A.I. Madorskii, Be as the great Lenin was, 1938
In 1938, the USSR was still in the grip of the Great Purge: the Communist Party and peasantry were purged; in 1937, the Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army and seven generals were shot; in 1938–39, all the admirals and half the Army’s officers were executed or imprisoned; and it is estimated* that between 600,000 and 3 million people died at the hands of the Soviet government at this time, known in Russia as Yezhovshchina (the Yezhov phenomenon, named for the head of the secret police, Nikolai Yezhov).
The purges served many purposes. One of the major ones was to identify ‘enemies of the people’ who were ‘sabotaging’ the progress of the Soviet Union and thus set up an ‘us and them’ mentality, increasing the identification of the people with their leaders.
The leadership represented positive qualities including honesty, loyalty and commitment, while enemies were unfaithful, treacherous, lazy and self-serving. The trials of the accused, particularly those from the upper echelons of the party, were public and the confessions made, which were often patently absurd and had been extracted under torture, were aimed at outraging the public and uniting them behind the friendly, paternal leadership of Stalin.
The cult of Lenin had deified the Party’s founder and the image of Lenin symbolised all the highest qualities of the socialist ideal. In this 1938 poster by A.I. Madorskii, Lenin is invoked as an inspiration from the past, whose steady example is to be practised in the present and future. The people are urged to ‘Be as the great Lenin was.’
Despite Lenin’s visual dominance of the images, it is Stalin’s words that feature in the poster, and Stalin appears as the sole authoritative interpreter of Lenin’s legacy for the future. The text is taken from Stalin’s speech on December 11, 1937:
The electors, the people, must demand that their deputies should remain equal to their tasks, that in their work they should not sink to the level of political philistines, that in their posts they should remain political figures of the Lenin type, that as public figures they should be as clear and definite as Lenin was, that they should be as fearless in battle and as merciless towards the enemies of the people as Lenin was, that they should be free from all panic, from any semblance of panic, when things begin to get complicated and some danger or other looms on the horizon, that they should be as free from all semblance of panic as Lenin was, that they should be as wise and deliberate in deciding complex problems requiring a comprehensive orientation and a comprehensive weighing of all pros and cons as Lenin was, that they should be as upright and honest as Lenin was, that they should love their people as Lenin did.
The importance given to this speech of Stalin’s is evidenced by the fact that two more posters of 1939 also took it as their subject.
In the poster, Stalin stands before a podium and is depicted while giving the electoral speech in December 1937. His right hand points straight up at the heavens, invoking a higher order of law, and drawing the eye to the large image of Lenin (looking to the viewer’s left – to the past) on a protective banner that covers Stalin, the Kremlin, and the crowd of workers below.
The workers are from all walks of life and a variety of nationalities, although it is interesting to note that only two women are depicted and that they are shown wearing the head scarves of agricultural workers.
Creating enemies, or exaggerating their prevalence and power has a galvanising and polarising effect on communities, increasing feelings of hatred and hostility towards those identified as ‘other’, and correspondingly amplifying feelings of love and commitment towards those who are ‘like us’.
*See Richard Pipes, Communism: A History (Modern Library Chronicles), p.67 and Michael Ellman, Soviet Repression Statistics: Some Comments, 2002
Dr Anita Pisch
Anita’s new, fully illustrated book, The personality cult of Stalin in Soviet posters, 1929 -1953, published by ANU Press, is available for free download here, and can also be purchased in hard copy from ANU Press.