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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Stalingrad | Emmanuil Evzerikhin

Emmanuel Evzerikhin stalingrad 1942

The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest battles in history. For six months in 1942/43, Nazi Germany waged a total war on the city; over 1,000 tonnes of explosives were dropped on the city in the initial assaults alone, reducing Stalingrad’s city centre into rubble. These scenes of devastation were covered by Emmanuil Evzerikhin, among whose most memorable photos was that of Barmaley Fountain, a miraculously intact statue of children playing in front of a destroyed city square.

Evzerkhin was a Soviet Jew who had already been disgraced once, for a surreal Soviet offense.  In 1939, he was purged for staging a photo: while photographing factory workers, he wrote down that he took photos at 1 p.m. However, the time on the clocks suggested 7 a.m. By “staging” the clocks, Evzerikhin was guilty of subverting the system: the purpose of his assignment was to prove that all workers were already at their places at 7 a.m. When the war with Germany began, he was rehired as a war photographer. His poignant photos from Stalingrad — such as a musician saving his instrument (below) and a girl sheltering in bombed ruins — were widely printed in the press; he received an Order of the Red Star and “For the Defense of Stalingrad” medal.

After Stalingrad, Evzerikhin went on to document Ukrainian and Belorussian fronts. He saw the liberations of Minsk, Warsaw, Konigsberg, and Prague. On his return to Russia, however, he found opportunities fast evaporating. He was after all, a Jew; soon afterwards, he demoted again in anti-Semitic purges . 

Russians viewed and remembered the Second World War differently, not in sallow faces of Holocaust survivors or the horrors of concentration camps freed, but in sieges endured, and fathers, husbands, and sons lost. Victories at battles of Moscow and Stalingrad were refashioned as truly ‘Russian’ victories, as opposed to Soviet victories. Soviet Russia did not suffer total occupation, as had the Baltics, Belarus, or Ukraine, nor was it much marked by the Holocaust compared to Ukraine or Belarus. This distance from the horrors of the Holocaust was to deny Russia certain lessons; when the war ended, Stalinist antisemitic pogroms were just around the corner.

Soon after the war, Stalin cancelled a Soviet documentary on the Holocaust, which highlighted that the “victims of fascism” were primarily Jewish. By 1953, the Soviet leadership was drafting Jewish denunciations which lifted phrases straight from Nazi propaganda. A fitting epigraph was penned by Vasily Grossman, a Jewish writer soon to be denounced; in sequel to his monumental novel of the Battle of Stalingrad, For a Just Cause, he had a Gestapo officer quip, “Today you’re appalled by our hatred of the Jews. Tomorrow you may make use of our experience yourselves.”


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.


The Second World War claimed the lives of at least forty-one million Europeans, more than half of them in the Soviet Union. Between 8-9 million soldiers in the Red Army were killed, and 18 million more were wounded. Between 16-19 million Soviet citizens lost their lives. Estimates of the total Soviet casualties are around 25 million, five times that of the Germans, and even this rough number was deduced only by reducing the total population figures at the next census.

Although the Soviet hagiographies conveniently ignored it, there was more than a whiff of self-destruction in these numbers. Employing an insulating jargon that removed them from realities and incomprehensibilities of war, Soviet commanders asked ‘How many matches were burned?’ or ‘How many pencils were broken?’ when they wanted to know about their losses after a battle.  For all his charisma, political awareness, and good sense of military strategy, Stalin remained, in the words of the acclaimed Soviet historian Dmitri Volkogonov, “an armchair general”, who had ‘fathomed the secrets of war at the cost of bloody experimentation.” His planning was erratic, and his measures ‘to combat cowardice’ were extreme. According to one especially infamous order, Number 227, every army was to organize units which would move along as a second front behind the first wave of attack, and shoot down any soldier who hesitated or retreated.

The huge toll in human lives paid for Stalin’s ‘brilliant strategy’ was captured in Dmitri Baltermants’ photo, ‘Grief, or Searching for the Loved Ones in Kerch’. Before ultimately reaching Berlin like the Red Army itself, Baltermants covered the battles of Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad. Grief was taken at the Crimean front, where he went upon his release from the hospital after seriously wounding himself in Stalingrad.

The photo depicts a 1942 Nazi massacre in the Crimean village of Kerch. Village women searched for the bodies of their loved ones. The contrast between the oversaturated sky above and the bodies haphazardly strewn in the foreground underlines the poignancy of the moment, but for the same reason, the photo was censored in the Soviet Union where authorities only published the photos that could help boost morale; ‘Grief’ reflected nothing but harsh tragedies of war, and it wasn’t seen by the general public until the 1960s.

The photo was allegedly cropped, and oversaturated sky itself was either the result of studio error or deliberate manipulation by Baltermants. Like so many tales originating from behind the Iron Curtain, these stories were of course unverified.



Stalin Is Dead

On March 1st, 1953, the morning after an all-night dinner in his country estate outside Moscow centre, Joseph Stalin failed to rise at his usual time. He was discovered lying on the floor of his room only at about 10 p.m. in the evening. The Deputy Prime Minister Lavrentiy Beria was summoned, but neither he nor the politburo called the doctors until the next day. (A few months earlier, aging and paranoid Marshal Stalin fabricated a “Doctors Plot” to assassinate top Soviet leaders). With his drunken son Vasili storming around the room, and the members of the Politburo haplessly wringing their hands, Stalin died on 5th March, and his body was transported back to the city to lay in state at the Hall of Columns, the grand ballroom of the House of Trade Unions, where Lenin had lain in state too.

(It has been suggested that Stalin was assassinated. His Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov claimed that Beria had boasted to him that he poisoned Stalin: “I took him out.” Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs that Beria had, immediately after the stroke, gone about “spewing hatred against [Stalin] and mocking him”, and then, when Stalin showed signs of consciousness, dropped to his knees and kissed his hand. When Stalin fell unconscious again, Beria immediately stood and spat. Later autopsies found that Stalin ingested a favorless and powerful rat poison. Indeed, Stalin’s death arrived at a convenient time for many who feared an imminent purge).

The Moscow Radio announced the news in a 47-minutes long bulletin. The next day, red flags went up all over the country in mourning. Those who were indeed not mourning were the motley crew that assembled at his bierside in the above historic photo. On the bier, Stalin was clad in a marshal’s uniform, with only one of his innumerable decorations–the “Hero of Socialist Labor”–on the breast. From left to right are: Molotov, Voroshilov, Beria, Malenkov, Bulganin, Khrushchev, Kaganovich and Mikoyan.

Everyone was stiff and formal but everything was not well within the walls of Kremlin. They found Stalin’s shoes too big to fill. Stalin was succeeded first by a ruling “troika” with Beria, Molotov and Malenkov. Soon afterwards, Beria was purged and replaced by Khrushchev. When Molotov, Malenkov, Bulganin and Kaganovich attempted to pull the same trick of Khrushchev, the latter outmaneuvered them and they were dismissed. Khrushchev in turn was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, who succeeded Voroshilov as the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet when Voroshilov retired.

Most of them (Khrushchev included) would spend the rest of their lives in obscure retirements. By the time Molotov died in 1986, he was the last of the ’17ers. “Iron Lazar” Kaganovich would nearly outlast the Soviet Union itself, living until 1991. The true survivor, politically wise, was Anastas Mikoyan, who consistently betted on the right horse: he supported Stalin when Lenin died; he denounced Beria’s and Molotov’s attempt to oust Khrushchev, and organized the latter’s de-Stalinization speech. When Mikoyan himself abandoned his support, Khrushchev knew it was the time to leave. Under Brezhnev, he was the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, and retired with six Orders of Lenin.

Stalin, photographed by Dmitri Baltermants

Stalin’s Son

Stalin’s son, Jakov Djugashvili Stalin was an engineer by profession, During the Second World War, he served as a senior lieutenant and battery commander of the 14th Howitzer Regiment, attached to the 14th Tank Division and was captured on 16 July 1941 near Vitebsk by the Nazis.

On discovering that their prisoner was Stalin’s son, the Germans attempted to exploit him for propaganda purposes, but did not succeed. Refusing privileges, he asked to remain with the rank-and-file soldiers. In all the photographs of jakov, he deliberately refuses to look directly at the camera. This didn’t prevent the Germans from leafletting to Red Army soldiers “Do not shed your blood for Stalin! He has already fled to Samara! His own son has surrendered! If Stalin’s son is saving his own skin, then you are not obliged to sacrifice yourself either!”

After the battle of Stalingrad, Hitler suggested through the Swedish Red Cross that Jakov be exchanged for Field Marshal Paulus. Stalin refused, saying: “A marshal would not be exchanged for a lieutenant”. Hitler’s counter proposition to exchange Jakov for Hitler’s nephew Leo Raubal was not accepted either. (Jakov never got along with his dad, who called him a “mere cobbler.”) Djugashvili died on the electrified wire of Sachenhausen concentration camp on 14 April 1943, below. Much controversy surrounded the death. Some believe it was suicide, others a failed escape attempt. Some saw the dirty hand of the German SS behind.

After the war, in an uncharacteristic move, Stalin offered a $250,000 reward in East Germany to anyone who could provide details of how Jakov died. In 1945, U.S. and British intelligence teams found a letter by Heinrich Himmler on details of the failed escape attempt and attached was the below picture of young Stalin stretched out on the camp fence. They decided, however, to withhold the information from Stalin in order to spare him any personal pain.

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.

Red Star Over Russia


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.

The Stalin Monument Toppled




Built as the birthday present to Stalin on his 70th birthday (December 21st 1949), the Stalin Monument in Budapest has became the iconic scene of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956.

The 25-meter, Socialist realism statue was torn down in October 1956 at the onset of the uprising. On October 23rd, Hungarians broadcasted sixteen demands over the radio, one of them being the dismantling of Stalin’s statue. A hundred thousand Hungarian revolutionaries demolished the Stalin statue, leaving only his boots, in which they planted a Hungarian flag. The bronze inscription, saying Stalin was the Hungarians’ leader, teacher and “best friend”, was ripped off from the pedestal. Before the toppling of the statue–an hour public spectacle involving steel ropes, oxygen cylinders and metal cutting blowpipes–someone had placed a sign over Stalin’s mouth that read “RUSSIANS, WHEN YOU RUN AWAY DON’T LEAVE ME BEHIND!” The revolutionaries chanted “Russia go home!” while pulling down the statue. Insulting remarks were scrawled over the fragmented parts of the statue.

Although the Uprising was quickly crushed by the Soviet authorities, the images of the toppled statues became a haunting precursor to what would happen all over the Eastern Bloc thirty years later.

Images of a smaller Stalin destruction in Budapest:

1956sztalin.preview.jpg 1472274.jpg

35.jpg sztalin.jpg

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]