Stalinist kitsch

The title of this entry deserves some explanation. “Stalinist kitsch,” one might object, is a bit superfluous. Or redundant, rather. Everything is announced by simply saying “Stalinist,” after all. Doesn’t matter if it’s politics, aesthetics, whatever. It’s already assumed that it’s kitsch.

All the same, there’s plenty about Stalinism that deserves to be taken seriously. Not because it’s “right” about history or society or economics; no, nothing like that. Rather, it’s because whether we admit it or not, Stalin did seem to represent one solution (or at least stopgap) to the problem of mass society. Perhaps not a likable answer to the issues posed by modernity, but a likely one. This is something that Boris Groys, among others, has pointed out.

Moreover, though Stalin might have been more than a little lackluster as a theoretician — the primitiveness and crudity of his imagination was legendary — it’s not like he was completely ignorant. Least of all about Bolshevism and its various controversies over the years. He’d been in the party since 1903, so he was hardly a novice. And to be honest, many historians politically aligned with Stalinism wrote very rigorous, detailed accounts of their various objects of study. Though they may be a little vulgar and undertheorized at times, they’re preferable to a lot of the crap that’s published.

What’s even scarier is that those few explicitly Stalinist parties that still exist often have better politics than their soi-disant “Trotskyist” counterparts, who now operate more or less according to the logic of Stalinoid popfrontism, but without even the vague self-consciousness that Stalinists possessed. Sad times indeed.

Below are a bunch of the kitschier photos, posters, and artworks from the Stalin era. Click on any of the images to enlarge them. Furthermore, to compensate for this bit of lighthearted parody, I’m including Evtushenko’s somber 1961 poem, published in Pravda, on the “heirs of Stalin.”

The heirs of Stalin

Mute was the marble. Mutely glimmered the glass.
Mute stood the sentries, bronzed by the breeze.
Thin wisps of smoke curled over the coffin.
And breath seeped through the chinks
as they bore him out the mausoleum doors.
Slowly the coffin floated, grazing the fixed bayonets.
He also was mute — his embalmed fists,
just pretending to be dead, he watched from inside.
He wished to fix each pallbearer in his memory:
young recruits from Ryazan and Kursk,
so that later he might collect enough strength for a sortie,
rise from the grave, and reach these unreflecting youths.
He was scheming. Had merely dozed off.
And I, appealing to our government, petition them
to double, and treble, the sentries guarding this slab,
and stop Stalin from ever rising again
and, with Stalin, the past.
I refer not to the past, so holy and glorious,
of Turksib, and Magnitka, and the flag raised over Berlin.
By the past, in this case, I mean the neglect
of the people’s good, false charges, the jailing of innocent men.
We sowed our crops honestly.
Honestly we smelted metal,
and honestly we marched, joining the ranks.
But he feared us. Believing in the great goal,
he judged all means justified to that great end.
He was far-sighted. Adept in the art of political warfare,
he left many heirs behind on this globe.
I fancy there’s a telephone in that coffin:
Stalin instructs Enver Hoxha.
From that coffin where else does the cable go!
No, Stalin has not given up. He thinks he can cheat death.
We carried him from the mausoleum.
But how remove Stalin’s heirs from Stalin!
Some of his heirs tend roses in retirement,
thinking in secret their enforced leisure will not last.
Others, from platforms, even heap abuse on Stalin
but, at night, yearn for the good old days.
No wonder Stalin’s heirs seem to suffer
these days from heart trouble. They, the former henchmen,
hate this era of emptied prison camps
and auditoriums full of people listening to poets.
The Party discourages me from being smug.
“Why care?” some say, but I can’t remain inactive.
While Stalin’s heirs walk this earth,
Stalin, I fancy, still lurks in the mausoleum.

Evgenii Evtushenko, 1962
Translated by George Reavey

Наследники Сталина

Безмолвствовал мрамор.
Безмолвно мерцало стекло.
Безмолвно стоял караул,
на ветру бронзовея,
А гроб чуть дымился.
Дыханье из гроба текло,
когда выносили его
из дверей Мавзолея.
Гроб медленно плыл,
задевая краями штыки.
Он тоже безмолвным был —
тоже! —
но грозно безмолвным.
Угрюмо сжимая
набальзамированные кулаки,
в нем к щели глазами приник
человек, притворившийся мертвым.
Хотел он запомнить
всех тех, кто его выносил, —
рязанских и курских молоденьких новобранцев,
чтоб как-нибудь после набраться для вылазки сил,
и встать из земли,
и до них,
Он что-то задумал.
Он лишь отдохнуть прикорнул.
И я обращаюсь к правительству нашему с просьбою:
утроить у этой плиты караул,
чтоб Сталин не встал
и со Сталиным — прошлое.
Мы сеяли честно.
Мы честно варили металл,
и честно шагали мы,
строясь в солдатские цепи.
А он нас боялся.
Он, веря в великую цель, не считал,
что средства должны быть достойны
величия цели.
Он был дальновиден.
В законах борьбы умудрен,
наследников многих
на шаре земном он оставил.
Мне чудится —
будто поставлен в гробу телефон.
Кому-то опять
сообщает свои указания Сталин.
Куда еще тянется провод из гроба того?
Нет, Сталин не умер.
Считает он смерть поправимостью.
Мы вынесли
из Мавзолея
но как из наследников Сталина
Сталина вынести?
Иные наследники
розы в отставке стригут,
но втайне считают,
что временна эта отставка.
и Сталина даже ругают с трибун,
а сами ночами тоскуют о времени старом.
Наследников Сталина,
видно, сегодня не зря
хватают инфаркты.
Им, бывшим когда-то опорами,
не нравится время,
в котором пусты лагеря,
а залы, где слушают люди стихи,
Велела не быть успокоенным Родине мне.
Пусть мне говорят: “Успокойся!” —
спокойным я быть не сумею.
Покуда наследники Сталина
живы еще на земле,
мне будет казаться,
что Сталин — еще в Мавзолее.

Евгений Евтушенко, 1962

10 thoughts on “Stalinist kitsch

  1. I love Stalin’s kitsch. Some of it is really beautiful. I am thinking, and wondering, why though do you say Stalin’s theorising was ‘primitive’? His works on linguistics are still very interesting, his lectures – if one agrees or not – are fascinating and his early work was demonstrably more important than Trotsky’s – Stalin bank-rolled the Party via underground acts of sabotage, expropriation and bank-robbery while Trotsky was writing fairly populist newspaper propaganda. Young Stalin was certainly an autodidactic, deep thinking person. He was a poet, and his mother fucked everyone who had money in town to pay for his education… I think that we need to differentiate between Stalin after 1923 and Stalin before 1923.

  2. I agree with the fourth comment above. The young Stalin was way cooler than Trotsky. Heck, even the old Stalin had more class. Neruda even wrote an ode to the man of Steel when he died, a part of which reads as follow:

    We must learn from Stalin
    his sincere intensity
    his concrete clarity. . . .
    Stalin is the noon,
    the maturity of man and the peoples.
    Stalinists, Let us bear this title with pride. . . .
    Stalinist workers, clerks, women take care of this day!
    The light has not vanished.
    The fire has not disappeared,
    There is only the growth of
    Light, bread, fire and hope
    In Stalin’s invincible time!
    — Pablo Neruda, “Ode to Stalin”

    • Indeed, Trotsky always strikes me as quite boring at times, and quite duplicitous at other times. Plus, we must remember that he did almost everything he could to undermine Lenin before 1917. This is while Stalin was engaging in clandestine activities – bank robberies, extortion of the rich, etc to fund the Bolsheviks.

  3. Neruda’s poem reminds me of abuse victims who construct idealist falsifications of reality in order to come to terms with their subjugation. That’s what Stalin did: he subjugated the world communist movement, with detrimental consequences still felt today. The preoccupation with the characters of Trotsky and Stalin is just one example of that.

    In materialist terms, the man was really something of a mixed bag.

    • I am wondering how a person who moved the USSR into Berlin – a long sought after objective – could be so unevenly thought of as subjugating the communist movement? Stalin, as a metonym, did – as a signifier – more to inspire spectral fear into the heart of capitalism. Now, the way he did it was reprehensible. Still I think that his work before 1923, was particularly valuable, in fact integral to the funding and organisation of the Party.

      • What I said was that in materialist terms he was a mixed bag, which is not uneven and does not exclude any positive impacts he may have had.

        All the same, what moved into Berlin in 1945 was the Red Army, not Stalin, not even as a signifier. Other people could have done so, some arguably better than him.

        If you do not see what kind of conformity the man installed in Marxist and communist thought, you really have to look at what happened to Soviet philosophy, the critical social sciences and not least constructivism after he consolidated power. All of which robbed the movement from an ability to self-reflect.

        It’s sure interesting that in officialdom-influenced Russia today it’s Stalin who’s seen as a hero and Lenin as a dubious, terrorist figure.

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