… and that other Russian son of a bitch, I forget his name, the bald one with that itty-bitty goatee like a streak of a dog doo, God durn, let me get a knife in him …
William Styron, Marriott, The Marine
In my second-hand bookshop in Haarlem I came across a cute little white box with in it three small hard-covers, bound in sections and printed on fine paper which since 1969 has not lost its quality.
There is an introduction by someone unknown to me, Olga Bergholz, first in Russian, then in an English translation. Everything indicates that this edition came from the former Soviet Union. The English version, however, suggests hope for a wider public in the West. Each of the three little books contains images of different kinds of art: Paintings, sculptures, drawings.
Almost all images show us a version of the Soviet leader Lenin, a few times of something he owned, like a house, only occasionally accompanied by others. The title of the three is apt: Dedicated to Lenin.
In my years of optimism I spent a lot of time on the writings of Vladimir Ilyich – Lenin that is, whose real last name was Ulyanov. A revolutionary can not do without a pseudonym, although his cannot have remained a riddle for the authorities all too long.
A would-be revolutionary in 1969 could hardly dispense with the reading of his works and of those by for example Trotsky. Stalin’s writings I read much later, at that time merely out of historical interest. Stalin, in ’69, was most certainly ‘wrong’, as Lenin then was ‘all right’. Trotsky was a name unknown to most outsiders.
What I have retained from the reading of Lenin’s works is a great admiration for his perseverance. Much of the many, much in the many volumes of his Collected Works consists of attempts to persuade his comrades of the accuracy of a his political line. Those were complex and tricky times, argumentation however is paramount, although logo magic is also and undoubtedly used. His texts on philosophical issues give the reader an insight into his intense involvement with notions more abstract than mere every day politics.
However, there is also bias, one that I shared in the seventies. We were quite sure that things would turn out well for this world, even though in Lenin’s own Russia things had been messed up. We, that is: My political friends, some of whom had already joined the Dutch communist party in the 60’s. I waited until its leader, the ‘Stalinist/Maoist’ Paul de Groot, was sidetracked.
From this confused period stems my aversion against later generations, especially people from the right, who depict Lenin as a mere potentate and an abomination. Especially ‘guilt by association’ I find distasteful, in Lenin’s case always mentioning his political ties with Stalin whom he in fact distrusted. Tearing down statues I find dubious anyway – as if one can erase one’s history. The tearing down of Lenin’s statues I disapprove of personally.
However, Lenin-idolatry I also find distasteful – at the time among my fellow party members, now while reading these little books compiled and introduced by Olga. The man with whom she made an appointment, to learn more firsthand about his dealings with Lenin, thought she just wanted to get information on The Leaders’s famous project for the electrification of Russia – the big project then. “No – she answered him – I want you to tell me about Lenin himself, the man; I want to make a poem on him.”
Making a poem, not writing it – it seems like a good ‘Leninist’ idea. But apart from this little joke, there is no poem in the books, nor a reference to it. Browsing through the three little volumes I got the impression that Olga Bergholz considers them to make up her poem, ‘dedicated to Lenin’.
Interesting is the difference between the three collections. The gallery of statues is truly ‘heroic’. This, of course, has to do with the medium. The notion that a person’s head is ‘sculpted’ already indicates it. Such head is ‘solid’, a comparison which stand for a slightly unnatural representation of a face sculpted in stone. It is a ‘head’, not so much a portrait, leaving aside the works of a few grandmaster sculptors.
Those sculptures were used in the Soviet Union as a propaganda tool. So it seems logical that virtually all of the images show Lenin as if he is personally and revolutionary pulling Russia with the hairs out of the quagmire of its own history. Not with Lenin’s own hair, for sure – for this he was too bald as well as wigless.
Most of the paintings shown are admittedly more of the same. However, there are some images of the man as a reading scholar or as a writer. Let us say: As a human being. Let us say: Intimate. This, often without any sentimentality. Yet, in all three volumes you never see him in a moment of weakness – after all, the stuff of art. On those canvases on which heroism is paramount, you will find details which characterize Soviet hierarchy and so-called ‘democratic centralism’.
On this painting by Shmatko, with its longwinded title V.I. Lenin Speaking about the General Plan for Electrification of Russia, we observe also the then still ‘comrade’ Trotsky, represented as a brave student who painstakingly notes down the words of teacher Lenin.
Evidently, I also searched for Stalin, but I could not identify the man.
Shmatko’s painting dates from 1957. We know how, at the order of Stalin, Trotsky was sadly killed with a pickax, while exiled in lonely Mexico City. In the Soviet Union – the successor of what at one time was called Russia – Trotsky, once the third of The Big Three, had become anathema. Stalin had seen to that.
We know how in Stalin’s days Trotsky was airbrushed away:
Could it be, that after The Thaw – initiated in 1953 by the accusation of self-aggrandizement against Stalin, this in a famous speech by a former Stalinist mass murderer: Khrushchev – one could, with impunity, paint a Trotsky and leave out a Stalin, in an image of times when The Three so closely worked together? Trotsky good, Stalin bad!
History – so vulnerable. Not only do we forget everything so fast – what is not forgotten is often mistreated.
Sierksma, 02/17/16 Haarlem