The year was 1991, and the geopolitical climate was changing so rapidly that nearly anything seemed possible. With Communist states falling all over the world, and the formal end of the Soviet Union just one month away, it did not seem entirely far fetched when word came that the Soviets were selling offering one of its greatest national treasures, the body of Vladimir Lenin.
The story was first reported by Forbes FYI, a quarterly supplement to Forbes Magazine. The magazine cited a source within the Interior Ministry, reporting that the country was so strapped for cash that it was exploring the possibility of liquidating many of its national treasures. Lenin’s body, preserved and on display in Red Square since the revolutionary’s death in 1924, was expected to bring in at least $15 million.
The article reported that Soviet leadership hoped to repeat the fortune of the British government when it sold London Bridge to an Arizona developer in 1962. Following a failed coup attempt a couple of months earlier, the government revisited its plans to return Lenin’s remains to his Russian hometown of Ulyanovsk, due to “a significant number of threats were received stating that the body would be dug up and indecent things done upon it.”
The article also noted, “In an attempt to save the significant commission that an auction house such as Christie’s or Sotheby’s would charge — as well as to discourage an extraordinary, and to the Russians, unseemly, public spectacle — the Ministry has decided to hold a closed, sealed-bid auction.” Conditions of the sale (to be enforced by the International Court of Justice at the Hague) included that the corpse not be used for any “commercial or improper” purpose.” Prospective purchasers were also advised that the estimated annual upkeep would range between $10,000 and $15,000, depending upon the climate.
Several news agencies picked up the story and reported it through their channels. Peter Jennings told the viewers of ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings about the matter. It was also featured in a PBS episode of Nightly Business Report. USA Today also picked up on the story, carrying the fascinating details to its readers.
Only when Soviet Interior Minister Viktor Barrannikov called a press conference to denounce the report as ″an impudent lie″ did the networks go back and double-check their sources. As it turned out, Lenin’s body was not for sale. The whole thing was a hoax, thought up by Forbes FYI editor Christopher Buckley. ″So many extraordinary things have happened in the Soviet Union that we thought it would be fun to test the limits of credulity,″ Buckley said.
Buckley encouraged the spread of the story by faxing an apparently-official press release to 75 news organizations. He withheld the illustration that accompanied the article in Forbes FYI, concluding that a picture of Lenin lying under a glass-topped coffee table surrounded by indifferent cocktail party chatterers would have been “a dead giveaway.”
When asked how such a prestigious news organization as ABC could be fooled by the hoax, Peter Jennings responded, “Given the chaos in the Soviet Union, even this was believable.” He took a swipe at the source of the information, saying that Forbes was “widely regarded in America, until now, as a responsible news organization.”
Read more examples of fake news.
Read more fun facts about the Soviet Union.