Leninism as Political Religion: Soviet Iconography and the Deification of Lenin

Commanding People

Lenin and Jesus speaking and gesturing to their crowds of followers from up above.

Left: V. I. Lenin Proclaims Soviet Power. 2008.005.07.006. Leniniana Collection, Ryerson University Archives & Special Collections. Right: A 19th-century painting depicting the Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch via Wikipedia. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABloch-SermonOnTheMount.jpg

In many ways, living in the USSR was quite unlike what we experience in present day Canada.  Because of the stark contrast in the portrayal and treatment of political leaders between our cultures, researchers do not have to be familiar with Soviet history to identify unmistakable differences.

Banner Baby

An infant Lenin was the face of the Little Octobrists, the Soviet children’s league. Similarly, Baby Jesus is often depicted in Christian art. This Lenin banner resembles those common in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the dominant religion of the areas encompassing the former Soviet Union. The Lenin image makes use of the familiar Eastern Christian halo design, as depicted in the Byzantine-style icons being carried in the procession.

Left: Little Octobrists small banner. 2008.005.01.013. Leniniana Collection, Ryerson University Archives & Special Collections. Centre: Baby Jesus 04 by Waiting For The Word via Flickr. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC-By-SA). https://www.flickr.com/photos/waitingfortheword/6444921421/ Right: A cross Procession in Novosibirsk, Russia. By Testus (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Orthodox_Church#mediaviewer/File:Cross_Procession_in_Novosibirsk_04.jpg

In Canada, it is not commonplace to find flags, banners, note cards, statues or paintings created and showcased in devotion to our Prime Minister.  Conversely, Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin was featured on these sorts of materials and more, achieving a venerable status throughout the Soviet Union and beyond.  This is easily seen in Ryerson University’s Leniniana Collection, which consists of more than 800 items featuring the image of Lenin. A messianic Lenin effectively filled the void brought about by the USSR’s violent suppression of organized religion:

Certain symbolic forms probably recalled religious icons. The extensive use of the colour red, the distorted perspective (Lenin is far larger than the sun, the globe, and the worker and peasant on either side), the composition (Lenin flanked by the worker and peasant, just as Christ was sometimes flanked by two apostles), and the circular frame that surrounds Lenin (Christ was often situated in an oval frame) must have been familiar to Russians accustomed to the conventions of religious icons. (Bonnell, 1999, p. 146)

Tower of BabelLenin

The towers of Lenin and Babel.

Left: Lenin: Posters, Portraits, Leaflets 1917-1924. 2008.005.07.049. Leniniana Collection, Ryerson University Archives & Special Collections. Right: The Confusion of Tongues by Gustave Doré via Wikimedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AConfusion_of_Tongues.png

By applying Lenin’s likeness, the colour red and Communist slogans and imagery such as stars, hammers and sickles onto a wide range of materials, Lenin and his party became omnipresent – like a god.  When they replaced the paranormal God with themselves, Soviets made their party into an alternative to Christian theocratic rule (Riegel, 2005).  The fact that Lenin was not supernatural was irrelevant: Leninism became the political religion of the state.

Confession

Lenin tells followers to let the party know everything, much like religious confession.

Left: More light, let the party know everything… 2008.005.07.004. Leniniana Collection, Ryerson University Archives & Special Collections. Right: Traditional confessional by I, Dontworry [GFDL http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html ), CC-BY-SA-3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASt.leonhard-ffm-beichtstuhl001.jpg

Despite the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the propagated deification of Lenin continues to fascinate scholars and non-academics alike.  Much like saints of Christianity, Lenin’s corpse lies in a sacred mausoleum.  This site remains popular among tourists and researchers continue to seek to learn more about this infamous figure of revolution.

They Live

A lapel pin reads, “Lenin lives.” The banner next to it proclaims the same about Jesus.

Left: Mounted object with various lapel pins of Lenin. 2008.005.06.005. Leniniana Collection, Ryerson University Archives & Special Collections. Right: Jesus Lives – Signage And Posters In Dublin by William Murphy via Flickr. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC-By-SA). https://www.flickr.com/photos/infomatique/4674198019/

To discover the Leniniana Collection at Ryerson University’s Special Collections, please make an appointment between 9am-5pm, Monday-Friday.  Contact us at specialcollections@ryerson.ca or at 416-979-5000 ext 4996.  We are located on the fourth floor in the library in room LIB 492.

Above Crowd

Lenin and Jesus: both in the clouds, above the people.

Left: V. I. Lenin on a Podium. 2008.005.07.011. Leniniana Collection, Ryerson University Archives & Special Collections. Right: Jesus’ ascension to heaven, as depicted by John Singleton Copley via Wikimedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJesus_ascending_to_heaven.jpg

To read more about Leninism as a political religion, refer to the works cited.  Both sources are available through the Ryerson University Library.

Lenin God is with us.ipg

The Lenin lapel pin reads, “Lenin is always with us. Kaliningrad.” The shirt reads, “We are Russian! God is with us!” Leninists appropriated this common religious saying.

Left: Mounted object with various lapel pins of Lenin. 2008.005.06.005. Leniniana Collection, Ryerson University Archives & Special Collections. Right:Мы русские-с нами БОГ by ФестивальБратья via Wikipedia. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0, 2.5, 2.0 и 1.0. https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Файл:Мы_русские-с_нами_БОГ.jpg

Works Cited

Bonnell, V. E. (1999). Iconography of power: Soviet political posters under Lenin and Stalin. Retrieved from http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=acls;idno=heb05220

Riegel, K. (2005). Marxism‐Leninism as a political religion. Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 6(1). http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/14690760500099788

#WIRED: A Digital History of Ryerson University

 “Computing will most undoubtedly prove to be the most significant development to technology in the second half of the twentieth century. The extent to which Ryerson students graduate with a firm understanding of this new and exciting field, will greatly affect their ability to contribute to society.” 

– L.B. Moore, Director of the Ryerson Computing Centre, 1973.

A classroom scene in the Secretarial Science program, 1962. (RG 95.1.1679.10)

A classroom scene in the Secretarial Science program, 1962. (RG 95.1.1679.10)

Ryerson University began as a polytechnic institute devoted to the training of students in applied technology. This technical history has informed Ryerson’s identity and culture, playing a significant role in the way the University defines its relationship to the digital age. As we enter an era of ever changing technology and a digitally-connected society, a look back at the early days of computing at Ryerson highlights the development of a digital campus and its impact on the Ryerson way of life.

DAISY

The computer centre with DAISY and connected terminals.

Ryerson’s first computer centre with DAISY and connected terminals. (RG 63.72)

Always at the forefront of innovation, Ryerson’s early use of computing technology began in the 1960s when Ryerson was one of the first institutions to acquire a general purpose computer, an IBM Model 360-30, affectionately nicknamed “DAISY” (Direct Access Information System).

"Daisy" Chooses Miss Ryerson '68. One of the many "jobs" DAISY was tasked with. (The Rambler, Summer 1968)

“Daisy” Chooses Miss Ryerson ’68”. One of the many “jobs” DAISY performed. (The Rambler, Summer 1968)

It’s difficult to imagine a world without smart phones or even personal computers, but the early days of computing at Ryerson involved the use of one centralized system that students would line up to use. Eventually this changed to include the addition of terminals throughout campus that would connect via Bell phone lines to the main computer. The main functions were academic and administration assistance, including student registration, payroll, scheduling, grades, library circulation, and the occasional selection of Miss Ryerson.

"DAISY LOVES ME" Button. Students had a hate/love relationship with the overworked computer. (RG 63.71)

“DAISY LOVES ME” Button. Students had a hate/love relationship with the overworked computer. (RG 63.71)

DAISY was not without its quirks. Nearing the end of its life-cycle the first model would confuse library punch cards and harass students with overdue notices on books that had been returned. In 1975 DAISY took the initiative of creating a brand new Journalism class consisting of three surprised students.

DAISY would be upgraded three times, 1967, 1969, and up to an IBM Model 360-65 in 1973, which contained 256 kilobytes of core memory and cost the annual amount of $404,000.

A woman in the computer centre "batching" punch card instructions to DAISY.

A woman in the computer centre “batching” punch card instructions to DAISY. (RG 63.72)

The process of running a “job” or task included manually typing programming instructions into a “punch” card, feeding the card into the computer terminal, which would then process the program and data, and print out the results. This process was called “batching”, and would continue until the 1980s, when the University realized the technology was quickly becoming obsolete. The ever-increasing rate of change and the resulting obsolete formats is a factor which would continue to define digital technology into the twenty-first century.

THE YRCC

Official Opening York-Ryerson Computing Centre Program (RG 281.23)

Official Opening York-Ryerson Computing Centre Program (RG 281.23)

In 1974 the Joint York-Ryerson Computing Centre established the first cooperative computing centre in Canada with the objective of sharing expertise and reducing costs. This resulted in the end of DAISY, which was dismantled and returned to the American company from which it was leased. The first of its kind in Canada, the YRCC operated with the main computer at York and connected terminals at Ryerson.

A MODERN COMPUTER CENTRE

The official opening of the Ryerson Computer Centre with Ryerson President Brian Segal, 1983.

The official opening of the Ryerson Computer Centre with former Ryerson President Brian Segal, 1983. (RG 95.37.9)

In the late 70s, the demand for more computers and processing capabilities gave rise to student protests over the lack of computer resources. The computer centre was so overwhelmed that they implemented restrictions and quotas on accessing the computer mainframe. Each department would receive an allotment for its students to use throughout the semester; if a student ran out of credit, then they would have to petition for increased time. In 1979 the situation escalated to the point of violence, in which a student was stabbed in the arm with a pen when he attempted to use someone’s punch-card terminal.

The Beginner's Guide to the Ryerson Mainframe, 1992. (RG 63.74)

The Beginner’s Guide to the Ryerson Mainframe, 1992.
(RG 63.74)

In 1983, IBM donated $3.7 million worth of computer hardware and software to Ryerson, at the time the largest single donation to the institute. The equipment, an IBM 3033 processor, 300 terminals, five personal computers and advanced software, created an on-line interactive system and established the Ryerson Computing Centre.

TECHNOLOGY IN THE LIBRARY

Bard vs. Byte (The Ryerson Rambler, Fall 1981)

Bard vs. Byte (The Ryerson Rambler, Fall 1981)

Ryerson Library was an early adopter of computer technology on campus. The early days of libraries consisted of card catalogues and handwritten entries signing out books. In the second half of the 20th century, this rapidly changed to an electronic format that would alter the way knowledge was organized and retrieved.

Library book lending insert. (RG 5.204)

Library book lending insert. (RG 5.204)

For Ryerson Library the shift to digital began in 1968 when the library converted the author, title and catalogue data for all books to machine-readable form, implementing an electronic circulation control system to keep track of books. Students would no longer sign out books, but punch out computer cards.

Ryerson Library Circulation Book Card. (RG 5.204)

Ryerson Library Circulation Book Card. (RG 5.204)

In 1978, Ryerson library became the first library in North America to operate its circulation system on-line using DOBIS/LIBIS, a computerized library system developed by IBM in Europe. DOBIS (Dortmund Bibliotek System) replaced the dated Mohawk punch-card circulation system.

Ryerson becomes the first North American University to install an online Library system. An explanation of the new DOBIS Library system with former President Walter Pitman, 1978. (RG 5.74)

The official opening of the Library’s online DOBIS/LIBIS system with former President Walter Pitman, 1978. (RG 5.74)

The circulation function involved the first-time use of barcode labels affixed to books and ID badges read by an IBM optical scanner. Throughout the 80s and 90s technological advancement in the library would continue, including the establishment of its first computer lab in 1982, as well as developments in subject indexing and electronic resources.

THE FUTURE

Crack the code is a scavenger hunt developed by Ryerson mobile. (DOC File)

Crack the code is a scavenger hunt developed by Ryerson mobile in 2010. (DOC File)

In the last quarter century Ryerson University has paved the way for technology-driven learning. This can most clearly be seen with the new Student Learning Centre, which promises to provide an interactive environment employing the latest in digital technology. Projects such as the Digital Media Zone act as an incubator for Ryerson students to collaborate in the design and implementation of digital tools and apps. Accessible technology has placed students at the centre of e-learning, furthering the role students have in shaping their education and campus environment. These developments would not be possible without the small but significant steps taken in the 1960s towards a progressive, digital future.

An IBM 2260 terminal in the Ryerson Computer Centre, c. 1970s. (RG The Beginner's Guide to the Ryerson Mainframe, 1992. (RG 63.72)

An IBM 2260 terminal in the Ryerson Computer Centre, c. 1970.
(RG 63.72)

Bringing together diverse artifacts and historical materials from the Ryerson Archives, #WIRED is an exhibition that highlights pivotal moments in the digital evolution of Ryerson University. To learn more about the early history of computing at Ryerson and view the artifacts on display, please visit the Ryerson Archives during our office hours, Monday – Friday, 9 -5pm.