Brezhnev and Mermaids

I have been reading a collection of articles by Dmitry K. Zelenin (1878–1954), the author of Ethnography of Greater Russia. In particular, On the Question of Mermaids (1911) identifies numerous similarities between mermaids and so-called zalozhnye pokoyniki — those who died a premature and unnatural death — in the folk mythology of ethnic Russians and some Finno-Ugric and Turkic peoples of Russia. Examples of the zalozhnye are suicides, the drowned, infants who died before baptism, and those who died of and while drinking. According to Zelenin and numerous other ethnographers, it was believed, in Russia as elsewhere, that the souls of those dead would not be at rest until the time of their would-be natural death; meanwhile, they roamed the earth and harmed the living.

Another widespread belief was that the zalozhnye ought not to be buried in the ground, for the earth “won’t accept them” — a view that Christian clergy understandably opposed, which led to a compromise in the form of “houses for the dead” in Russia. Sometimes a body of a zalozhny pokoynik would be thrown into a bog: if swallowed, the earth agreed to accept the dead body; if not, it was not supposed to in the first place.

Fast forward to November 1982. Brezhnev died on the 10th; Soviet TV broadcast the funeral live. The ceremony went wrong seconds before the coffin was to find itself in the grave. I recall watching it but don’t quite remember what happened — it looked like, as they were lowering the coffin on straps into the open grave, and there was yet a foot to go, the coffin suddenly fell down; some say it didn’t really fall, but the consensus is, I think, that the coffin got stuck — stuck halfway in the grave. It neither went all the way down to the bottom nor could be hoisted back up for a second try. That is, not after a minute or two passed — which in a slow-motion show like a Soviet state funeral is a rather long time.

Sharp tongues would soon say “the earth would not accept him.” It was the heyday of the Soviet political joke, no doubt, but this one was too harsh on the old man. Loss of perspective, sort of — compared with the founding elders of the Soviet state, granddad Lenin and daddy Stalin, Brezhnev was a kind-hearted old stooge. Stalin’s own funeral was a bloody mess, but his body was interred only nine years later, in secret, at night. Meanwhile, the national Arch-Corpse (“arch” was Lenin’s favorite prefix) remains unburied, on display in a granite ziggurate fifty yards from a Christian cathedral.

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