Mao, Bolívar, and the Romanovs: The enduring political power of corpses

Die young and leave an idolized corpse.
Die young and leave an idolized corpse.
Image: EPA Photo/Nikita Infantyev
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The Romanov family hasn’t rested easy since Russia’s last tsar, his wife, and their five children were gunned down in 1918 amid the chaos of the Bolshevik revolution.

And now, Russia’s official investigative body is re-opening the century-old case of the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family.

Their remains were discovered in a mass grave in 1991 and ceremonially reburied in St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Cathedral. But the Russian Orthodox Church disputes forensic evidence (paywall) that those bones—and those of two children found in a separate grave—in fact belong to the Romanovs.

The church has refused permission to bury siblings Alexei and Maria with the rest of the family in the cathedral. Their remains are in an office in the Russian State Archives.

In an attempt to lay the matter to rest, Russia has exhumed the Romanovs’ bodies for further testing. It will also reexamine documents relating to the early investigation of their execution that concluded in 1924.

Rarely spoken of during the Soviet Union, the Romanovs are enjoying a historic reappraisal.

“At present Russia is undergoing a complicated process of regaining its glory and worldwide influence. I am sure that in this historical moment the Romanovs would not stay away from all the processes that are taking place in Russia,” a Russian MP said in June while proposing a law to grant the family’s surviving heirs special status.

The Romanovs are only one example of a curious truth: a leader doesn’t have to be alive to wield political influence. A quick look at other famously powerful corpses:

Simón Bolívar

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez was among the conspiracy theorists who believed the iconic 19th-century South American revolutionary died in 1830 not of tuberculosis but of deliberate poisoning. In 2010 Chávez had Bolívar’s remains exhumed in a televised broadcast. Unfortunately for Chávez and his truthers, investigators couldn’t verify Bolívar’s true cause of death.

Oliver Cromwell

The English military leader who helped sign King Charles I’s death warrant was buried as a national hero in 1658, but the country’s political tide turned in the years after his death. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, his remains were dug up and put through a ceremonial execution. His severed head sat on a pole outside Westminster Hall for the next 24 years, a potent warning to anyone considering another royal overthrow.

Eva Perón

The military leaders who ousted Argentina’s former president Juan Perón worried that a tomb for his wildly popular former first lady could become a politically powerful shrine. Officials quietly moved her body to a series of secret locations around the city before burying her under an assumed name in Italy. Her remains were returned to Buenos Aires in the 1970s and buried in a reinforced underground crypt.

Vladimir Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, and Kim Il-Sung

Since placing Lenin’s embalmed corpse on permanent display in 1924, Russia has inspired what appears to be a communist penchant for keeping the bodies of departed leaders in tip-top shape for public view. Mausoleums in Moscow, Hanoi, Beijing, and Pyongyang all house the glass-encased bodies of the men who presided over their communist revolutions. Never out of sight, never out of mind.