At the height of the Cold War a Russian girl plots to steal the mummified body of Lenin and use it as a hostage to free her dissident brother and others from a Siberian gulag. She recruits five people, each with a motive for settling scores with Lenin; she lures an English diplomat, who loves her, into the conspiracy. They manage to outwit the KGB, though not before two plotters die and four others land in the notorious Lubyanka prison.
Alan Churchill, young British diplomat based in Moscow, queues at the Lenin Mausoleum to check if the body is really Lenin or the substitute they planted in his place, In flashback he tells how he became involved in the plot to steal the most sacred relic in the Soviet Union. Churchill meets Larissa Bukova at a trade fair in Sofia. Her brother is in a gulag, sick, and she tells Churchill she is determined to free him. Under her spell, he is drawn into the plot. One by one, he meets the other conspirators—an Armenian medical orderly, a Jewish architect, an airport maintenance man and his airhostess girlfriend, an orthodox priest. With Shapirov, the Jewish architect, he explores the hidden corners of the Kremlin; he disguises himself as Larissa’s newly-wed husband to reconnoiter the inside of the Lenin Mausoleum, film the body and the security systems. Larissa persuades him to bring back two waxwork effigies of Lenin, made for him by a Musée Grévin sculptor in Paris. He still considers her plan impossible but goes along until he catches Larissa making love with Shapirov, when he decides to pull out. She stops him by taking him, secretly, to see Shapirov’s aged parents and informing him that Shapirov’s grandmother, Fanny Roid, had shot and wounded Lenin, who then had her murdered before his eyes in the Kremlin. Larissa needs Shapirov, who has a key to the Mausoleum. Finally, she reveals part of her scheme: they will steal Lenin’s body and substitute a wax dummy on one of the two great parade days—May the First—when the guards are looking after Politburo members at the march-past. On May 1, they gain entrance to the Kremlin by using an ambulance, escorted by Shapirov disguised as a militiaman. By the Mausoleum, Raya, the air-hostess, throws an epileptic fit to distract the guards while Alan and Larissa enter the crypt with their wax dummy on a stretcher. Lenin’s glass coffin is empty. Alan is now sure there is a Judas among the seven plotters. However, they film themselves with the wax dummy, taking it apart, putting it together and laying it, clothed, under the glass canopy as though it were the real Lenin. Although they manage to escape, Larissa and Alan realize they will all be picked up by the KGB. They tell the others to scatter and lie low. Alan makes for the British Embassy and persuades his friend, the security man, to put his film and an account of the plot in the diplomatic bag for his London solicitor. He spends the night with Shapirov’s parents but has to flee next morning. Shapirov is caught in a KGB snare, kills two agents then shoots himself. Alan and Larissa discover the KGB has searched the church where they hid the two waxwork dummies. At Shapirov’s dacha they find Kolya, the priest, has been tortured then garroted. They spend two days there in the forest, they make love and declare their love for each other. Back in Moscow, Alan is picked up, taken to Lubyanka, the infamous KGB headquarters, but surprisingly released; he realizes why when they attempt to throw him under a tube train. He escapes but they arrest him again and this time, torture him to extract a confession that he is a spymaster who has recruited six other agents. They tell him all the other prisoners have confessed. As he is recovering in Lubyanka hospital from his torture, Larissa is allowed to visit him. She apologizes for duping him into believing she was plotting to free her brother when the Gulag prisoner was really her lover. She has confessed to being recruited by Alan as a spy. However, she manages to whisper that his jailer and interrogator, General Agarov, means to have him murdered that night. He lies in wait for the murderer. They fight; Alan knocks the man out and discovers it is General Agarov himself. He uses the KGB general as a hostage to leave Lubyanka then forces him to drive to the British Embassy. There, he gives Agarov the choice: either he faces an international scandal over the Lenin Plot which would discredit the Soviet Union, mean the end for him and his family; or he frees his five prisoners, and six gulag victims. Agarov has to concede defeat. Alan learns that Larissa retracted her confession after her visit, a sign that she loves him. Before she leaves with her boyfriend for an unknown country, she leaves a message of hope for him as he himself flies out of Moscow. NOTE: The story is told in the first person by the diplomat Alan Churchill between a prologue and an epilogue. .