Macabre Tourism: How to Visit a Dead Dictator

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On March 5, 2013, Hugo Chavez, the leader of Venezuela, died after a battle with cancer. After his death, it was quickly announced that his body would be embalmed and put on permanent display in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. While it may seem odd, Chavez is far from the first world leader to be put on permanent display. In fact, it is still possible to visit the bodies of five of the 20th century’s most notorious leaders as they lie in permanent memorials throughout the world.

While slightly morbid, the leaders themselves have become must-see attractions while visiting their ruling cities. Here’s how you can join the hordes of mourners and see some of the world’s most notorious dictators.

Vladimir Lenin – Moscow, Russia

In 1924, one of the most influential political figures of the 20th century died in Moscow, Russia. Within days, it was decided that his body should be preserved for future generations of admirers. And, so his body lies in the center of Red Square nearly 90 years after his death, still visible to tourists from Monday to Friday between the hours of 10:00am and 1:00pm.

The process of preservation is actually quite interesting and has become the model for all other preserved leaders.  Even more interestingly, it hasn’t changed much since the 1920s. Every week, Lenin’s body is wiped down with moisturizer and checked for blemishes and dark spots. Any that are found are treated with a combination of hydrogen peroxide and bleach. Then, every 18 months, the body is removed from display for 30 days, during which time it is soaked in a bath of chemicals and wax to keep the body looking life-like. Not surprisingly after so many years of treatment, the body looks more like a figurine at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum than a recently deceased person.

From 1953 to 1961, the body of Joseph Stalin lied in state next to Lenin’s. However, during the de-Stalification of Russia under Khrushchev, the body was buried in a vault nearby, leaving Lenin alone again.

Ho Chi Minh – Hanoi, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh was the leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) from 1945 until his death in 1969. Despite his wishes for cremation, his body was preserved and made visible to the public in 1975, just months after the end of the Vietnam War. His mausoleum, located in the center of Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi was modeled after that of Lenin’s Tomb, but with a decidedly Vietnamese flair.

The mausoleum is open daily from 9:00am to noon for the public, except when the body is being preserved.

Mao's Mausoleum is located in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China.
Mao’s Mausoleum is located in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China.

Chairman Mao Zedong – Beijing, China

When Chairman Mao died in 1976, the leaders of China decided to embalm his body and place it on permanent display. Despite his wishes to be cremated so as to not take up space in death, Mao’s mausoleum is one of the focal point of Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing. Since 1977, the Mausoleum has been open nearly every day to the public, and the lines to visit still snake around the building with thousands of people coming to see the deceased leader. Open from 8am – 12pm (7am-11am in July and August), the mausoleum is one of the more interesting sites in China.

The line starts in center of Tiananmen Square. Once you’ve snaked through the line, which has guards to keep people from cutting too badly in line, you’ll have to pass through metal detectors, and a group of flower sellers. Once you enter the mausoleum, you’ll pass a large statue of Mao before entering the room with his body. Guards keep a close eye on visitors to ensure that you don’t misbehave, talk, or stop your procession through the building. Mao’s body is kept behind large panes of glass with only his upper body and head visible above the casket.

Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il – Pyeongyang, North Korea

It shouldn’t come as much surprise that the former leaders of North Korea, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are displayed in the capital of Pyeongyang.  The father and son known respectively as the Great Leader and the Dear Leader viewed themselves as the enternal leaders of North Korea. In fact, Kim Il-sung is still considered the country’s President.

Since his death in 1994, the elder Kim’s embalmed body has lied in his former residence, now known as Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. When Kim Jong-il died in 2011, his body was placed near his father’s.

When visiting the mausoleum, it is possible to view the bodies of both leaders, along with mementos of their lives, such as personal effects, awards they were given, etc. Foreign visitors are allowed to visit on Thursdays and Sundays, but only when on official tours.

It remains to be seen how Venezuela will handle the body of Hugo Chavez. Will he be preserved for decades and centuries to come, with thousands of admirers visiting everyday, or will he be preserved for only a few years, being buried within a few years like Stalin?

Would you or have you visited the body of a dead dictator? Let us know in the comments below.

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3 thoughts on “Macabre Tourism: How to Visit a Dead Dictator”

  1. Great article. I think the most interesting site to visit would be North Korea – the cult of personality that has outlived Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il would be awesome to experience.


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