Andrew Osborn








Soviet Dictator Kitsch

The Sunday Herald, 28th October 2006 17:03

by Andrew Osborn in Moscow

An exhibition chronicling the semi-religious worship of Communist strong men such as Josef Stalin has

stirred feelings of nostalgia and attracted thousands of older Russians who lament the collapse of the

Soviet Union. Organisers of the Moscow exhibition – entitled “Gifts to Soviet Leaders” – have unearthed

Soviet newsreel eulogising the USSR’s leaders and displayed around 500 gifts given to the twentieth

century’s self-styled deities by the adoring masses. 

The objects represent one of the world’s finest collections of dictator kitsch ever assembled and

chronicle successive cults of personality starting with that of Communist demi-God Vladimir Lenin.

Lenin’s ubiquitous balding palate and pointed revolutionary beard are celebrated in portraits hewn

variously from tobacco leaves, newsprint, stamps, ears of wheat, fur, and even human hair.

A huge light bulb with a black silhouette of the leader of the proletariat on top of the filament

inside is on display as is a gem-incrusted model of Lenin’s Rolls Royce made from clock parts.

The model car was given to stuffy Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev on the occasion of his seventieth birthday.

As befits Josef Stalin, a man who did more than any other Soviet leader to foster his own cult of

personality, most of the gifts and tributes on display appear to have been dedicated to him.

Enormous Central Asian hand woven wall rugs picturing his creepy moustachioed features hang from the

exhibition’s walls and his fan mail is also on show. In one yellowed note written in a childish scrawl, a

five-year old girl wishes a man she addresses as “Grandfather” long life and tells him how she has

composed a poem in his honour. A white porcelain sculpture dating from 1949 shows

“Uncle Jo” as the nation’s spiritual guide and depicts him proffering advice to a rapt schoolboy and girl. It

is called “Happy Childhood” and was given to him on his seventieth birthday. 

And a disturbing 1939 rug made by Ukrainian women factory workers shows “the great leader’s” huge head

hovering over an industrial landscape with dancing schoolchildren below.

Desk sets given to Stalin are also on display: one, given to him in 1934 by workers from the Stalingrad

Tractor Factory, is made entirely from tractor parts while another, presented to him in 1949, is a glass

and plastic copy of the Kremlin’s walls. Some of the artefacts emanate retro cool – a

beautifully crafted telephone given to Stalin in 1949 by Polish workers has the receiver in the shape of a

hammer and the cradle it rests on in the shape of a sickle.

The exhibition’s organisers are at pains to stress that its purpose is not to glorify or resurrect a love

of Communism or Stalin. “This exhibition is not concerned with the

rehabilitation of Communist ideology,” they write in the catalogue.

“Nor is it concerned with pronouncing a verdict on it. It is about research.”

But there are signs that the exhibition is rekindling feelings of nostalgia in many older visitors and that

many of them still love the Soviet Union and its authoritarian leaders.

“We loved and respected our leaders,” one man told his wife with a tinge of regret in his voice as the couple

stared at an enormous silver casket shaped like a soap wrapper given to Stalin in 1949 by soap factory

workers. “Yes,” she said. “And they loved presents like

children like toys.” The exhibition’s visitors’ book includes embittered

comments about the state of modern Russia and rave reviews written by schoolgirls and pensioners alike.

“The organisers have properly understood that love and respect of people and of leaders inspires people to be

creative,” reads one entry. “While a love of money of the kind that we see today

inspires them to thievery and murder.” Lev Mervanov, an 80-year old war veteran bedecked with

medals who fought on the Leningrad Front, said the exhibition showed what Russia had lost.

“I like all the old films being shown. Notice that they are all devoted to promoting hard work. It’s very

different from today. They were good times.”