Moscow, History Museum
Exhibition runs until 13.01.2015 – tickets 300 roubles - Metro: Ploshchad Revoliutsi
Opinion: Visit this exhibition!
The Myth of the Beloved Leader – Миф о любимом вожде
This is 2014 Russia – Gagarin without the Gulag. The past is a thoroughly dangerous place for the national consciousness to wander, so what could be a more difficult subject for an exhibition to handle than the implicit participation (directly or indirectly, or via an older-generation family member) of almost the entire visiting audience in the creation and promotion of that dangerous past?
The exhibition shows some of the pictures, portraits, posters, sculptures, clothes and personal effects of the ‘Beloved Leaders’ of the USSR that formed part of the paraphernalia of their personality cults.
Many ‘Westerners’ tend to feel uncomfortable when they hear that huge images of Stalin and Lenin are within a quick goosestep of Red Square. They resort to words such as ‘sinister’, ‘ominous’ and ‘spooky’ as their understanding of Russia and the USSR tries unsuccessfully to grasp at the truth.
In considering this superbly bold and excellently curated exhibition at the Moscow History Museum, we must thank the organisers for providing the chance to gain a valuable glimpse ‘behind the scenes’ of the Russian psyche itself. This brief view reveals that over the last hundred or so years, there has been little to choose between the way Russians (Soviet or not) and Westerners viewed their respective elite members of society.
Indeed, as the Russians develop a wry smile when confronted with the latest picture of their current leader, the United Kingdom is enthralled by every tiny nuance and detail of yet another royal pregnancy. Is ‘cult of personality’ purely a device of totalitarian states? I think – not.
The title of the event is self-explanatory. In no way does this collection of artwork, objects and images try to justify or promote the cult of personality. It provides room after room of engaging exhibits. It is as though the concept of personality cult is on trial and the visitors, the jurors, are presented with the evidence and asked to make up their own minds. This exhibition is responsible and serious.
There are some omissions. We are placed face-to-face with the adulatory artwork, propaganda and farcical gifts made by minions to their beloved leaders. However, when it comes to the question of the true awfulness of their crimes, we have to leaf through facsimile copies of handwritten correspondence between Stalin and those he is about to have shot to be reminded of the inhumanity of the ‘Beloved Leader’.
It is a positive move to have these documents on show, but a lot more could have been made of them to reinforce the already compelling argument against personality cult.
The most interesting item on display is undoubtedly Stalin’s overcoat. At first sight it is simply yet another exhibit. Move closer. Compare the length of the sleeves. Stalin’s left arm was shorter than his right due to an injury he received in childhood. The overcoat was made with sleeves of different lengths to make allowance. It is an immediate reminder that the man did indeed live and he is not just a nightmare from a legendary and hazy past.
Is personality cult a cause or a symptom of rot? It is undoubtedly the latter. Lenin and Stalin’s deaths gave way to overtly conspicuous ‘national grief’, and then things returned to normal pretty quickly. It was the same with the Princess of Wales and her early demise in 1997. These days we don’t hear too much about the heirs of Stalin and his fellows – but here is a headline from the UK’s ‘Daily Mail’ from today, 5th. November 2014:
‘Princess Diana’s niece puckers up’
I wonder when the UK will be confident enough to hold an exhibition at the British Museum about the creation and popularisation of the myth of Diana, – an easy subject, since her life was unsullied by crimes against humanity.
In the meantime, perhaps we can consider two sculptures. One is ‘Worker and Collective Farm Woman’ by V. I. Mukhina, once a teacher at VKhUTEMAS, and the other in a London shop called ‘Harrods’.