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U.S. Auction Stirs Controversy With Sale of Lenin Death Mask

Published: June 17, 2014 (Issue # 1815)



  • The death mask is on sale at an online auction run from New Hampshire.
    Photo: RR Auction

  • On show in Moscow, one of the three masks that Merkurov made in 1924.
    Photo: Vladimir Filonov / SPT

In the quasi-religious personality cult surrounding Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, the leader's death mask became for many the Holy Grail — second, perhaps, only to the mummy that still resides on Red Square. The relic, supposedly one of three originals cast by sculptor Sergei Merkurov, is now up for auction through a Boston-based dealer, which estimates it will fetch $35,000-$40,000.

But 90 years after Lenin's death led to a brutal competition for succession, the mask continues to stir up controversy. The sculptor's family has vowed to stop the online auction, which concludes on June 18, saying it is illegal. Beyond their complaint lies a greater question: Is the mask even real?

On the frosty night of January 21, 1924, Merkurov was summoned to the estate of Gorky, where Vladimir Lenin had just died after suffering his final, fatal stroke, to preserve the leader's visage. Merkurov, legend has it, initially cast three plaster masks of Lenin's face. The first mask went to the Central Lenin Museum, the second went to the Gorky estate, and the sculptor kept the final mask for himself.

It is this last mask, RR Auction says, that was eventually sold by a member of the family to an agent in the U.S., where it was acquired by the well-known Russian collector Sasha Lurye, and then resold to another private collector.

Beyond some chipping around the eyebrows and a weathered patina that apparently testifies to its age, a photograph on the auction house's website reveals the mask to be in fine condition, with the famous signature "Gorky, 22 January, 1924, 4 a.m., S. Merkurov" visible below Lenin's cheek on the right-hand side.

The story, however, quickly gets murky.

To mark Lenin's funeral, the sculptor made 14 masks to distribute to members of the Soviet elite, including secret police chief Felix Dzerzhinsky. But Merkurov, who authored dozens of monumental Lenin and Stalin statues across the Soviet Union, was "clever," says death mask historian Dmitry Shlyonsky.

"It seems that he kept a mold with which he would from time to time cast new masks, passing them off as originals," he said.

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Thursday, Nov. 27


The Customs and Transportation Committee for AmCham meets this morning at 9 a.m. in their office on Ulitsa Yakubovicha.


Tickets are still available for local KHL team SKA St. Petersburg’s showdown with Siberian club Metallurg Novokuznetsk tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Ice Palace outside the Prospekt Bolshevikov metro station. Tickets can be purchased on the team’s website, at the arena box office or in their merchandise store on Nevsky Prospekt.


Celebrate one of Russian literature’s most tragic figures during Blok Days, a two-day celebration of the 134th anniversary of the poet’s birthday. The tragic tenor’s work, which led to writer Maxim Gorky to hail him as Russia’s greatest living poet before his death in 1921, will be recited and meetings and discussions about his contributions to the Silver Age of literature in St. Petersburg will be discussed in the confines of his former residence.



Friday, Nov. 28


Join table game aficionados at the British Book Center’s Board Game Evening. Held every Friday at 5 p.m., aficionados and amateurs alike can come take part in a variety of different games that test one’s intellect and cunning.



Saturday, Nov. 29


Cats, dogs, birds, rodents and reptiles are just some of the things that will walk and crawl at Lenexpo convention center this weekend as part of Zooshow, a two-day exhibition featuring not only man’s best friends but a four-legged fashion show, as well as a food fair that will help pet owners find out more about which kibbles are best for their hungry pets.



Sunday, Nov. 30


Remember the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Russo-Finnish war in 1939 during today’s reenactment titled “Winter War: How it Was.” More than 200 people will take part in recreating the opening salvoes of the battle for the north in Kamenka, a small village situated between Vyborg and St. Petersburg, using authentic equipment and vintage vehicles from the era. The faux battle begins at 2 p.m.



Monday, Dec. 1


Serbia filmmaker Emir Kusturica is the featured guest this evening at the Lensovet Palace of Culture the Petrograd Side. Fans of the director will get the chance to watch his movie “Black Cat, White Cat,” as well as ask questions about his award-winning filmography. Tickets for the event, which starts at 7 p.m., start at 2,000 rubles ($42.50).



Tuesday, Dec. 2


Today is the final day of “Takoy Festival,” a three-week program of plays based on the works of Dostoevsky, Remarque and other famed European writers, whose work is transcribed for theatrical performances. Tonight’s festival finale is “Fathers and Sons,” a two-act drama staged by the Novosibirsk Academic Drama Theater based on Turgenev’s classic about familial relations.



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