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

Feature of the Week: Communist Leader Nesting Dolls

Russian nesting dolls (matrioshka) are hand-crafted, hollow wooden dolls of increasing size that fit inside one another. The name originates from the Latin root word mater (mother) and it is generally accepted that the dolls were originally a symbol of motherhood and fertility, with the smaller “children” fitting inside the outside mother doll. While the concept seems to have originated in China, they have been a craft tradition in Russia since the end of the 1800s. The Russian version of the dolls were introduced to the world at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris and have been symbolic of Russia in the global mindset, and a popular souvenir, ever since.

Gorbachev, with Brezhnev nested inside. Leniniana Collection, Special Collections 2008.005.104

The form of the nesting doll has been used to market figures from pop culture, including the Beatles and Star Wars characters, and not surprisingly, it has also used the likenesses of political figures. This week’s feature is a distinct cultural form of the matrioshka, depicting the leaders of the Communist Party in the U.S.S.R.

Stalin & Khrushchev. Leniniana Collection, Special Collections 2008.005.104

Propaganda was used in virtually every aspect of life in the U.S.S.R. and visual representations of party leaders appeared on all manner of materials. As evidenced from Special Collection’s Leniniana artifacts, heroic likenesses of party leaders were reproduced on posters, plates, sculptures, toys and even embroidered onto looms.

Gorbachev, Brezhnev, Khrushchev, Stalin & Lenin. Leniniana Collection, Special Collections 2008.005.104

The matrioshka photographed for this blog appears to have been produced in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and may be taken as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Communist cult of personality rather than an example of heroic leader imagery. Whatever its context, the style of this matrioshka would not have been out of place among the earlier artifacts in the collection.

It all comes down to Lenin. Leniniana Collection, Special Collections 2008.005.104

For more information or to see more artifacts from the Leniniana Collection, contact specialcollections@ryerson.ca to make an appointment, or drop by our reading room on the 4th floor of the library.

Sources:

DeLaine, Linda. “Matryoshka – Soul of Russia.” Russian Life. N.p. 2007. http://www.russianlife.com/article.cfm?Number=196 . 20 April, 2011.