The Two Faces-Icons of Stalin

Rusudan Kobakhidze | Academic Essay | 2021

In our spiritual life, there are always dead remnants or dead products of our daily life. And often a person finds that this dead waste is scattered throughout the space of life and leaves no room for living emotions, living thoughts, or even a true life[1].

Yuri Zhdanov is quoted as reporting a family argument in which Vasilii, Stalin’s younger son, stated that he is a Stalin too! According to Zhdanov, Stalin replied: ‘No you’re not … you’re not Stalin and I’m not Stalin. Stalin is Soviet power. Stalin is what he is in the newspapers and portraits, not you, no not even me.’[2]

The French philosopher, Louis Marin wrote that a king is created through his portrait.[3]This is the portrait that manifests his power. It is an icon, a symbol, in which the idea that is necessary for the management of the masses is accumulated and expressed, the symbol is deeply embedded in the collective consciousness and determines the attitudes, values, and behavior of the people. Symbolic thinking, unlike pure rational thinking, penetrates to the deepest layers of consciousness, and its action is much more effective because the symbol can never be fully understood. It includes many associative layers that have been entrenched in the human subconscious for centuries.

Therefore, when we talk about the effect of the icon-symbol, we should take into account the continuous nature of its action and the strong mechanism of influence. The figure of Stalin is an example of this type of powerful icon-symbol in the modern post-Soviet era, whose ghost still silently defines the attitudes of our society towards the totalitarian past.

There is an ambivalent attitude towards the Stalin phenomenon in the Georgian society, as well as in others, however, everyone agrees that he was the cornerstone figure of the Soviet totalitarian state. Therefore, in the process of understanding or rethinking the Soviet past, opening and analyzing his image is crucial.

Still, what is Stalin? Transcendental evil from above, or a monster born from public sentiment? In my opinion, the answer to this question is very important in interpreting the phenomenon of Stalin, because the process of understanding based on the perception of mystical evil, puts an end to a complex analysis of the issue right from the beginning, encourages anti-Soviet approaches based on the concept of "tyrant-victim", and neglects the role and responsibility of society in the creation and sustainment of a totalitarian regime.

The present essay, of course, does not claim to contribute a fundamental discussion of this issue. It depicts only some observations regarding the features of the Stalin phenomenon and tries to draw the contours associated with the formation of the image of Stalin and to show some aspects of the impact of this image on the consciousness of modern Georgian society in terms of understanding the Soviet past.

It is true that the reasoning presented in this essay mainly concerns the Georgian Soviet and post-Soviet space and cannot be extended to the area of Russian public sentiment, but I think this view would be relevant for "Russian studies" since the Stalin phenomenon is a general Soviet phenomenon.

A whole state machine was mobilized since the 1930s to create a portrait-icon of Stalin as a sole ruler, powerful strategist, an omniscient and powerful leader, and to indoctrinate the masses (until Stalin's power was strengthened, the Bolsheviks more or less did not interfere with culture. They believed that it should be independent of politics. Non-political literature and art were allowed[4]). Soviet propaganda, in which all fields of culture were involved along with party organs, purposefully and harmoniously sculpted a portrait of the great leader.

The front pages of Soviet newspapers were dominated by his portrait. He was "a great symbol of the victories of socialism, of creating prosperity and a happy life." He was seen as the source of the light that shone and determined all "good" events. The Secretary-General of the CEC was never mentioned without epithets. The great leader of the people of the Soviet Union and the workers of the whole world (великий вождь советского народа и трудящихся всего мира), the organizer of the greatest victories of socialism (организатор великих побед социализма), the great Stalin (великий Сталин), the great leader (великий вождь), the great leader of the world proletariat (вождь всемирного пролетариата), the organizer of the Bolshevik victories (организатор большевистских побед), the great organizer (великий организатор),The wheel of the working man (кормчий трудящихся всего человечества), Great leader and teacher (великий вождь и учитель), Organizer and inspirer of the historical victories of socialism (организатор и вдохновитель исторических побед социализма), The great eagle of the proletarian revolution (горный орел пролетарской революции) , The genius of mankind and the leader of the proletariat (гений человечкства и вождь всемирного пролетариата)[5].

Sovietologist Anita Pisch notes that, when creating the portrait of Stalin, his posters were not intended to express his personal qualities as a person, moreover, the purpose was not to portray him as a leader. His persona was constructed in archetypal and mystical lines to symbolize the essential characteristics of Bolshevism and express the idea of specific organizations - party and state.[6].

However, the roots of the cult of Stalin are based on deeper, historical archetypes. The Russian philosopher, N. Berdyaev described the roots of selfishness and religious mysticism rooted in the phenomenon of Bolshevism in his famous book, “Истоки и смысл русского коммунизма)“[7]: "A teaching based on a totalitarian doctrine that encompasses the whole of life - not just politics and economics, but also thinking, consciousness, and all cultural creativity - can only be the subject of faith."[8]. Berdyaev considers autocratic absolutism (თვითმპყრობელურ აბსოლუტიზმს) to be the mainstay of Bolshevism, which in turn is rooted in the Russian variation of the Orthodox faith. He attributes this event to the unique feature of the Russian nation - the historically formed propensity for mystification as a result of the war between the Western and Eastern elements: "It is only typical for the Russian soul to switch religious energy to non-religious, scientific and other fields of social life.[9]Although this phenomenon, which Peter Lambert calls "political religion"[10], has many analogs in world history, they are based on universal archetypes - mainly the image of the king, which enjoys the support of transcendental forces. The symbols - steel, sun, helmsman, architect, priest, magician, parent father, during war years - the warrior and savior (Messiah) are universal symbols that were actively used by Bolshevism.

Although from the very first days of its victory, Bolshevism sought to rewrite history - to sever ties with the "old history" and create new traditions, as a way of neglecting the old history, it still had a "great turn" towards the history of the Russian people. Rehabilitation of the King's icon began during the rise of the Stalin cult - in the mid-1930s. During this period, a state-oriented patriotic ideology developed, which is associated with the tsarist "Velikoderzhavie" and the Russocentric traditions, which M.N. Ryutin calls "National Bolshevism." At Stalin's request, history textbooks include the "Big Figures" of Russian History - Ivan the Terrible, Alexander Nevsky, Peter the Great[11].

It seems that the figure of Ivan the Terrible was unique to Stalin, because the face-symbol of the tyrant who came to save the souls of the people, accurately reflected the idea, the embodiment of which was the true Soviet reality. Ivan the Terrible, who was the best theorist of self-government, created the concept of the Orthodox state, according to which the king should take care of the salvation of the souls of his subjects. The function of the church was taken over by the state. The face-symbol of such a king needed a stronger stimulus, and on Stalin's instructions, Sergei Eisenstein was commissioned to make the film "Ivan the Terrible", the script of which was approved by Stalin himself.[12].

The face of Stalin began to symbolize the absolutism of government, which was based on a mixture of the orthodox-autocratic doctrine. Praise of the figure of the almighty leader took canonical forms in slogans, posters, or literary texts written about him.

A huge army of "art workers" joined the work of the propaganda machine as psycho engineers and psycho constructors in creating the "new man." Stalin himself took part in this expanded work in the arts and sciences. He watched all the films before their release on the screens and gave permission, or vetoed, the episodes often changed according to his remarks and instructions, he controlled and edited the slogans before they were printed in the press, made corrections in scientific papers.[13]

Before the beginning of the Great Terror (1937-1938), the heroization of the figure of Stalin took on a finished look. The worship of his portrait resembled the worship of a religious cult. The icon of God and the Anointed King was appropriated by the figure of Stalin, although its main features of the Christian faith strangely disappeared from its concept: love, support, mercy. The notion of justice was changed. The law based on the grace of the New Testament was replaced by the vengeful and angry God of the Old Testament. The focus shifted to "omnipotence" and "all-encompassing" and, consequently, the Soviet man was instructed to worship this omnipotent figure.

The indoctrination of this new face-icon in the masses formed the figure of this "new man" whose main characteristic was slavish obedience. In the public consciousness, this event evoked an irrational belief in the heroic and mystical figure of the leader on the one hand and a sense of hopelessness on the other.

However, next to the icon glorified by this universal ode, an "anti-icon" is still created in Soviet art, which turned out to be more viable in post-Soviet times. This is the creation of "Jako" by M. Javakhishvili and "Woland" by M. Bulgakov. If we look at the symbolic layers of these faces, we can see that the contours with which the icon of the "Great Leader" was written, are defined in these face-icons as well. I am referring to the line of invincibility and hence the line of inevitability and the second the mystical halo, which further reinforces the concept of invincibility.

Mikheil Javakhishvili completed "Jako's Dwellers"(Jakos Khiznebi) in 1924. The text was published in the same year in the journal "Mnatobi" and then in 1925, it was published as a separate book for the first time. It took the author 20 years to write the novel, so, representing the portrait of Stalin in Jako's face is something that happened later on in the process and was not the writer's initial intention, unless we are dealing with a prophetic face, like the characters in Dostoevsky's “The Devil” Robert Musil's characters of the “The Man Without Qualities”, who took on their faces after the Bolsheviks and the Nazis emerged.

Jako's face appears at the beginning of the novel. He looks like a mythical monster (Devi) from a story who emerged from the unknown:

Jako Jivashvili looked like a bear running in the city. His colossal and far apart legs could barely support his ugly and wide thighs and shoulders, so much so that a narrow sidewalk could barely accommodate Jako alone.

His scarred head and face were covered with such black, thick, and abrasive hair, as if a huge greased hedgehog had crawled on his shoulders.

The black hair bush reached up to the eyes, and from that bristle, only his bull's eyes, protruding horse teeth, and a snub nose were visible.

One span-long mustache rested like a withered broom on the cheeks, which stuck out like inverted bowls, and ears, like tea plates, were dangling above them in a mediocre manner.

He had a low and inverted forehead; Nose - short and snub; Eyes - the size of large walnuts and bulging, at the same time lively ugly, mischievous, gleaming and restless;

A thick layer of frosted, long eyebrows lays above his eyes, which were broken in the middle of a high and forward-falling forehead.

He wore a brown Ossetian Burka hat, and a greasy Ossetian woolen chokha, and on his feet - baggy stockings, colorful Tatar socks, and newly bought Dabakhan slippers.

He had a welded silver dagger of one adli (length measurement in old Georgia), of Teimuraz ancestry, hung from his rough thigh to have a dignified walk.

Jako was holding an iron bat the width of a wrist in one hand, and a “Chedila” sheep in the other - he was holding it so easily, as if it were no heavier than a small chicken. He had a Russian rifle on his shoulders, three rounds of ammunition around his chest and waist, and a long Mauser gun on his hips.

The bat and Chedila are a synthesis of folk tales and Christian symbols. The Russian rifle on his shoulders and the dagger from Teimuraz ancestry on his thigh - indicate a fusion of old and new weapons. An Ossetian Chokha on his body and an Ossetian hat on his head can be perceived as an anti-face of Tariel, one of the main characters of "The Knight in the Panther's Skin" (he wore a long shirt made from panther’s skin, as well as a panther skin hat on his head). His disgusting appearance bears the hallmarks of primitive brute force seen in folklore, albeit weakly, but elements of the mystical "dark force" are still seen in Jako.

The intensification of these elements appears in the allusion of a poem by Osip Mandelstam, where the poet baptizes the character of Jako as an icon of the great ballad in 1933.

We are living, but can't feel the land where we stay,

More than ten steps away you can't hear what we say.

But if people would talk on occasion,

They should mention the Kremlin Caucasian.

His thick fingers are bulky and fat like live-baits,

And his accurate words are as heavy as weights.

Cucaracha's mustaches are screaming,

And his boot-tops are shining and gleaming.

But around him a crowd of thin-necked henchmen,

And he plays with the services of these half-men.

Some are whistling, some meowing, some sniffing,

He's alone booming, poking, and whiffing.

He is forging his rules and decrees like horseshoes –

Into groins, into foreheads, in eyes, and eyebrows.

Every killing for him is delight,

And Ossetian torso is wide.[14]

It is difficult to say whether Jako's association with Stalin determined M. Javakhishvili's fate, or if the great leader saw his reflection in Jivashvili's face, but with the growing popularity of the novel in the consciousness of the late Soviet and post-Soviet society, it is firmly established as an anti-icon replacing the icon of the great Stalin.

A more sophisticated and mystical anti-icon of the leader was created by Mikhail Bulgakov in the form of Woland in his famous novel "The Master and Margarita". The book was completed during the Great Terror period and did not see the light of day until 1967. Its full version was published in Paris.

The relationship between Stalin and Bulgakov is full of strange contradictions and is still the subject of research. It is known that in the 1920s Joseph Vissarionovich did not oppose and even often attended the play "The Days of the Turbins'' based on Bulgakov's "The White Guard", which was a cause of hurt for the ardent Bolshevik writers. This is how Stalin explains this strange exception in a letter to Bill Belotserkovsky: “As for the play “The Days of the Turbins”, it is not that bad, since it brings more good than bad. Do not forget that the main impression this play leaves on the viewer, is favorable to the Bolsheviks: If even people like those depicted in “The Days of the Turbins” are forced to throw down their arms and bow to the wishes of the people, thus acknowledging their defeat - means that the Bolsheviks are invincible. It is true that this was not the author's intent, but isn't’ that beyond our interests?[15]

This letter clearly shows Stalin's main goal - to establish the myth of Bolshevik invincibility in anti-Soviet (or hesitant) people and, consequently, to introduce tolerance and nihilism.

The face-icon of Woland is already an attempt to mystify the leader. The theme of the mystical veil and demons is also characteristic of Bulgakov's early work (“Dyavoliada”), although Satan's most prominent face and symbol is the "Master and Margarita". There is an opinion that Bulgakov personally dedicated this novel to Stalin – “a novel for one reader”[16], but discussing this will take us far.

Woland's figure appears out of nowhere at the very beginning of the work. His face, seen from different angles, seems to slip away. According to eyewitnesses, this character is a set of mutually exclusive external characteristics: according to one description, he was short, with golden teeth and had a limp on his right foot, according to another, he was very tall, with platinum teeth and had a limp on his left foot. In the third description, he had no special features. Finally, the author himself offers a description of Woland's appearance: a clean-shaven, tall dark man in foreign clothes with platinum teeth on the left, gold on the right, his right eye black, and green on the left. The symbolic face of Janus additionally has an asymmetry of the eyebrow and mouth. Such is the absolute of the evil that has come down from heaven.

Woland's face is opposed to the figure of the face of Stalin fabricated by the propaganda brush, not only in the context of good/evil (absolute evil - absolute goodness) but also with its multilayered and multifaceted content - the simple and schematic construction which was printed in posters, monuments, and slogans.

However, Stalin's good and evil faces are still united by the main concept - the all-encompassing power radiated by both symbols. These are the two sides of the same coin that were deeply imprinted in the mass subconscious of the Soviet citizen, and when the Soviet state was overthrown, the medal was also turned over and the icon of absolute goodness turned to the side of absolute evil. The leader seen in this way, in our opinion, largely defined the process of understanding the totalitarian past in the post-Soviet period.

“Jako's Dwellers” and "The Master and Margarita" have been slowly gaining popularity since the 1960s when the "cult of personality" was denounced and the ideological obedience to Marxism-Leninism in the public consciousness was sustained only in the form of sluggish inertia.

Elements of Jako and Woland's face-icons can be caught in the anti-Soviet film "Repentance" made in 1984 by Tengiz Abuladze. In the symbolic hyperbole of the film, the "dead remnant", which could not be escaped, is a tyrant, drawn with symbolic lines of transcendental evil.

Late Soviet or post-Soviet anti-Soviet sentiments in Georgia adapted to the concept of "tyrant-victim" and began to understand totalitarianism in this context. An example of this is the concept of the Museum of Occupation - a helpless Georgian kneeling before a brutal evil force (sculpture by Vakhtang Kotetishvili).

Jako comes from somewhere. Woland too - emerges out of nowhere. Both are strangers. Jako - Ossetian (here the probable origin of Stalin is emphasized), Woland - a supernatural force. Society is in the role of a victim. It is true that deservedly (we can not reprimand M. Javakhishvili for not describing the oppression and weakening of the Georgian society, nor M. Bulgakov for forgiving the vices of the Russian Soviet society), but the force that appropriated or punished them is still an external force and not from the same society, in contrast to T. Dostoevsky's devils, born of those crooked ideas, the moral depravity that arose from the society.

The symbol of this invincible external force was quite comfortable for the anti-Soviet Soviet society to create a simple formula for evaluating totalitarianism, which looks something like this: an evil tyrant which appears out of nowhere which destroys the "cream of the society". Such simplification of the issue resembles the myth of Soviet invincibility. The "ruinous man" is still buried and leaves no room for living thought.

[1] Mamardashvili, M. (2011) The Topology of Consciousness, Tbilisi: Georgian Biographical Centre, p. 20

[2] Montefiore, S. S. (2007) Young Stalin. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, p. 4.

[3] Marin, L. (1988) Portrait of the king. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 218

[4] Kenez, P. (1985) The Birth of Propaganda State. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 12

[5] Kobakhidze, R. “Some aspects of the Soviet propaganda model” (The newspaper language of the newspaper "Communist" in 1936-37). Reconstructions of history, 3 (forthcoming).

[6]Pisch, A. (2016) The personality cult of Stalin in Soviet Posters, 1929-1953. Australian National University Press, p. 3

[7] The Origin of Russian Communism

[8] Бердяев, Н (1955) Истоки и смысл русского коммунизма. Париж: Репринтное воспроизведение издания YMCA-PRESS, p. 100

[9] Ibid., p. 19

[10] Pisch, A. (2016) The personality cult of Stalin in Soviet Posters, 1929-1953. Australian National University Press, p. 21

[11] BRANDENBERGER D. L. and DUBROVSKY, A. M. (1988) 'The People Need a Tsar': The Emergence of National Bolshevism as Stalinist Ideology, 1931-1941. EUROPE-ASIA STUDIES, 50 (5): 873-892

[12] Марьямов Г. (1992) Кремлёвский цензор. Сталин смотрит кино. (недоступная ссылка) — М.: Конфедерация союзов кинематографистов «Киноцентр» — ISBN 5-7240-0043-1.

[13] Pisch, A. (2016) The personality cult of Stalin in Soviet Posters, 1929-1953. Australian National University Press, pp. 29-30

[14]  Translation by Dmitri Smirnov,

[15] reply to Bill-Belotserkovsky. Stalin. Compositions. Vol. 11, 327-329

[16] Открытый урок с Дмитрием Быковым - «Булгаков. Роман для Сталина». 25 октября 2014. (Accessed 20 January 2021)