Tyrant and the beauty

A list of the best books for 2004 has been published in Great Britain. Simon Montefiore's "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar," and Ann Applebaum's "Gulag," have been nominated as the best history book. As the Gulag prison system was Stalin's "creation," the latter book is also about the Soviet tyrant.

Stalin, who died in 1953, i.e. more than 50 years ago, continues to influence Russia, Europe and the world as a whole. His tastes, habits and passions can still be considered an entire cultural stratum. This is not typical of every late tyrant. Chinese leader Mao Zedong is the only political figure of the 20th century who can parallel Stalin in terms of clearly discernible images related to his name, while Napoleon can also lay claim to this achievement during an earlier epoch.

The essence of Stalinist era culture is the conscious renunciation of revolutionary avant-garde trends in favour of the grandiose classical forms of imperial Rome.

When a young poet, Josif Dzhugashvili (later known as Stalin) was inclined to verbal opulence and his early works were written in an oriental poetry manner, i.e. for feasts. Indeed, both Stalin and Mao were talented poets. The former's "Roses" had been included in the anthology of Georgian poetry long before the author took the helm of the Soviet state.

In politics Stalin chose to be a radical, and as a Bolshevik he destroyed all the monarchic traditions of Georgia and Russia. However, the tyrant remained a keen monarchist as far as his cultural preferences were concerned. When Stalin replaced Vladimir Lenin as national and Bolshevik party leader after his death, he ended the Party's connections to unconventional artistic movements that were immensely popular in Russia in the 1920s. El Lisitsky, Tatlin, Malevich and other internationally acclaimed avant-garde masters ceased to be trendsetters in their country under Stalin. Realist artists were trusted to design Party illustrations, i.e. to paint party leaders' portraits and depict the nation's sporting life. The Party waged a war against formalism for many years and Stalin himself was an energetic figure in the cultural sphere.

Stalin had exquisite taste when it came to poetry and drama. He appreciated Boris Pasternak's poems and understood Mikhail Bulgakov full well. However, grandiose displays of victory were Stalin's main contribution to Soviet culture.

In the 1920s, with the country in ruins after the civil war, Stalin undertook to rebuild Russia into a model country, a kind of exhibition of the socialist world's achievements. The first agricultural and industrial exhibition was hastily built of cardboard, while soon the country embarked on the construction of a grand town of marble palaces on the outskirts of Moscow, one for each Soviet republic to demonstrate its economic achievements. This area looks no less impressive than Egypt's Luxor temple.

The Russian architect Iofan, in his memoirs, said it was Stalin who had given a verbal description of the future Palace of Soviets with Lenin's statue at its top, thereby, ordering the immense size of the building. The architect had only to implement the leader's concept. The palace was never built. However, its design spearheaded the Stalinist architecture of triumphs, its most impressive examples being the skyscrapers built in a circle around Moscow. Stalin's famous skyscrapers continue to influence Moscow's architecture and inspire modern architects.

Stalin's taste was also dominant in painting and sculpture, when artists' works bore the sign of pathetic propaganda. Moscow metro stations, which were built by Gulag prisoners, resemble seraglios or temples of victory today. The Soviet film industry was also totally dependent on Stalin's preferences. He wanted Russia to be something in between a giant culture park and an economic exhibition, in which people themselves were only exhibits.

Stalinist heritage has continued to influence modern Russian culture even after his death and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some modern artists follow the Soviet style. Those who deny the style constantly "quote" it. Sotsart and photo-realism, for example, emerged out of the protests against the hypocrisy of the Stalinist period. Ilya Kabakov's installations, which carefully retrace Soviet consciousness, are also nourished by the tyrant's heritage. Russian culture, as well as the modern culture of the former socialist bloc, is tantamount to a chain reaction to Stalinism.

Strange as it may seem, the horrors of the Stalinist period are exported by modern Russia, like Romania is exploiting Dracula as its national brand, which brings revenues to the budget. Books about Stalin's outrages, Gulag, the adversities of the Bolshevik Revolution come out abroad in print-runs of millions and are as popular as Russian vodka or caviar. When reading or watching films about social disasters in Russia, foreign audiences secretly take pleasure in the comfort of quiet life in their countries. Blood, Stalin, Russia, political prisoners, executions and other historical incidents are often served like spicy dishes on the menu of history's archives.

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