For as long as I've known him, Ivaan had a quirky streak. From stories he has told me about his childhood, I suspect it originated when he was very young. He loved to see how far he could pull the wool over the eyes of gullible people, by telling them outrageous stories and seeing if they believed him. He was greatly assisted in these endeavours by the fact that people genuinely wanted to believe him. Sometimes this got him into trouble, because people who didn't know him well enough would accept everything he said at face value, and he'd be too embarrassed to tell them they'd been the victim of one of his pranks. Sometimes he genuinely regretted a tale he'd spun, particularly when he realized he'd hurt someone in the process, but he found it hard to own up to his actions. Wiping a tear that was half mirth and half regret from his eye, he'd tell me, "I can't tell them the truth now. I think I'm a moral coward!"
Sometimes, Ivaan's pranks were just so funny that it was a pleasure to be on the receiving end of them. These were the occasions where the prank originated from a serious premise and then "grew legs", becoming funnier and funnier in the process. And so it was with the story of Lenin's Tomb.
Ivaan was a history buff. He knew a great deal of history, and not just a dry recitation of dates, names and places, either. He spoke about historical events as if he had been there. One day, he was telling me about events in Russian history, and he mentioned that in Red Square, in Moscow, right next door to the Kremlin, the body of Vladimir Illich Lenin, the founder of the U.S.S.R. was entombed in a glass coffin, ever since his death in 1924, and that people would line up for hours to file past and see it for just a few seconds.
At this point in his story, I interjected: "I wonder if it's the same Lenin as the original one they put in there."
No, Ivaan replied. It wasn't. Every five years in Russia, they had a Lenin Look-Alike Contest, where people from all over the country who thought they bore a resemblance to Lenin could enter themselves into the competition. The winner - the person who looked the most like Lenin - got to spend the next five years lying in state in the glass coffin in Red Square, and have long lines of people coming by daily to pay their respects.
Ivaan told both halves of this story with a straight face, in the quiet, solemn voice he used to relate historical events that moved him, and so it wasn't until he concluded his tale that I looked up, saw him wiping tears of mirth from his eyes, and realized I'd been pranked.
I've always thought of The Lenin Look-Alike Contest as the most beautiful example of Ivaan's humour. Starting from a perfectly "straight" premise, the story suddenly veered into the improbable, collided with the outrageous, and yet miraculously no one was hurt.
To this day, I can't even see a picture of Lenin without laughing.
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