A Visit to Moscow’s Brain Institute, Where Stalin’s Brain Is Kept in a Jar
On April 14, 1930, the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide in his Moscow apartment. His closest friends, including the writer Yuri Olesha, rushed to the flat when they heard the terrible news.
As they sat in silence in the living room, a cracking sound suddenly emitted from the bedroom where Mayakovsky’s body lay.
“Only wood, it seemed, could be chopped like that,” Olesha later wrote. Someone was cutting through the wall with an axe. Moments later, a doctor in a white lab coat ran by carrying a washbasin.
Inside it was the poet’s brain.
The doctor told Mayakovsky’s friends that the brain was unusually large—more than 3.75 pounds—before loading it into a car and driving away.
Mayakovsky’s brain was taken to a brick building called the Brain Institute, which was founded by the Bolsheviks in 1928 as part of the effort to canonize Lenin. Lenin’s brain joined those of other proclaimed geniuses in a “Pantheon of Brains,” which displayed the Soviet Union’s finest minds in glass cases. The institute went on to dissect the brains of dozens of famous Soviets, including those of Sergei Eisenstein, Maxim Gorky, and Joseph Stalin. The brain-cataloging continued all the way until 1989, when the fall of the USSR put an end to this peculiar experiment.
Since then, the Institute remains open, but few reporters, Russian or foreign, have been allowed to visit. In recent years, the Institute has been trying to distance itself from the past and adopt a new reputation for modern neurological research—and catching a glimpse of Lenin’s brain in pieces might make its newfound credibility a hard sell. To my delight, however, as part of their effort to show the world how legitimate they’ve become, the Institute let me inside.