Friend of the Little Children

In the Soviet Union, the 1930s unfolded dismally. Collectivisation was not going very well, and rumors of plots and coups permeated. Instead of remedying the underlying ills of collectivisation, Stalin’s response to step up the propaganda. In his blatant lies, Stalin had an unwitting help from America; Fordson tractors, which were widely imported by the Soviet Union, represented everything that was modern and efficient — the very monikers that Stalin wanted to attach onto collectivisation.

Wider Soviet propaganda was becoming more pervasive too. While Lenin hated the personality cult that sprung up about him, Stalin seemed very conformable with it. In a sense, the Stalin cult overgrew the Lenin cult — metaphorically and literally. In early Soviet posters, Lenin was the dominating figure over Stalin, but as time went on, the two became first equal. Then Lenin became smaller and fainter. On November 7th 1939, Pravda’s front page showed a banner above the gathered dignitaries at the Bolshoi Theatre, which depicted a huge head of Stalin and a minute one of Lenin. Eventually, Lenin would be reduced to the byline on the book Stalin was depicted reading. Stalin’s insignificant role in the early Revolution and the Russian civil war was exaggerated. Stalingrad was renamed for him for he had “single-handedly, heroically and against orders” saved it during the civil war. On the other hand, inconvenient facts, such as his desire to cooperate with the tsarist government on his return from exile, were promptly forgotten.

Another major shift in Soviet propaganda was that by the 1930s, it was actively cultivating a feminized image of Russia as “Motherland”, opposed to its portrayal as “Fatherland” in the Tsarist Russia. Through this transformation, Mother Russia was now effectively in union with Father Leader, personified by Stalin. The press images of the mid-1930s showed Stalin in familial poses with women and children. On December 30th 1936, the trade union paper even portrayed him as Grandfather Frost, the Russian Santa Claus.

The first example of now ubiquitous “politician with non-related small child”, was an invention of ever-busy Soviet sycophantic propaganda machine. On July 1, 1935, in Pravda was an illustrated story of a girl Nina Zdrogova, who gave a bouquet to Stalin, and was rewarded with a bag of chocolates and cherries. Almost a year later, on June 29, 1936, Pravda printed what was to become a famous and ubiquitous image instantly, the above photo (by one M. Kalashnikov) showing Stalin with a small girl from the Buryat-Mongol Republic, Gelia Markizova.

In many respects, Gelia was an archetypical Stalinist icon. Firstly, she was a girl. Stalin told Sergei Eisenstein, “We cannot allow any small boy to behave as though he were Soviet power itself,” for the latter’s heroic depiction of a young Soviet martyr in Bezhin Meadow. Then, as befitting an unthreatening girl, Gelia was non-Russian. Stalin depicted himself not only as a father wedded to Mother Russia, but also as a stern paterfamilias of the Soviet Empire, an ironic sight in a country where newspapers reported trials of children as young as ten for counterrevolutionary behavior.

As for young Gelia too, the future held nasty surprises. The very next year, her father, Ardan Markizov, the Second Secretary of Buryat-Mongolia, would be arrested and later shot, together with other leaders of the autonomous republic, as a Japanese spy. Her mother was arrested and sent to Southern Kazakhstan, where she died under mysterious circumstances in November, 1940. Gelia’s transformation from a symbol to the daughter of an “enemy of the people” was complete when she moved in with an aunt in Moscow and changed her family name. Also among those who were purged was First secretary of Buryat-Mongolia, M.I. Erbanov, who was grinning in the background in the original photo; he was deleted from the photograph.

The photo, however, was widely circulated in postcards, posters and pioneer camps. A sculpture was made, but when rumors about the murder of Gelia’s parents circulated, the propaganda value of the image fell, causing the sculptor to be denounced.

6 thoughts on “Friend of the Little Children

  1. Nothing like communist iconography! Your post is so timely for me, I’m researching the concept of “Motherland” in 1950s Chinese visual culture, and would love to know if there are any sources you can share with me, especially when you talk about the “feminized image of Russia as “Motherland”, opposed to its portrayal as “Fatherland” in the Tsarist Russia.”
    Thanks so much for continued great work! More citations please!

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