James Heinzen is a professor of History at Rowan University where he specializes in modern Russian History. His new book is The Art of the Bribe: Corruption under Stalin, 1943-1953 published by Yale University Press.
Coil, “Tainted Love,” Panic, 1985.
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By Sean — 11 years ago
“Putin is stability!”, “Putin is peace in Chechnya!”, “Putin is the Olympics!”, “Putin is an eagle!”, and “Putin, we are with you!” These are some of the slogans 10,000 Nashi activists from over 20 regions shouted as they paraded down Moscow’s Taras Shevchenko Embankment on Sunday to celebrate Putin’s 55th birthday. The procession ended at a stage where Vasilii Yakemenko, Nashi leader and new appointee to head the Kremlin’s Youth Commission, rallied the crowd to the glories of Putinism with techno remixes of Soviet pop hits blaring in the background.
“I want to say that I remember the 1990s, when bandits ruled the streets, the country’s budget was approved by Americans at the International Monetary Fund and Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky declared war in Chechnya.” Yakemenko told the crowd giving his own version of history. “And I want to say that we cannot allow that to be repeated and the election f the national leader depends on us!” He then praised Putin’s heading United Russia’s federal electoral lists in the upcoming Duma elections. “Putin must take no some 30 percent or even 50 percent of votes. He must win decisively and unconditionally. And we the Nashi movement will help him in this!” Putin lives. Putin will always live.
As if unquestionable adulation of everything Putin wasn’t enough, later that day a representative from Nashi, Kristina Potupchik, presented Putin with a “peace blanket” decorated with symbols of many of Russia’s ethnic cultures. “Nashi wants this blanket to be a symbol of the multinational and grand Russia,” she explained. To make sure Putin wasn’t just covered in the material world, Nashi made sure he was nice and snug in the spiritual one and asked all of Russia’s churches to pray for Putin’s health.
Nashi’s presents to Putin made me think about other presents to Russian leaders over the decades. Be sure, whatever Putin got for his 55th pales in comparison to what Stalin was to receive from the Moscow Babaiev Confectionery Factory for his 60th birthday in 1939: A huge chocolate bust of himself.
As a teenager, the writer Valerii Agranovskii, witnessed the chocolate Stalin with his own eyes, and eventually lips, while on an excursion of the factory with his orphanage. Here is his account of the cocoa wonder:
[I]n a small hall in front of the director’s office where a huge bust of Stalin, made of chocolate, was exhibited. It was perhaps ordered by someone, but, most likely, made by the factory as a gift to Stalin for his sixtieth birthday.
I don’t know who touched the pedestal where the bust was seated. The fact remains that Stalin’s bust tottered and fell down, breaking into many large and small pieces. Our teachers were stunned. And the director, when he jumped out of his office and saw what had happened to the chocolate Leader of All the Progressive Humanity, went completely white, then looked at us with suddenly empty eyes, then looked behind him for some reason, and uttered almost without any voice and with only half of his mouth open (I don’t remember, left or right): ‘Eat it!’
We heard his command, and not just heard it but correctly understood it – and jumped… on the Best Friend and the Teacher of All Soviet Children.
The first thing that struck me (and, maybe others as well, but we did not share these thoughts) was that Stalin turned out to be empty inside… I got a huge ear of Joseph Vissarionovich, of the size of my two feet at that time…On another occasion we would have luxuriated on this ear for the whole day… but now we finished Stalin quickly… Nothing was left of Stalin, not a single crumb: the director, we think, even forbade sweeping the floor – which would be an extra blasphemy… – not that there was anything left to sweep; it was Stalin, after all.
Now that’s one chocolaty holy communion! I’d like to see those Nashi kids try and top that.
The chocolate Stalin was not the last, nor of course, the strangest gift the Man of Steel received from worshipers. In 1942, a group of Native American tribes presented the Soviet ambassador to the United States a full feathered head dress for the dictator to commemorate his “election as the honorary chief of all Indian tribes.” I remember seeing the head dress in the Museum of the Revolution in 2001. I couldn’t help picturing Stalin convening Politburo meetings wearing the damn thing.
Gifts to Stalin were so numerous for his 70th birthday that a special exhibition of the gifts was opened at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibit remained open until Stalin’s death in 1953.
Now that Putin appears to be sticking around for a while longer, one can’t help wonder: Is there a chocolate visage in his future?
Update: For more on Nashi, Putin’s B-day, and a translation of the Kommersant article on it, check out Lyndon’s post over at his Scraps of Moscow.Post Views: 893
By Sean — 8 years ago
Just after taking the throne in the spring of 1855, Alexander II convened a meeting of his ministers to assess the state of Russia, and in particular, its participation in the Crimean War. Unlike under previous Tsars, several of the “enlightened bureaucrats” didn’t hold their tongues and provided the newly minted Emperor an honest appraisal of the Empire. Among them was this unnamed Finance Ministry official, who gave the following assessment of the Imperial system:
“Nowhere is there so much and at the same time so little centralization as there is in Russia. On the one hand the ministries have arrogated to themselves the virtually exclusive right to decide all matters, but at the same time there is not the slightest link between the separate ministries. Everyone’s perpetual concern to safeguard himself against having to take legal responsibility necessitates a fearful expenditure of effort, paper, ink, and time, slows down the transaction of business, removes from the provincial and district agencies all the feelings of independence, and teaches them to act surreptitiously if at all. It goes without saying that all this stops short at the people, who have been abandoned to the authorities’ exploitation.”1
I couldn’t help but note the resonance this passage has for Russia today.
1 David Saunders, Russia in the Age of Reaction of Reform, 1801-1881, Longman, 1992, 209.Post Views: 469
By Sean — 11 years ago
Ninety years ago the Bolsheviks took power. Or, really it was given to them. The Bolsheviks hardly took nothing that the masses in Petrograd had been trying to give them since July. The antiwar protests against the Provisional Government’s military offensive became bloody, Lenin went into hiding, the Bolsheviks went underground. The masses threw the ball to the moderate socialists, but they dropped it. Then enter Kornilov. The Russian Right strikes back but is driven off by a mostly Bolshevik dominated Red Guards. Kerensky and his Government was bankrupt. The SRs and the Mensheviks did exactly how Eisenstein did in October. Peering out cracks in the windows and doors watching the revolution march past them.
Between July and November 1917, the Bolsheviks grew in membership, electoral, and political support. The Bolsheviks, I think Alexander Rabinowitch once wrote, rode a wave of discontent into power.
Lenin’s small band of revolutionaries had ballooned from 24,000 in early 1917 to 390,000 in March 1918. This gave them a potential cadre to pull from and, more importantly, target their slogans, propaganda, and other forms of agitation. The Bolshevik Party became a small mass organization in a very brief period. Moreover, this new membership comprised workers and soldiers–the revolutionary vanguard in Lenin’s eyes.
Membership wasn’t the only indication of Bolshevik popularity in the countries’ centers of power. Bolsheviks were capturing increasingly winning soviet elections. A graph of Petrograd Soviet returns shows a steady Bolshevik rise. Shortly after Kornilov, the Bolsheviks became the majority. I guess that bolshevik finally meant something. More importantly, notice the SR collapse. By the Constituent Assembly, the Bolsheviks had around 50 votes. The minority parties were too fractured to form any opposition; a chronic problem that led to their defeat two years later.
In Moscow, the Bolsheviks peaked later. The September 24 election to the Moscow soviet wielded around 70 votes. Their closest competition, the Kadets, had a paltry 38 or so. By November, the Bolsheviks had tailed off a bit with 50 votes with the Kadets making a surge. Moscow was polarized between far left and tolerable right. The SRs, Mensheviks, and others had collapsed. Moscow was a two horse race.
The Bolsheviks were riding a democratic wave to power. If political parties in the center aren’t enough evidence, the next electoral returns were the Constituent Assembly shows a similar pattern. The elections totals show the following: SRs 38 percent; Bolsheviks 23.7 percent; Kadets 4.8 percent; Mensheviks 3.3 percent. But these totals become meaningless when you look at the Bolsheviks support in Russia’s power centers. The Bolsheviks carried Central Russia, the West, and tied with the SRs in the Northwest. The SRs were popular in the Black Earth and Siberia. Read: peasant. In Kursk Province the SRs got 82 percent of the votes. And it is likely that SRs were the only party peasants even knew. SRs and their protogenes had been agitating the countryside for years. As to their popularity in Siberia, in addition to aforementioned, don’t forget many of them were exiled there.
Perhaps the most important number on this graph is for the army. The Bolsheviks and SRs were neck and neck. But not really where it mattered. This graph of votes from the Western Front show the Lenin and his bunch carrying a landslide with 66.9 percent of the votes. The SRs were nothing at 18.5 percent. As for the Mesheviks and Kadets, who cares? With control of garrisons through Trotsky’s baby, the Military Revolutionary committees, and about half the army, you have power.
But does this mean the Bolsheviks came to power democratically? Well, first that depends on what you mean by democracy. If it means popular, well the Bolsheviks were popular. No, they didn’t have a straight majority. But they had the mass popularity where it mattered. The calls for the Soviets to take power had been cried since the July Days. Their voices became a fever pitch after Kornilov. “All Power to the Soviets!” And the Bolsheviks heeded their call.
People will probably scoff at the idea that the Bolsheviks came to power democratically. I asked my students what they thought when I taught these figures to a class on the Russian Revolution. “Do these voting returns say that the Bolsheviks came to power democratically?” I asked. Silence. Then one of my students blurted out, “It is if you consider it like our Electoral College.”
I hadn’t thought of that before.Post Views: 1,167