctor. And he never made it out of the operating room.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THIESSEN: So they had a lot of power, these two scientists. They had a lot of power in their society. And Stalin didn't like that.

FLATOW: How do you choose New York actors to play...

Mr. THIESSEN: That's really up to Billy Carden and - the director of - William Carden, the director of the play. But, you know, I sat in on some auditions. But really, I just trust him to find the best people. And it's - EST has done an outstanding job.

FLATOW: They are very convincing. The play is very convincing.

Mr. THIESSEN: Oh, thanks.

FLATOW: It is a great story. And it's quite enjoyable, even though, you know, it's a small stage. And you would look at the actors and you say, I've seen that person before, right? We've seen all these actors around.

Mr. THIESSEN: And it's a great partnership between EST and the Sloan Foundation, who - you know, maybe you could talk a little bit about how the Sloan and EST works.

Prof. FIRESTEIN: Well, so Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, one division of it, is very, very concerned about the portrayal of science and scientists in the public mind. And so they support both theatrical and film endeavors that use science somehow or other as their theme. And this was a piece that - so I sit on this board with a couple of other scientists and some people from the theater. And here was this two-page proposal that came around a couple of years ago that we reviewed and - called "Lenin's Embalmers," that I just thought was absolutely too wacky to let go by. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: When you say the names of people, I'm not sure what you're saying to them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: (Unintelligible) ready for the word embalmers...

Prof. FIRESTEIN: (Unintelligible).

Mr. THIESSEN: What they're thinking is John Lennon.

FLATOW: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FIRESTEIN: But it had - it clearly had a comic side to it...

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. FIRESTEIN: ...which was, I think, important because science doesn't always have to be deadly serious. And it also had, of course, this very interesting political versus science side to it.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. FIRESTEIN: And that's very important.

FLATOW: Yeah. Scientists have - there great themes aren't there in plays about science.

Prof. FIRESTEIN: Yeah. So this one in particular - I mean, on the one hand, it's how to get this incredible piece of science done. But then there's also the much larger issue of the way politics directed science, especially in the Soviet Union.

I mean, I have to say, there's a very good case to be I'm sure historians have all sorts of ideas about why the Soviet Union finally collapsed. And in its final collapse, there could be many reasons. But at least one of them was that Soviet politics and Marxist politics dictated that Lamarckian genetics was the right kind of genetics, not Darwinian evolution, not Mendelian genetics. And Lysenko(ph) is a champion.

And the result of that was years and years of crop failures and eventually a people that were being starved today.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. FIRESTEIN: And the collapse of an empire.

FLATOW: Now, Vern, you had personal ties to this story in terms of your relatives who are living?

Mr. THIESSEN: I do. Yeah, my parents grew up under the Soviet regime in what is now the Southern Ukraine. But at the time it was the USSR. And my parents were born there in 1920s. And both my grandfathers were taken away to the gulag or the salt mines or wherever they were taken. One returned after 10 years of hard labor. The other one never came back, was never heard from him again. That was in the mid-1930s.

And so, yeah, I do have personal connections. And I still have a lot of relatives who eventually emigrated from Russia to Germany. But the biggest thing is, is that my family loves to laugh. And even in the telling of those horrible stories that happened, they've always got a joke. And that's why I wanted to make sure that this was a dark comedy about embalming...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THIESSEN: ...and not just - and a comedy about scientists and not just kind of a dry...

FLATOW: Right. Well of course there's one little comic moment where they say, well, we have to do this embalming over and over again every six months.

Mr. THIESSEN: That's right.

FLATOW: We'd jobs for life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THIESSEN: That's right.

Prof. FIRESTEIN: That's right.

FLATOW: But did you actually ask your relatives about what it was like and do research?

Mr. THIESSEN: Oh, of course.

FLATOW: Yeah?

Mr. THIESSEN: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, all I need to do is pick up the phone and talk to my dad, you know, and my mom about - so I grew up with a lot of the stories about what it was like to live under a Soviet regime and what they -how they thought about Stalin and, you know, they thought - of course, there was a picture in every little, you know, home of Stalin and they called him Father Stalin and all that stuff. And, you know, obviously, Russians like - you know, they like to drink. And my Russian relatives in Germany still love to drink.

So there was lots of stories that came out of that. And - but also just the humanity and the humor that my parents bring to their lives was a huge inspiration for me in writing the play. I don't think I could have written this play if I didn't have that background.

And yeah, so I did talk to them and I got a lot of jokes from there. There's a lot of jokes in the play. And a lot the jokes...

FLATOW: The play starts out with a joke.

Mr. THIESSEN: It starts out with a joke, exactly.

FLATOW: Do you want to tell a joke?

Mr. THIESSEN: Well, I - now you put me on the spot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THIESSEN: But it's, you know, three Russians are in a gulag. First Russian says, what are you in for? Second Russian says, I called Zbarsky a revolutionary. That's funny, says the second. Why, says the first. I called Zbarsky a counter-revolutionary. See, I'm terrible at telling jokes. This is why we hire actors. Third Russian says, that's funny. Why, say the others? I am Zbarsky.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THIESSEN: So this is a classic joke. And there's many about living in the gulag because they got to find humor in their, you know, in their deadly lives.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do you see life after New York City for this play? (Unintelligible) a great play. And a lot of the plays, the small plays that come through New York have trouble finding a stage some other place.

Mr. THIESSEN: Well, I'm very, very lucky. I'm a Canadian by birth. And although I live here in New York, I've got a good career up in Canada. So this play will have a premiere at two theaters next fall in Canada; one is the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre and they're co-producing it with the Toronto Jewish Theatre in Toronto. And so that'll be - that's great because there's a lot of Jewish themes in the play. Both of these scientists...

FLATOW: Anti-Semitism in the play?

Mr. THIESSEN: Absolutely.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. THIESSEN: And, you know, it's - I think it's very ironic that these two Jewish men were picked to embalm Lenin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THIESSEN: I think that's very, very funny. And so it'll picked up there. And I'm hoping that it'll get to play somewhere else in the United States as well.

FLATOW: We're talking about "Lenin's Embalmers" on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Stuart Firestein and Vern Thiessen, who were - Vern wrote the play and Stuart was a science advisor for the Sloan Foundation. Do you have anything else? I mean, science is a rich source of theater material, film material. Are you attracted to science-themed plays anymore?

Mr. THIESSEN: Well, the Sloan - this isn't my first brush-up with the Sloan. A couple of years ago I wrote a play called "Einstein's Gift," which...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. THIESSEN: ...had a production by Epic Theatre Ensemble off-Broadway in 2005 and has been produced around the world. And that play was also a science play. It dealt with Fritz Haber, who invented ammonia synthesis and won the Nobel Peace - Nobel Prize for that, sorry, in chemistry, and so - and his relationship with Albert Einstein. And so I dealt with science in that regard. And I'm starting to look at some other science stories right now as well.

Prof. FIRESTEIN: This, of course, is exactly...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. FIRESTEIN: ...the purpose of the Sloan Foundation. And I think it's great work to give these ideas to playwrights who otherwise are left with kind of dysfunctional family and psychodrama of one sort or another to write about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FIRESTEIN: Here's a whole new theme...

FLATOW: I talked about this, not just because we were on - SCIENCE FRIDAY was featured on "The Big Bang Theory."

Prof. FIRESTEIN: Yeah.

FLATOW: But science has now been moving into the entertainment world more.

Prof. FIRESTEIN: Well, there was "Copenhagen"...

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. FIRESTEIN: ...and "Proof" and "A Beautiful Mind." I mean...

Mr. THIESSEN: Absolutely.

Prof. FIRESTEIN: ...these are important pieces.

Mr. THIESSEN: And I think - they do attract me. And I think one of the reasons they attract me is that I know nothing about it. I mean, one of the great things about working on this project was to kind of go - to pull all the formulas and all the chemistry about embalming and to sit down with Dorothy Hutchins and say, what does this all mean? This is a different language to me. Teach me this language.

FLATOW: And did you enjoy the process?

Mr. THIESSEN: Oh, absolutely. It was thrilling. And I got so much out of her and learning about that process, not just about what the chemistry of embalming is, but she was very generous in telling me a lot about what the spiritual nature of science is. Because, you know, any - I'm sure you can back me up on this, Stuart. Any scientist is - it's not just facts and figures - and there's humanity in there, right?

Prof. FIRESTEIN: Yes. Absolutely, that's a critical part of it. Creativity, humanity, yes.

Mr. THIESSEN: And embalming is one of those things that, yeah, you've got chemicals and you've got to preserve this body. But every body is different. Every single body is different.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. THIESSEN: And how you approach the body is very, very important. And there's a great line by Vladimir in the play where he says, right before they start, he says: Don't worry. The body will tell us what to do.

Prof. FIRESTEIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THIESSEN: And I learned that talking to embalmers, that the body actually tells them how they're supposed to administer those chemicals.

Prof. FIRESTEIN: And we say this in a laboratory all the time. The preparation will tell us what to do here.

FLATOW: Wow.

Prof. FIRESTEIN: It's a common line, actually. Pretty common idea.

FLATOW: Yeah. How are those conversations with the embalmer?

Mr. THIESSEN: Oh, it's interesting, you know? It's fascinating. It never kind of creeped me out or anything like that. But you know what? I grew up with, you know, my Russian relatives. Everybody in their family picture album has a picture of a dead body that just died and the whole family around it for a big family, you know, photograph, you know?

My uncle died recently in Germany. I had to go over there and stand beside the gravestone so that I could have a picture, my last picture with my uncle. You know, it's just part of Russian culture.

FLATOW: But so you can't look at a body the same way anymore without thinking about the embalming process.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THIESSEN: Probably not. I haven't - I can't say I've seen all that many dead bodies. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THIESSEN: But certainly I'm not - if I ever get embalmed, I won't be - I know I'm not frightened of it anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: If you go to a wake or something, you'd say, good job.

Mr. THIESSEN: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly.

FLATOW: Or you'd go to rewrite "Six Feet Under."

Mr. THIESSEN: Or you could say: Hey, I wonder who did this. It's not a very good job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THIESSEN: But, you know, it's - no, it's been a fascinating process.

FLATOW: Yeah. And so the play runs through the 28th?

Mr. THIESSEN: Runs through the 28th. It's selling extremely well. We're getting great reviews. I'm very happy. The cast is having a blast. People are laughing and they're also moved by the play. It's a tragi-comedy.

FLATOW: And, yeah. And hopefully you will go to other parts of the country.

Mr. THIESSEN: Absolutely.

FLATOW: Besides playing in Canada in the fall.

Mr. THIESSEN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Because we always - people, when they hear this, they hear you, the first thing they ask is, where can I see this play? And we can tell them it will be someplace, but we don't know where it is.

Mr. THIESSEN: We don't know yet. It's being translated into Polish. So if you happen to be in Warsaw in the next year or two...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: All right. There's a joke there someplace. All right. It started out with a joke and it ends with the same joke, the play does. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. THIESSEN: Thanks, Ira.

Prof. FIRESTEIN: Thank you.

FLATOW: Stuart Firestein is the science advisor to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, professor of neuroscience at Columbia. And Vern Thiessen is the playwright for "Lenin's Embalmers" here in New York. If you got a chance, go see it. It's really a fun, morbid play, if I can put it that way.

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