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Lenin, Stalin and 'The Myth of the Beloved Leader'

New exhibition in Russia shows how the two former leaders used the cult of personality to their advantage.

Image: AP/Press Association Images

LENIN’S TRADEMARK FLAT cap and Stalin’s collection of pipes are among the memorabilia on show as Russia’s main historical museum opens up its long-hidden archive of once-revered relics of the Soviet leaders.

The exhibition at the State Historical Museum off Red Square shows around 1,000 objects glorifying Lenin and Stalin – including portraits, posters and gifts from factory collectives – as well as their personal possessions and even death masks.

Titled ‘The Myth of the Beloved Leader’, the exhibition is designed “to make us reflect on our history and help stop us making the same mistakes again”, one of the curators, Yelena Zakharova, told AFP.

The show opened in a branch of the museum that until the end of the Soviet era housed a vast display entirely dedicated to Lenin’s legacy.

“There will be a number of visitors who are nostalgic and come to see the objects that they have known from their childhood. But others will remember that they conceal our real life with its millions of victims,” Zakharova said.

The exhibition shows how the image of the first Soviet leader evolved, following the party line, over time.

“Lenin wasn’t born in his cap, despite what Soviet people might well have believed,” Zakharova said.

This is Lenin as a well cared-for and well-dressed four-year-old boy of noble birth:

Source: AP/Press Association Images

This is Lenin wearing workmen’s clothes and cap in 1917:

Source: AP/Press Association Images

She showed a case displaying a far less proletarian outfit: a well-cut coat, hat and shoes that Lenin wore on his return from exile in Sweden in 1917.

Lenin is again depicted wearing a European-style hat in a lithograph from 1917 titled “Lenin Waits for a Tram”. But from 1918 onwards, the Bolshevik leader is never again portrayed without his trademark flat cap.

And since he was of noble birth, Lenin is almost never depicted with members of his family, or even with his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya.

“The people of the Soviet Union were supposed to be his family,” Zakharova said.

A family tree on display shows his mother’s Jewish origins, long concealed by the Soviet regime, which was frequently anti-Semitic, especially under Leonid Brezhnev when Jewish people were barred from top jobs.

Stalin “worked on image”

In the early 1920s as Lenin fell seriously ill, dying in 1924, Stalin rose to power and his own personality cult began developing.

Stalin, wearing a military tunic and smoking a pipe, began appearing aside Lenin in posters.

Source: AP/Press Association Images

“Stalin himself worked on his image. You could say that he himself was the author of his cult of personality,” Zakharova said.

A committee that examined works for ideological soundness banned a 1937 Stalin portrait by Vasily Meshkov, which is on display at the exhibition, deeming its black background too “macabre” and saying Stalin’s hands appeared too “soft”.

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After the death of Stalin in 1953 and the denunciation of his cult of personality in 1956, works of art showing Lenin and Stalin together were hidden away or retouched.

HUNGARIAN REVOLT A giant statue of Stalin toppled in Budapest, Hungary in 1956. Source: AP/Press Association Images

In Vladimir Serov’s vast 1947 painting, “Lenin Proclaims Soviet Power”, Stalin was initially shown standing behind Lenin but was later removed. Only a cloud of smoke from his pipe is still visible.

The exhibition runs as President Vladimir Putin basks in public admiration over the annexation of Crimea with an approval rating of 82 percent, according to the latest figures from the independent Levada polling centre.

While Putin has said he dislikes the use of his image, his portrait is often seen hanging behind officials’ desks, making the show, which runs to January 2015, uncomfortably current.

“The deification of power lies at the basis of the entire totalitarian regime,” Mikhail Shvydkoi, Putin’s cultural representative, wrote about the exhibition in the state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

“We hope that the Soviet mythology belongs to the past… and does not become a reality again,” he wrote.

“It’s hard to walk away from these secular relics,” a commentator wrote in the Kommersant business daily, adding: “The whole exhibition is stealthily suffused with a sense of unease.”

© AFP 2014

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