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.

Gennady Ivanovich Yanayev (1937 – 2010)

Yanayev, second from right, was as dour as any Soviet apparatchik

Along with Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank, it was one of the iconic images of the dying Soviet Union’s comic opera coup in August 1991: Gennady Yanayev, the new figurehead president, facing the world’s press for the first and only time, stammering out one inept and bumbling answer after another, his voice quivering and his hands shaking from nerves and too much vodka. It was a performance that confirmed the coup was amateurish and helped undermine it.

A coup by hard-liners had been in the air since the previous December, but few would have guessed that Gennady Ivanovich Yanayev — the man described by David Remnick in his magestrial history of the end of the Soviet Union Lenin’s Tomb as “a witless apparatchik, philanderer and drunk” — would be at the helm of the USSR. Whether Yanayev ever bothered to sober up during the three-day coup is unknown. Although he was not one of the principle players in the coup, as the USSR’s vice-president, he was the palace coup’s veneer of constitutionality. On 19th August, 1991 — the day after he declared a state of emergency — Yanayev held a disastrous press conference at the Foreign Ministry, in which the ruling ‘State Committee’ projected nothing but hesitancy and weakness. Ironically, the plotters, who viewed themselves as patriots, merely quickened the demise of the Soviet Union. The coup quickly withered, and with it the Soviet Union itself.

Yanayev was initially imprisoned and charged with high treason, a crime that carried the death penalty. But as disillusion with new Russia grew — and with it nostalgia for the Soviet Union — he and other coup leaders were pardoned by the parliament in 1994. Yanayev returned to the obscurity — from which he had briefly but so dramatically been plucked — and died there last week, virtually a forgotten man trampled by a wave of history he never understood yet struggled in vain to resist.

— the obituary adapted from the Independent. See his trembling hands here. I don’t speak Russian that well but people who do should comment.

de Gaulle in USSR

1966 was an extraordinarily busy year for Charles de Gaulle. Re-elected the previous year, le Grand Charles had envisioned a France acting as a balancing force in the dangerous rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union. He moved away from the Atlantean foreign policy into more neutral waters by withdrawing the French commitments from NATO and demanding all foreign bases removed from French soil. In January, he scored a victory in Empty Chair Crisis, thus permanently killing off European Federalism.

In July, De Gaulle made an 11-day, 6,200 mile trip across Russia, during which he attended a Soviet satellite missile launch at Baikinour. On the other hand, he rebuffed the Soviet demands to recognize the co-existence “of the two German states”. Devoutly Catholic, he insisted on attending mass in Leningrad, and he ended his visit with a joint call for an end to foreign intervention in Vietnam, a proclamation he would echo in a famous Phnom Penh speech two months later. Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin reciprocated the visit with a grand 9-day visit to France.

De Gaulle capped the year of diplomatic frenzy with an emotional, yet controversial state visit to Poland. The first non-Communist European leader to visit Poland since the Second World War, the president who actually had led the Poles against the Soviets after the First World War was enthusiastically received. There were hails of Duzy Karolek (Long Charlie) from the youth who wore copies of the képi military cap he wore during the war. (To this day the cap is known in Poland as Degolówka). But de Gaulle angered the West Germans by visiting the once-German town of Hindenburg, which had become Zabrze, and said it was la ville la plus polonaise de la Pologne (the most Polish town in Poland).

Elliot Erwitt was the only American photographer covering de Gaulle’s visit. His photo of the General and the Soviet Presidium in the most casual of settings indeed made the cover of Paris Match and was published worldwide. He remembered the curious affair:

“I was there at the French Embassy with all the other dozens of photographers taking the usual handshaking pictures and when it was all over I went back to my hotel and took my shoes off and suddenly thought I should not have left. So I put my shoes on again and went back to the Embassy. There were only a few people still there, the event was over, so I just walked in and opened a few doors and then opened one door and there was the entire Soviet government sitting down with de Gaulle and chatting. Nobody looked up so I just walked in with my camera and started taking pictures. They didn’t question my presence because I acted natural. Noboday said anything and after a while I got up and left. It is very important to know when to leave. No one took any notice. I went back to my hotel and called Paris Match, who could hardly believe it. They broke their cover waiting for my pictures.”

Charlie Wilson’s War

Flamboyant playboy Texan Congressman, Charlie Wilson, who died earlier today was perhaps the last of gentlemen-adventurers. Like to many an adventurer before him, the challenge came in the form of a beautiful woman: thrice-married socialite and philanthropist Joanne Herring who, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, smuggled herself into that country to film the invasion.

Charlie Wilson, who she was dating at the time, was an influential member of the defence appropriations committee. The duo, along with some CIA help, launched a scheme to back the anti-Soviet militia, the mujahideen. Using Israeli and Swiss arms, and US and Saudi money, they managed to arm the mujahideen; with Wilson’s help, the United States’ funding of the Afghan resistance increased from the $30 million in 1984 to $630 million in 1987, with each fund matched by the Saudis. In 1986, Wilson prevailed over the Pentagon, CIA, and State Department resistance to send 1000 shoulder-fired surface-to-air Stinger missiles and 250 launchers to Afghanistan. Wilson quipped, “Whenever a plane goes down, I always fear it is one of our missiles. Most of all I wanted to bloody the Red Army. I think the bloodying thereof had a great deal to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

The last Russian soldier left Afghanistan in February 1989. Wilson had won. The U.S. quickly lost its interest from Afghanistan. Funding of Afghan resistance leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hezbi Islami party was cut off immediately. Disenchanted and armed, they would first support Saddam Hussein’s Kuwait invasion and would became the original Taliban. Wilson himself retired from the Congress displeased at how the United States treated his former allies. Seeing his weapons ending up in the hands of the Taliban regime, which took power in Afghanistan and harbored Osama bin Laden, Wilson reflected, “I feel guilty about it. I really do. Those things happen. How are you going to defeat the Red Army without a gun? You can’t blame the Marines for teaching Lee Harvey Oswald how to shoot.”

Kozakiewicz’s gesture

So I was reading this strange article by Christopher Hitchens (who else?) while I saw this photo.

The 1980 Summer Olympic Games were already mired by controversy even before they opened. The United States led the boycott of 64 other countries in protest of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They instead participated in the Olympic Boycott Games or the “Liberty Bell Classic” in Philadelphia, which opened 3 days before the actual games. Fifteen other countries (mainly European) that participated did so under the Olympic Flag instead of their national flags. The Olympic Flag and Hymn were used at Medal Ceremonies when athletes from these countries won medals. The Soviet television alternately ignored and criticized this.

After setting a new world record on July 30th, Polish pole vaulter Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz made a rude gesture (bras d’honneur) to the hostile, jeering Moscow crowd. The crowd was rooting for Soviet jumper Konstantin Volkov. The image was seen around the world except ironically in the Soviet Union and its satellite states. To many, it signified Polish resentment of Russia’s control over Eastern Europe; in Poland, the gesture became immediately known as Kozakiewicz’s gesture. (gest Kozakiewicza).

After the Olympics, the Soviet ambassador to Poland demanded that Kozakiewicz be stripped of his medal over his “insult to the Soviet people”. The official response of the Polish government was that the gesture had been an involuntary muscle spasm caused by his exertion. Kozakiewicz for his part promptly defected to West Germany.

The View From Lenin’s Tomb

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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

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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.

Red Star Over Russia

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Above, a candid picture of Josef Stalin, captured by Lt. Gen. Nikolai Vlasik, the dictator’s bodyguard. Vlaski, Stalin’s erstwhile confidante, co-conspirator and son-in-law, was purged by his master in 1952. After Stalin died in 1953, he was released from a gulag. Vlasik’s off-the-record photos of Stalin caused a sensation in the early 1960s when an enterprising Soviet journalist spirited some out, selling them to newspapers and magazines worldwide.

Now, author David King documents otherwise lost Soviet images. Gathered from advertisements, posters, photographs, and even mug shots, these images reveal a piece of history. In the new book called, “Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History of the Soviet Union“, King covers his research of images from the USSR’s inception to Stalin’s death.

For images from the book, see Foreign Policy Magazine here.