Stalin's Presence in Contemporary Russian Art



Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) was the absolute and undisputed ruler of the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1953. During this time, Stalin's reign of terror dictated the execution, imprisonment, starvation, and torture of millions of Soviet citizens. Although Stalin was famously denounced in Nikita Khruschev's 1956 speech to the Twentieth Party Congress, cinematic and literary criticism of Stalin was severely circumscribed until the political thaw of the 1980s, acquiring additional force only after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although emigre literature had long denounced Stalin, only in the past twenty years has Russian cinema and literature produced within the former Soviet Union also been able to critically examine this era. Interestingly, contemporary Russian cinema and literature do not tend to commemorate the victims of Stalin's terror-rather, they commemorate Stalin himself, and leave little space for those victims who paid the ultimate price for his terror. Ironically, one has to leave the contemporary period for the era of Grekova and Tendryakov to find Russian art genuinely committed to commemorating Stalin's victims.

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This argument hinges on three definitions, those of commemoration, victimhood and Stalinist terror. The first definition of commemorate, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “To call to the remembrance of hearers or readers; to make mention of, relate, or rehearse.” To commemorate can also mean “to make eulogistic or honourable mention of; to celebrate in speech or writing,” which is quite different than the first definition. This essay sticks to the first of the two definitions, according to which to commemorate is merely to call to remembrance without making value judgments about the person commemorated. This definition has been chosen because it is the more inclusive of the two. Bearing in mind that political circumstances have made it particularly difficult for writers and film-makers in some eras to directly dwell on the victims on Stalin's terror, this definition recognizes the political validity of any invocation of these victims; it is not necessary that the invocation be as detailed and contentious as that of emigre artists such as Solzhenitsyn, simply that it exist, to count as a commemoration of the victims. As for victim, the very first chronological usage of the word is as “A living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice to some deity or supernatural power,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. This is an ideal definition, given Stalin's tireless dedication to establishing himself as an absolute ruler and the way in which his murderous terror furthered this end. But, just as importantly, this definition establishes that a victim is never a survivor, and rules out as “commemoration” any artistic portrayal of people who actually survived the Stalin era. A victim must have been killed in order to count as a victim. Finally, Stalinist terror is here intended not just to mean the Great Purge of 1936-1938, but refers to the entire destructive apparatus of Stalinism from the time of Stalin's assumption of absolute power in 1936 to his death in 1953, including such phenomena as the show trials, judiciary expeditions, starvations resulting from centralized planning, the forced migration of nations, and the terrors of the Gulag.

How Stalin Trumps His Victims in Contemporary Russian Art

Contemporary Russian cinema and literature, particularly of the post-1987 vintage, is far from homogenous, but a large cross-section of artists takes essentially the same stance vis-a-vis the Stalinist terror. For example, a body of important Russian films from the 1990s redefine the notion of the terror victims' suffering so as it to make it, for all political purposes, meaningless. For example, Stojanova discusses the ways in which the Russian directors Mikhalkov, Abdrashitov, and Khotinenko all portray “Russia's current spiritual and moral crisis as a cumulative effect of misguided best intentions and total absence of individual responsibility... It is the fault of each and every Russian who has ignored his or her common sense in the name of grand delusions.”

This attitude is epitomized by the fate of Sergei Kotov, protagonist of Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun (1994, set in 1936). Stojanova argues that, when Kotov is arrested, he “breaks down at the realisation that he is a victim of his own deeds and [is] in a way no better than his hired torturers.” Kotov's breakdown comes before a giant portrait of Stalin. The iconography, and Kotov's motives for breaking down, have disturbing implications for the question of Stalinist terror in contemporary Russian film. The “sun” of the title is clearly Stalin-whose overwhelmingly large portrait identifies him with both the revolution and the state. The problem, then, lies with Mikhalkov's redefinition of Stalin's agency-the sum of the moral choices that resulted in the deaths of millions-as a natural force. It is not, of course, the sun's fault for burning people, and to introduce this imagery into the discussion of Stalinism is a dehistoricization of the facts of the Stalinist terror, which was by no means a “sun” but rather the calculated and avoidable human doing of Stalin. In apologizing for Stalinist tyranny by redefining it as a natural phenomenon, Mikhalkov renders the victims of that tyranny both invisible and responsible-just as Kotov is effectively invisible beneath the portrait of Stalin, and yet responsible for his own purging by the system.

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There is a scene in Burnt by the Sun in which, extrapolating from Larsen's analysis, it seems as if Kotov briefly stands in for Stalin-as-sun:
    The choreography of the sex scene places Marusia on top, as if to
    emphasize that Kotov has not forced her into bed, but drawn her there with
    his magnetic charm. His appeal in this scene, as throughout the film, is
    powerful, but passive-he lies back and accepts the adoration of his wife
    and everyone else. The purely visual logic of this scene argues that
    Marusia returns to Kotov not because of any ‘stories' he tells her, nor
    because he forces her to submit, but because of his literally incredible
    sexual magnetism-a magnetism that the film casts as a moral force.
Bearing in mind that the sun functions as symbol of male sexual potency in premodern religion, Stalin-through the body of the old Bolshevik, Kotov-is here reconfigured as a timelessly desirable and divine male despot, with all of Russia as his submissive wife. In this sexual economy, there is no victimhood, only voluntary submission.

The cultural politics of Mikhalkov's film are by no means exceptional. Lohr states that “The appeal of the strong rule of a single leader is also grounded in a deep tradition...expressed in the old Russian saying, ‘better one tyrant than several.'” Thus, contemporary Russian film and literature can appeal to deep cultural memory to recuperate Stalin in various ways. Mikhalkov, for example, occludes Stalin's agency via a hyper-natural metaphor. Meanwhile, Galich, Shvarts, and a host of other Russian writers appeal to the supernatural by turning Stalin into a devil or mock-devil. Ryan refers to this trend of Russian art as “the secure option of classifying Stalin as radical other, an outsider who distorted and corrupted traditional Russian values.” The problem with this “secure option,” besides the way in which it once again absolves Stalin of human agency, is its fascination with anti-Stalinist myths as a replacement for Stalinist myths. Stalin, not his victims, is at the center of this mythos, and works that employ the Stalin-as-devil trope once again misplace the victims of Stalin's human actions. This result is on full display in Iskander's “The Feasts of Belshazzar,” of which Ryan argues that “the power of the story derives from our being given access to Stalin's thoughts and emotions. His delusion, his megalomania, his paranoia, and his sadism are explored and exposed through his own psychological viewpoint.” When Stalin occupies center stage in this way, as he does in Iskander, Galich, Shvarts, and other writers, he crowds out his victims; there is little narrative space for them, as the power of the stories rests elsewhere. Moreover, like the devil, Stalin is rendered in such an interesting fashion in these works that he acquires a kind of charisma, in much the same way as the Hannibal Lecter character in the Thomas Harris novels.

Whether as a charismatic, supernatural, or hyper-natural (“the sun”) villain, these portrayals of Stalin have one thing in common: they take Stalin as a protagonist, and allow him to dominate the stage (much as he did in actuality). As a narrative choice, this reification of Stalin leaves little room to portray, discuss, or otherwise analyze the fate of his victims, who tend to remain off-stage. Like the victims of the monster in a horror movie, the victims exist to lend color to the monster; they do not have a compelling existence of their own, and one seeks for their substantial presence in contemporary Russian cinema and literature in vain.

The alternative approach to Stalin, which is for Russian artists to demythologize Stalin, also leads away from the commemoration of Stalin's victims. For example, the work of Erofeev, Aranovich, Komar, and Melamid “compels us to confront Stalin's disturbing humanity. If he is not Satan or Antichrist, if he is not radically other, then he shares qualities with ordinary mortals, and it becomes impossible (indeed inescapable) to re-examine the Russian people's role in Stalinism.” This re-examination is akin to the conclusion of Burn by the Sun, in which the crimes of Stalin also become the crimes of all Russians, including Stalin's victims, and leads to what Ryan admits is a “vexing ethical question...Who is to blame?” So now, in an artistic universe in which Stalin is also recognizable human, the moral playing field is flat: Stalin has agency, but so does everyone else in Russia-including his victims-and critiques of agency itself (as in Burnt by the Sun) become more important than Stalin's agency, letting him off the moral hook.

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The question of blame is only vexing because, in contemporary Russian art to date, Stalin is usually a presence who pre-empts the presence of the victim. Were Stalin to fade into the deep background of Russian art, it would be possible to see and commemorate his victims. As it is, Stalin's victims are so absent from Russian art that Ryan can ask her question, of “Who is to blame?” in all seriousness. It is hard to imagine this kind of question being asked of the play Bent, a play that depicts the horrific fate of openly gay men in Nazi Germany, because Hitler is entirely absent from it. The central ground is occupied by the victims themselves, allowing the audience to sympathize with their predicament and understand that suffering is not natural or supernatural, but the elaborately premeditated result of human agency (of which the Nazi death camps and Stalin's Gulag are two of the most distressing examples).

Regardless of whether Russian artwork mythologizes or demythologizes Stalin, the problem remains the same: Stalin is too much in the picture. Thus, the extent to which Stalin appears in a contemporary Russian artwork, whether poem or painting, film or novel, is the extent to which the experience of Stalin's victims is hidden, underestimated, or ignored. The commemoration of Stalin and that of his victims is mutually exclusive.

One way to illustrate this thesis is by turning to “Masters of Life,” the 1960 Irina Grekova story about a man whose life has been destroyed by Stalinism. On the definition employed by this essay, the man is not a victim-he has, after all, survived. But the relevant point about the story is that Stalin is absent from it, except as a shadow hovering over the background of the man's recollections. Because Stalin is absent, the man's story can convey the story of the victims with full force; the man becomes a conduit, providing living testimony on behalf of those who died at the hands of the Stalinist system between 1936 and 1953. On another, more radical, reading, the man in the train is himself dead because, as Brown notes, everything has been stripped from him, “including his identity.” Grekova's story is a bravura performance, not only because of its rhetorical devices but also because it manages to come at Stalinism from the bottom up-from the experiences of nameless victims, not from within Stalin's own head. It takes considerable skill for Grekova to pull of this effect, one that “manages to make this poor man a very interesting and individualized character, and not just the faceless victim of a common tragedy.”

The same effect is achieved by Tendryakov's stories “Donna Anna,” “Bread for a Dog,” and “Paranya,” three stories that focus on the impact of Stalinism on rural Russia without allowing Stalin to appear on the scene. Because Stalin is absent, readers are not lost in inevitable awe of Stalin as a character, but are free to focus on the victims created by Stalin's policies-including, in “Bread for a Dog,” people who starve to death because of Stalin.

As eloquent and powerful as the works of Grekova and Tendryakov's are, they do not represent a dominant theme in contemporary Russian art. They are, rather, exceptional in their exclusion of Stalin from stories of Stalinism-an exclusion that strengthens the stories' political and aesthetic hand-and n their scrupulous and egalitarian attention to the experiences of peasants, farmers, and nameless refugees. However, for every “Masters of Life,” there are many other Russian stories and films that place Stalin at the center of the action and consequently occlude his victims in one way or another. Regardless of how irreverent these works are-and Ziolkowsky rightly points to the widespread “subversion of what was once Stalin's near divine status”-they still place Stalin at the center of their narrative space, and it is not until Stalin is decentered, as in Grekova and Tendryakov, that the hard work of telling his victims' stories can begin.


In cases of serial victimization, when entire populations are enslaved or slain, victims sadly cease to be individuals and become statistics or background facts instead. “How tiny is the number of slaves of whom anything whatever is known,” wrote George Orwell in 1944, apropos of this phenomenon. “I myself know the names of just three slaves....All the others are not even names. We don't...know the name of a single one of the myriads of human beings who built the Pyramids.” Similarly, the millions of people-sometimes comprising entire nations-who disappeared in Stalin's terror do not, on the whole, survive as names or stories in contemporary Russian cinema and literature, despite the stray exceptions in stories by such writers as Grekova and Tendryakov. Instead, contemporary works tend to commemorate Stalin, those who survived his era, or both.

It may be that this is not necessarily because of innately reactionary trends in Russian art or a posthumous canonization of Stalin, but because stories of survival are emotionally more uplifting than stories about the dead, and because to dwell on terror might be seen as a guilty admission of self-hatred or shame. One strand in Russia's selfnarrative since 1991 has been a stubborn refusal to apologize for the Communist era, whereas another strand has been about, as the title of U.S. Presidential Barack Obama's book has it, the audacity of hope-here, in the idea of Russia itself as an entity that transcends the shame and culpability of any one historical era. Neither element of the post-Soviet narrative is particularly accommodating of the commemoration of Stalin's victims. It falls to a more mature Russia, one that is willing to face its past horrors, to give more names and stories to Stalin's victims. Another, more disturbing, possibility is that Stalin's outsized personality exerts perverse charm from beyond the grave, becoming a more interesting and colorful protagonist for cinema and prose than his victims. In storytelling terms, evil may simply be more interesting than victimhood, furnishing another reason why, in so much of contemporary Russian narrative art, Stalin's victims are so frequently eclipsed by the man himself.