Lenin and Stalin


Even today, photographers who attempt to take pictures inside the mausoleum on the Red Square where Vladimir Lenin lay in repose are stopped by the sentries. In 1955, that didn’t deter British tourist Christopher Scott, who had bought his first camera only fourteen days earlier.

Entering the tomb with his camera conspicuously hanging from his neck, Scott kept close to the person in front of him in the line, hoping to hide his camera from the guards. Reaching the bodies, he focused and took a single photo and walked out. Not only until three weeks later, when he returned from his holidays, did he discover the perfectly framed photo he took of the biers above.

All the more remarkable was that Scott captured a rare historical moment: For seven years, until his body was taken out and buried by the Kremlin Wall, Joseph Stalin’s embalmed body shared a spot next to Lenin’s. Although the photo above didn’t show it clearly, Stalin’s body was dressed in his uniform as the Marshal of the Soviet Union, decorated with golden buttons and epaulets and state orders, while Lenin was in a simple black suit, devoid of any awards. “Bathed by spotlights set in the ceiling, preserved by paints, cosmetics and all the arts of embalming science, their faces bear none of the marks of the bitter, turbulent years in which, by conspiracy, revolution and brutal dictatorship, they made modern Russia,” Life magazine wrote of their bodies.

At his death, Stalin had been the paramount leader of the Soviet Union for twenty-nine years – after years of unleashing his ire onto the peoples of Eastern Europe, he too succumbed to his own fickle terror. Having purged doctors of Jewish ancestry by accusing them of conspiring to assassinate Soviet leaders and having cowed his staff with orders not to disturb him during sleep under any circumstances (disobedience punishable by death), there was no one to revive him when he didn’t wake up at his usual time. Roy Medvedev, author of the dissident history of Stalinism, Let History Judge, placed the number of victims killed by Stalin’s regime at forty million people.

De-Stalinization began in 1956, with gradual removal of his decrees, photos, and statues all over the USSR. His embalmed body however remained in the Mausoleum stubbornly until 1961, when Dora Lazurkina, an arch-Bolshevik who had been an apartment mate of Lenin once and was exiled by Stalin, denounced its presence. Proving that ironically in a godless Soviet Union, such views still prevailed, Lazurkina couched her words in metaphysical terms: “I consulted with Ilyich, as if he stood before me as if alive and said: it is unpleasant for me to be next to Stalin, who brought so much trouble to the party”.

The very next day, the body moved out of the mausoleum and was reburied.


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Lenin in Stockholm

To the Russians, Vladimir Ulyanov was already a living symbol in 1917. Ulyanov – now better known by his revolutionary nom de guerre, Lenin — himself was in exile in Switzerland, and his Bolsheviks Party was withering when the Russian Revolution actually took place in 1917.  On 15th March 1917, Lenin’s problem was to travel back from Zurich to St. Petersburg to lead his party again. Although he wanted to charter a plane and fly back, the war made it risky. He approached the German government, then fighting the Provisional Government of Russia, for a transit visa. Since he didn’t want to be seen as ‘consorting with the enemy’, Lenin also have his train granted the extra-territorial status as a foreign embassy. Both requests were readily honored by the Germans. (There were two German military escorts on the train, but they too were kept separate from Lenin’s cadre).

The party atmosphere accompanied the ‘sealed train’. Lenin had to silent his crew at times, order lights outs and rearrange sleeping arrangements to separate merrymakers. They were an unruly company; a conflict arose immediately between the smokers and non-smokers. Lenin, who despised cigarette smoke, ruled that smoking was to be allowed only in the toilet. This was immediately followed by a second argument between the smokers and those who needed to use the toilet. Another argument was between the Russians and two Germans, who protested that the former’s penchants for the French revolutionary songs were insulting to the German nation.

Above was the only one photograph of the travelers, taken in Stockholm on 13th April 1917. Above, Lenin was carrying an umbrella and wearing a hat. Behind him, with an enormous hat, was his wife, Nadezhda. Behind her was the other woman in Lenin’s life, his mistress and revolutionary Inessa Armand. At the back, holding the hand of four-year old Robert was Grigory Zinoviev, Lenin’s designated successor, later to be purged by Stalin. In Stockholm, the Swedish socialists threw a banquet in his honor and for the first time in his life, Lenin was received as a prominent statesman. The Swedes, however, didn’t fully understood his vision; they found him quaint, and even gave him some money to buy new clothes, unaware that formerly poor revolutionary was now being lavishly funded by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Communist history books rigorously denied this, but when Lenin arrived back to St. Petersburg, the Provisional Government – with the help of the French intelligence service – began a through investigation into the Bolshevik finances, but the 21-volume dossier was destroyed on the orders of Leo Trotsky right after the October Revolution.

Buoyed by the German money, the Bolsheviks went from strength to strength, buying out printing presses, publishing their propaganda in multiple languages, and sending them out into the battlefields. By October, train and police stations, electricity plant and telephone switchboards were firmly in the Bolsheviks’ hand that the storming of the Winter Palace – despite its prominence in subsequent Communist hagiography – was simply a walk over.

The Autumn of the Patriarch

In 1920, three years after the Bolsheviks seized power, Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and H. G. Wells all made trips to Moscow (separately). Maxim Gorky, a personal friend of Lenin arranged a meeting between them and Lenin. Each author was shown only the selective segments of the Soviet life, and each wrote about his experiences thoroughly. (In above photo, Lenin meets with Wells on 6 October 1920 in his Kremlin office).

By 1920, 50-year old Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin was a tired old man. Years of hardship home and abroad, mental strains from chaotic revolution, government and civil war and wounds from the attempted assassinations reduced him. In May and December 1922, he suffered two strokes, which paralyzed him. The next March, he suffered the third stroke that rendered him mute and wheelchair-ridden. He retired to his country estate at Gorki, where his wife read him Jack London’s books (he was Lenin’s favorite author). “Love of Life” was left unfinished when Lenin died in January 1924.

“Come back and see what we have done in ten years,” said Lenin to Wells. But in his own megalomaniacal way, Lenin proved to be his own undoing. After his first stroke, Lenin dictated a document so harshly critical of all of his potential successors that it was in nobody’s interest to publicize it. Soon Stalin would take advantage of Lenin’s inability to speak or move; he would pay frequent visits to Lenin who was almost a vegetable, to portray a false image of him as close to Lenin.

Wells predicted that Lenin’s Bolshevism might be replaced by a new ideology and a dictatorship worse than Lenin’s that could spread outside of the Soviet Russia. In a sense he was prophetic. Yet, history would hardly be different if Lenin had lived longer. It was Lenin who created the first camps and purges; Lenin who set off artificial famine as a political weapon; Lenin who disbanded the last vestiges of democratic government, the Constituent Assembly, and devised the Communist Party as the apex of a totalitarian structure; Lenin who first waged war on the intelligentsia and on religious believers. His self-proclaimed “man of letters” paved the way not merely for his successors but for Mao, for Hitler, for Pol Pot.

Lenin’s illness was largely suppressed from the Russian people. Most of the pictures published in his final days were official-looking photos taken years before. The photo below, of Lenin with his sister and doctor, taken by his gardener was his last. It was published only after the Soviet Union collapsed in Dmitri Volkogonov’s Lenin: A New Biography.

The View From Lenin’s Tomb


As I mentioned before somewhere, Lenin didn’t wish to have a mausoleum to him, but Stalin ordered it be done. A design competition was held after it became clear that the attempts to preserve Lenin’s body were successful. Some alleged in 1920s, and 1930s that the body on display in the tomb was a wax dummy and that the embalmers had actually failed in their task, but I would say the process was thought to be successful, just because before Stalin died, he asked his body to be preserved and placed in the crypt alongside Lenin.

Above was a rare picture of the Mausoleum with the Cyrillic lettering denoting ‘Lenin’ and ‘Stalin’. When Stalin died in 1953, his body was placed on temporary display in the Hall of Columns, and thousands of people lined up in the snow to see it. The crowds were so dense and chaotic  that some people were trampled underfoot, others rammed against traffic lights, and some others choked to death. Some 500 people lost their lives while trying to get a glimpse of Stalin’s corpse.

On March 9, nine pallbearers carried the coffin from the Hall of Columns onto a gun carriage. The body was then ceremoniously taken to Lenin’s tomb on the Red Square in Moscow. In November 1953, seven months after Stalin’s death, the tomb was reopened. Eight years later, during a period of de-Stalinization undertaken by Krushchev, Stalin’s body was removed under cover of night and buried in a modest tomb alongside the Kremlin wall. Krushchev ordered thick layers of concrete to be placed over the tomb so that Stalin could never rise again. A few weeks later, a simple dark granite stone marked the grave with the very simple, “J. V. STALIN 1879-1953.” In 1970, a small bust was added to the grave.

From the ’50s through the ’80s, the American study of Soviet politics was dominated by the school of Kremlinology.  The pictures like the one above were intensely studied by the kremlinologists, for the packing order of the Communist Party and its ruling politburo. They examined the relative position of the Soviet leadership (all waxen, dour-faced apparatchiks) as they stood on Lenin’s tomb during major ceremonies, like May Day and the anniversary of the Great October Revolution.

The Fall of Iron Felix


RUSSIA COUP ANNIVERSARY(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

During the Soviet times, the head of its feared secret police (which underwent so many different name changes, the most enduring being KGB) occupies a third floor office in Lubyanka Building overlooking the large statue of Feliks Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky. Dzerzhinsky was the founder of the feared Cheka, Lenin’s secret police, which specialized in state terror and was the forerunner of the Soviet KGB. Dzerzhinsky was there at Lenin’s side when the Bolsheviks, then a minority party, took control of the February revolution, and was also there as a pallbearer at Lenin’s funeral.

On August 18th 1991, hardliners in the Communist Party demanded the resignation of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. When he refused, they held him prisoner at his summer dacha and declared his resignation due to ‘ill health’. The next day, tanks rolled into Moscow to protect the Russian Parliament. In the end, the hardliners failed to win over the military and the KGB and the coup fell apart within three days.

Most of the Western photographers in Moscow were on their August vacation and the events were recorded by two AP photographers, Olga Shalygin and Alexander Zemlianichenko, who won the Pulitzers for AP the next year. On the night of 23/24 August, Zemlianichenko documented the statue of the Iron Felix being toppled by a cheering crowd. As with many Soviet monuments, it was so well constructed that it could not be simply torn down – it took five heavy-duty cranes to lift it and topple it. The statue that came to symbolize the terror committed in the name of the revolutionary cause was one of the most reviled symbols of Soviet rule, and its toppling end of an era.

Lenin Speaks to the Troops


On May 5th 1920, during the Bolshevik Revolution, this photograph was taken of Vladimir Lenin atop a platform, speaking to the troops on the Sverdlov Square in front of the Bolshoi Theater. The soldiers are about to depart for the Polish front to fight Marshal Pilsudski’s forces, which had recently invaded Ukraine. In the original photo, Trotsky (and Kamenev partly obsured behind Trotsky) can be seen standing beside the platform on Lenin’s left side. The original was taken by G. P. Goldshtein.

The subsequent falsification of this photo was probably the first and certainly the most famous example of Stalinist retouching. When power struggles within the revolution forced Trotsky out of the party 7 years later he was “retouched” out of the picture (Figure 2).  Using paint, razors, and airbrushes, Soviet photo artists made several altered versions of the picture.

The original photo, which achieved the iconic status while Lenin was alive and Trotsky still had power, was published throughout the world. It became as much as symbol of the revolutionary Russia as the hammer and sickle or the red flag. After Troksky’s downfall, the photograph was never again shown in its entirety in the USSR even during the Gorbachev years.

For full details, see The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia (1997).

Lenin and Stalin


When Lenin died in 1924, Stalin ordered the best doctors and scientists in the Soviet Union to preserve Lenin’s body. It was against Lenin and his wife’s wishes but it was done. Lenin’s mummy was placed in a specially constructed crypt on Red Square. Lenin’s brain was removed to the Soviet Brain Institute, where they determined that the leader’s brain was superior to other human brains–a statement not recanted until 1994. Although some alleged in 1920s, and 1930s that the body on display in the tomb was a wax dummy (because the embalmers had actually failed in their task), the process was thought to be successful–just because before Stalin died, he asked his body to be preserved and placed in the crypt alongside Lenin. 

[In the 30s, the Soviet government opened an official “investigation” into the matter and invited a German doctor to participate and report his findings to the world. However, the doctor was allowed only a cursory examination, and was prohibited from inquired about the secret embalming formula. The doctor nonetheless observed frostbites on the skin, felt the cheeks, and lifted one of Lenin’s arms.]

Later during a period of de-Stalinization undertaken by Krushchev, Stalin’s body was removed under cover of night and buried in a modest tomb alongside the Kremlin wall. Krushchev ordered thick layers of concrete to be placed over the tomb so that Stalin could never rise again.

The above picture is through Pictorial Parade. For more information about the mausoleum, [link]