“It is highly desirable that people heading the party movement, be, at last, depicted in powerful Rembrandt colors in all their robust vitality.”
—K. Marx

What Khrushchev in his secret speech at the Congress of the Soviet Communist Party called “Stalin’s cult of personality” is, in fact, the most common and the most stable component of totalitarianism—the cult of the leader.

It is easy to see why Fascists and National Socialists should embrace the concept of the decisive role of the individual in history, but such a notion seems to contradict the very essence of Marxism, according to which history is shaped by masses divided into classes. Despite this apparent contradiction, however, the deification of leaders lies at the heart of all totalitarian systems. No matter what he is called—Führer, Chairman, Duce, or General Secretary of the Politburo— the leader occupies the place of sacred importance, from which, along a descending line, all other spiritual values are applied. “What values can we throw onto the scales of history? First, the value of our people . . . and second—and I would dare to say, an even greater value—the unique personality of our Führer, Adolf Hitler,” declared Heinrich Himmler, reinforcing his words with all the might of the Gestapo. Goebbels’ slogan, “Adolf Hitler is Germany, and Germany is Adolf Hitler,” was echoed by the Soviet slogan, “We say ‘party,’ and mean ‘Lenin’; we say ‘Lenin,’ and mean ‘party'” (with the subsequent addition “Stalin is Lenin today”).

Ideas of this kind constitute the cornerstone of art in any totalitarian country. But they were most elaborated in theory and most developed in practice in the art of National Socialism and Socialist Realism. The Soviet art magazine Iskusstvo made the point succinctly: “Workers of art must sculpt, carve, depict on monumental canvases, preserve for future generations the immense image of the leader.” Significantly, in the creation of this “immense image,” the personal tastes, self-appraisal, or even initial inclinations of the Soviet and Nazi leaders were more or less irrelevant.

Thus Hitler, for example, selected only one, rather small portrait of himself for the important Munich Art Exhibition of 1938, and his favorite artists were modest German sentimental realists of the 19th century like Eduard Grützner and Franz Defregger. A similar sort of art adorned the secret bedroom at Stalin’s dacha near Moscow (although in this case they were cheap reproductions of the works of the Russian sentimental realists of the 19th century, cut from the popular magazine Ogonyok). But Stalin, unlike Hitler, clearly enjoyed the multiplicity of his “Godlike” depictions.

On the other hand, Lenin—brought up in the tradition of Russian liberalism—would hardly have been pleased, viewing his innumerable depictions or learning that his dried-out mummy has become the country’s main object of worship.

But it was precisely Lenin who, in 1918, with his plan for “Monumental Propaganda,” laid the foundation for the Soviet cult of the leader. Having placed this plan at the center of his cultural policy, Lenin, of course, was not trying to use it for his own glorification. According to his plan, the list of people to be “monumentalized” included only the names of dead heroes and martyrs of the revolution.

The history of National Socialist art opens with the exact same cult—which might be called “the Cult of the Dead.” The first edifice of the Nazi regime was a monument to fallen comrades, opened with great fanfare on November 9, 1933. This was followed by a steady stream of statues, monuments, ensembles, even special “Castles of the Dead.” The idea behind all these memorials to dead Nazis was to arouse in people a feeling of veneration for the history of the Third Reich. “Berlin must be filled with these . . . memorials; they must become a part of its character,” Hitler instructed Professor Wilhelm Kreis, who was responsible for the Nazi version of “Monumental Propaganda” and who planned to sow with “these memorials” not just Berlin, but all Europe.

In calling for “Monumental Propaganda,” Lenin most likely could not foresee the 1933 declaration by Anatoli Lunacharsky (the Soviet People’s Commissar for Enlightment) that it was time “to bring to life the second, more mature stage of ‘Monumental Propaganda.”‘ Lunacharsky wanted to honor not only dead revolutionaries, but also the leader very much alive.

It has been noted that while in a democratic society the private life of a leader, king, or president is open to public scrutiny, and he exists in society’s consciousness as a human being, the personality of a totalitarian dictator is enveloped by an impenetrable shroud of mystery. Big Brother is everywhere, but no one actually sees him; all achievements and virtues are attributed to him, but no one can distinguish the real from the legendary; his visage looks out from every wall and newspaper, but no one knows what he really looks like, since in all of these depictions of him he looks the same as he did 10 or 20 years before. As a matter of fact, immortality was, almost literally, implied for Stalin. A thought of his eventual demise and replacement, if uttered aloud, would bring arrest and an accusation of terrorism.

The being of totalitarian dictators flows on as if in another dimension, beyond the mortal concepts of life and death. The function of art then becomes that of translating the dictator’s existence from one reality to another, the visualization of a political myth in an artistic image, i.e., the “materialization” of metaphors.

In totalitarian society the cult of the dictator in life and his cult in art are built simultaneously: what becomes a political reality in the first sphere immediately finds visual expression in the second. In the history of Soviet art, this cult first becomes visible in 1929- 30 (the time of Stalin’s rapid rise to the pinnacle of power). It started, however, with the cult of the dead Lenin; apparently, the momentum of Lenin’s “cult of the dead” was still going on.

In 1924, immediately after Lenin’s death, his body was placed into a temporary wooden mausoleum. “It was done,” the official announcement stated, “in order to give all people who couldn’t come to Moscow for the funeral the opportunity to say farewell to the beloved leader.” Later this mausoleum was replaced by a sturdier one, also made of wood. In 1930, the imposing marble mausoleum was erected, which right away became the sacramental center of all Soviet political liturgy.

One year later, a decision was made to build the Palace of Soviets—another memorial to Lenin. It was intended to last forever and was to surpass in height all buildings in the world. (The only minor concern about this project was that on overcast days, parts of Lenin’s 100-meter-tall statue at the top of the Palace would be hidden behind the clouds.) A gigantic architectural and research institute worked around the clock on the project. An enormous pit was dug on the spot of Moscow’s largest cathedral—the Cathedral of Christ the Savior—which had been blown up. The press raved about the grandiosity of the complex which was to include 17,500 square meters of oil paintings, 12,000 square meters of frescoes, 4,000 square meters of mosaics, 20,000 square meters of bas-reliefs, 12 sculpture groups 12 meters high, and 170 sculpture groups six meters high.

During the work, however, the dominant ideological content of all this enormous art output began to change. A few years later Iskusstvo defined it this way: “The painted and plastic compositions will express how Lenin and Stalin are leading the Soviet people to freedom and happiness.” Thus, the “cult of the dead” began to be mixed with the cult of the living.

Significantly, the Palace of Soviets was never built (an enormous public swimming pool was constructed on the spot instead), but the endless series of monuments to Stalin erected after the war all over the country was crowned by his truly cyclopean image on the Volga-Don Canal which, in all respects, matched the scale of the projected statue of Lenin atop the Palace of Soviets.

The construction of such monuments requires time and substantial financial resources. In the USSR, they began to be erected only in the mid-1930’s; in Germany the main projects of this magnitude were not realized due to the war. Circumstances dictated that in both countries the cult of the leader be created through more flexible mediums, mainly painting and graphics.

In the art of National Socialism and Socialist Realism, “Leader Depiction” can be defined as a separate genre. Although a strict canon prevails in this genre, the depiction of the dictator is not at all one dimensional. He is usually portrayed in certain hypostases, each requiring a specific emotional interpretation and compositional scheme. All these arrangements can be summarized as follows:

1. “The leader as father of the people and symbol of the nation.” Here the concrete personality of the dictator is presented in the most abstract, symbolic sense, which requires monumentality of design, grandeur of treatment, somber, generalized forms, all of which express his above-human, suprapersonal character. This scheme was best realized in such monuments to Stalin as his memorial museum in Erevan, inside a sculpted monument, or his cyclopean image on the Volga-Don Canal. This scheme was also realized in painted portraits of Hitler, in which the determined will of “Hitler-the-leader” was emphasized by the energy of his frontal posture, his intense look, as well as by some external details: romantically charged landscapes (in the portraits by H. Knirr and C. Hommel), symbolic sculpture in the background (in the portraits by F. Erler), the map spread out, and so forth. The portraits fulfilled the characterization of Hitler offered by Der Völkische Beobachter. “He rises up like a statue, surpassing all measures of earthly man.”

2. “The leader as the inspirer and organizer of victories.” This scheme requires expressions, powerful gestures, emotions, colors, or contrasts which transmit his determined energy and inspire and lead the viewer. In the Soviet Union such qualities were attributed more to Lenin than to Stalin and were presented in innumerable portraits of Lenin in which he is shown leaning forward, his right hand outstretched, or holding the lapel of his jacket—in this case his powerful thrust forward is emphasized by the position of his head—while his left hand is clenching his cap, just removed from his head. In National Socialist art this idea was expressed in multifigured compositions, with Hitler at the center of action.

3. “The leader as the wise teacher.” Here, an element of psychological subtlety is introduced, emphasizing the intellect, the incisiveness, the modesty, the simplicity, the humanity attributed to the dictator. Such are numerous depictions of Lenin and Stalin in their offices hard at work, or chatting with representatives of the Novorossiysk: No Man’s Land; D. Nalbandia people.

4. And, finally, “The leader as human being,” or as “the friend” of children, athletes, collective farmers, scientists, journalists, and so on. This scheme requires genre details shifting the emotional accent from ecstatic admiration for the dictator to tender love.

The depictions of Lenin and Stalin went through all of these schemes and were developed in detail on a wide scale from gigantic monuments to small genre paintings. Hitler’s iconography essentially falls within the framework of only the first with some overlap into the second.

Hitler came to power legitimately, after having received the majority of votes in the 1933 elections. He sincerely believed (and often said so) that Providence had chosen him—a simple boy from Linz—to draw the German people up behind him in Germany’s fateful hour. He believed himself to be the voice of the people, the embodiment of the nation’s will, the emanation of its soul, and he strove to create his image in accordance with the abstract categories of this kind. He, for example, even forbade the printing of photographs that showed him in Bavarian lederhosen or wearing eyeglasses or with a small dog, because he considered that such photographs would detract from the grandeur of image that the leader of the greatest nation must project.

If what Hitler thought of himself is well-known, Stalin’s perception of himself is shrouded in mystery. He rose from the hidden depths of the party apparatus, having squeezed out and destroyed much more popular leaders. Until the mid-20’s his image as Lenin’s comrade-in-arms, creator of the army and state, or simply as a human being was much less welldefined in the popular imagination than, say, Trotsky’s, Bukharin’s, or Zinoviev’s. Thus, Soviet art was called upon to fill in the yawning gaps in his political career: an enormous number of genre depictions of Stalin were created to “document” various traits of his personality (the real ones least of all) and important episodes of his life (the ones that never occurred). On countless canvases he was portrayed in nearly every key position of the Civil War, and whenever the image of Lenin appeared as inspirer of the revolution, right next to it appeared the figure of its practical organizer—Stalin. Given Soviet art’s main emphasis on the reflection of “life’s truth,” such portrayals automatically took on the significance of historical fact.

Both Socialist Realism and National Socialist theories of art state that the true image of the leader is not limited by the traits of his individual personality. As Iskusstvo put it, “He is intertwined with historical reality, in the multi-faceted situations of our revolutionary past and our glorious present, in his contact with people and the masses.” That is, the depiction of almost any historical event or life situation is to be, in one way or another, linked to the image of the leader. All art becomes one gigantic pedestal for his overwhelming figure.

Paintings and monuments idealizing the leader constitute the center of totalitarian art. With a change of leaders a vacuum is formed in this center which threatens to destroy the whole unless it is filled immediately with the cult of a new leader.

After Khrushchev’s speech condemning the “cult of personality,” Stalin’s monuments were blown up, his portraits removed from offices and museums, and his figure scraped off from the most famous group compositions and replaced by someone else. In V. Serov’s monumental painting Lenin Proclaims the Soviet Government (1947), Stalin once stood right next to an iconic figure of Lenin; but now, some absolutely unknown character occupies this spot. (The depictions of many of Stalin’s own comrades-in-arms suffered exactly the same fate during Stalin’s reign. At the height of the terror of the 30’s, Stalinist laureates scraped from their group compositions the images of Tukhachevsky, Yakir, Bukharin, Yezhov.)

The same artists, the pillars of Socialist Realism—Nalbandian, Yefanov, Tomsky, Vuchetich—who once painted and sculpted Stalin, soon began sculpting and painting Khrushchev, and, after his fall, Brezhnev. The Brezhnev era ended with Nalbandian’s huge canvas, Novorossiisk. No Man’s Land. During World War II Colonel Brezhnev served as staff officer in the area of Novorossiisk, an insignificant Southern town, now presented as a key battle area that nearly decided the outcome of the entire Second World War.

The cults of Andropov and Chernenko never got started due to the shortness of their reigns. But unless the situation in the Soviet Union changes radically (which is very unlikely), we will see once again brilliant artistic depictions of Gorbachev at podiums, at congresses, among peasants and writers and—who knows?—maybe even at the fronts of the Second World War.