29 March 2007

Mission: Impossible III - Busted

"OK, I'll tell you, but you have to let me tell the whole story. It's a large bust of Lenin....You see, I have this friend in America. He's an artist, and he's putting together an exhibit at our university on political art and propaganda of the 20th Century. So when he found out that I was coming to Russia, he asked me to do him a favor and find him a big sculpture of Lenin, so I did. It's been such a nightmare, but he's a close friend, and besides, I owe him a favor. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother with such an troublesome thing. By the way, how's the new grandson?..."

That's what I was going to tell my host family if they ever got around to asking what the very large box sitting behind the curtain in my bedroom was. Fortunately, they never did, though they have to have known it was there - it was kind of hard to miss. It must have taken every ounce of self-restraint for my host mother not to ask, as she seems to relish in sticking her nose anywhere and everywhere it will fit. Thankfully, I was spared the speech and resulting interrogation.

The fact of the matter is, I made that story up. There is no friend, he isn't an artist, and there is no exhibit. Put simply, I bought what has become known as the "Bolshoi Lenin" for myself. Why, you must be asking yourself, would one possibly want to own a giant plaster (or papier mache - we may never know) bust of Lenin? It's a fair question. Let's see, how to put this...

I collect busts of Lenin.

I fully realize it's a strange hobby.

It started innocently about 10 years ago. A high school history teacher of mine kept a small plastic bust in his office that a student had once given him as a souvenir from the Soviet Union (back when there was a Soviet Union). The bust was said to have magical powers, imparting good luck onto anyone who rubbed its head. As you can imagine, it's now polished to a shiny white. I would borrow the "good luck Lenin" for major tests, and was convinced of its powers (yes, I realize that it was probably a case of spurious correlation). Upon my graduation from high school, the "good luck Lenin" was presented to me as a gift to ensure my further success in college.

And thus it began. The next bust was bought off the internet. Now the two Lenins had each other for company. The collection remained at two until my study abroad in Moscow during my junior year. Having finally made it to the epicenter of Lenin statuary, I began scouring the flea markets and street vendors for additions to the collection. Surprisingly, it was harder to find them back then than it is now. I attribute the difference to the recent expansion of the Izmailovsky flea market, and the resulting proliferation of ordinary people trying to sell their junk.

I returned from my first trip to Russia with three new pieces, expanding into the realm of full-body Lenin statues as well. The next summer I returned to Moscow to do research and came home with another four. The next trip, a short one of only a few days, still managed to expand the collection by another two. My fourth trip to Russia found three more busts packed away in my suitcase when I returned home.

Perhaps it's because of greater supply, perhaps it's because of greater resources, or perhaps it's the realization that some day these things won't be easy to find anymore. My friend, Comrade Tornadochka, thinks that I've gone off my rocker and am obsessed (she went so far as using the word "fetish"). But whatever the reason, I've been in Russia for two months now and there are 6 busts and statues sitting in my closet, well hidden and waiting to emigrate to the U.S. when I visit home next week. Plus there's the Bolshoi Lenin in the bolshoi box, along with a couple more busts on their way to my office in the States thanks to the magic of Ebay. So I guess that brings us to 9 new Lenins, and we haven't even hit summer yet. Ok, maybe I have gone off the deep end...

I should point out that I do approach this with a collector's mentality, not just buying up any old bust that I come across. At this point I have most of the major "poses" and forms represented in my collection. Simply duplicating things I already have isn't worthwhile. After all, there are only so many basic aluminum Lenin heads that a person could want. So, I spend most of my time at the flea markets looking for unique and rare poses, as well as busts that are interesting for a variety of reasons - their material, their age, their size (hence, the Bolshoi Lenin), etc. Comrade Tornadochka has urged (actually, demanded) that I post a photo gallery with the collection, and I'll do my best to make that happen soon. In the meantime, you'll have to use your imagination.

Of course, I've deliberately put off the why question because it's the hardest for me to answer, despite the fact that I am asked "why Lenin busts?" every time someone learns about my unusual hobby. "Are you a communist?" usually follows shortly after "why?" No, I am not a communist. In fact, many people in from my other life across the Atlantic know me as a bootstrapping free-market moderate who may or may not have voted for the sitting president. Hardly communist material.

So then what is it? My fascination with Lenin statuary, and with all Lenin imagery of the Soviet period, is based in the politics of imagery. Or perhaps it is the imagery of politics. Whatever we call it, the cult of Lenin and the imagery it produced is one of the most fascinating aspects of the Soviet project to me. Here was a regime that destroyed religion and God, only to create a new religion and a new god in its place. Of course, the deification of Lenin was no accident - scholarly research on the Lenin cult (see Nina Tumarkin's book,Lenin Lives!) has suggested that the creation of the cult after Lenin's death was deliberately carried out by Stalin for political purposes. By elevating Lenin to the level of a god and by equating his teachings with communism's "holy scripture," Stalin created a new "religion" that posessed many of the characteristics of the traditional religion that preceded it. More importantly, by taking on the mantle of "High Priest" and chief interpreter of Lenin's divine teachings, Stalin wielded tremendous power. In Stalin's hands, Lenin's words (or Stalin's selective understanding of those words) became a powerful tool in the building of socialism and the desruction of Stalin's enemies: those who opposed Lenin (as interpreted by Stalin) had lost faith and must be dealt with accordingly...

Thus, what is so fascinating about the cult of Lenin is the efforts of an atheist regime to create a kind of religion for political control. So thorough was the deification of Lenin that even after Stalin's own personality cult was denounced and excised by Khrushchev, the cult of Lenin continued until the end of the Soviet regime, particularly flourishing under Brezhnev.

I have long tried to find ways to study the Lenin cult specifically and political deification more broadly in my own academic work. Were I a historian, it would be an easier task, as there are no doubt fascinating stories to be told from archives. How deliberately was the cult created? Were there politburo meetings to discuss it, or was this something hatched in Stalin's head alone? How cynical were the Stalinist elites that created the cult? Did they believe any of it, or did they just view it as the crude political tool it was?

Unfortunately, the burden of the political science is the burden of measurement and generalization. Thus, my profession requires me to find a generalized question or phenomenon, preferably one that can be studied comparatively, and ideally one that can be measured somehow, whether quantitatively or qualitatively. Therein lies the problem. Comparison with other cases (such as Mao) is hindered by the language barrier - I won't be learning Chinese anytime soon. Furthermore, on some level we can only ask questions that the data can answer. At best, the data might consist of historical records of elite conversations. But what is the truly interesting question about all of this? I'll tell you what it is: Did it work? Did the masses believe it? (Ok, two questions). The possibility of obtaining primary data addressing these questions diminishes as the Soviet era recedes into the mist of history, likely keeping me from ever turning my scholarly attention to this fascinating phenomenon.

As you can see, I'm very good about avoiding the question, aren't I? I still haven't told you why I collect the busts. Obviously, the cult of Lenin is something that fascinates me deeply, and the figurines on my bookshelves are part of that phenomenon. They are the once-holy "relics" of that political religion, standing watch over homes and offices reminding believers and nonbelievers alike of the heaven on earth that he promised them, replacing (often literally) the Christian icons and candles that were once displayed in households.

And so, I collect thethe busts as the physical manifestations of one of the most interesting phenomena of Soviet history.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. Tell me how I'm supposed to explain all that to my host family in Russian. Now you understand why I had to make up the story above...

Speaking of the Secret Bolshoi Lenin, what ever happened to him? Those of you who have read the previous installments in this series (Mission Impossible and Mission Impossible II) have hopefully put two and two together to realize that the "artwork" in question was the Bolshoi Lenin bust.

Obtaining the paperwork from the Ministry of Culture allowing Lenin's export was relatively easy (maybe they're still pinning their hopes on exporting the world revolution). I have to say, I was impressed with the ease of obtaining the necessary documentation. The woman who handed over my paperwork even smiled at me! As I suspected, Lenin was found to have no cultural value, thus no taxes were due.

I then spent half a day wandering around Moscow looking for the main UPS office. Seems they moved out of their old digs about 6 months ago, and someone forgot to update the corporate UPS website. Go figure. When I finally found the office after calling my wife in America to have her look up the Russian customer service number and calling them for an address, I was amused to find out that it's quite close to my apartment. Oh well, it was good exercise. I eventually got the required paperwork, filled it out, and checked it over at least 10 times.

Two days ago, Bolshoi Lenin left the nest, escorted on the first leg of his journey to a new life in America by a friendly UPS courier. A great sense of relief came over me once he was gone, as he's been quite a lot of trouble, to put it mildly. But when I logged on and entered his tracking number that night, my heart stopped:


Maybe the Russian customs bureaucracy would get the upper hand after all. Or perhaps a holdout pocket of Stalinists got wind of the package and wanted to keep him at home ("socialism in one country," I suppose). My passport and I know what happens to things that enter Russian bureaucratic possession. I, of course, thought of the recent film, "Goodbye Lenin," as that's what appeared to be happening.

It's not the financial loss that bothered me. After all, I only paid about $115 for the thing. Rather, it was all the effort, time, and attention that went into sending him to America that killed me. After all that, he just gets trapped in Customs hell?

I logged on again this morning and saw that the package had arrived somewhere called "Malmo Sturup." Fearing that this was some acronym for something like the "Customs Service Department of Seized Goods that You Really Want to Send Home but We're Making Your Life Difficult Because We Can", I was relieved when Google informed me that it's an airport in Sweden.

Free at last! Bolshoi Lenin had left the country. Of course, the fact that he went to Sweden is kind of ironic - they're all about the socialism over there, right? Now it's just a hop, skip, and a jump over the Atlantic, where he should be "home" in a few days. (Just watch, now that I've said that he'll be seized by a rogue band of McCartheyites in the U.S. Customs Service). I'm still keeping my fingers crossed...

In the meantime, it is only fair that I reward those of you who have made it this far to the end of the story. Without further ado, I present to you the Bolshoi Lenin:

1 comment:

Lyndon said...

I have long tried to find ways to study the Lenin cult specifically and political deification more broadly in my own academic work.

Seems like the cult of Putin should provide an outstanding contemporary case study.

My own favorite Lenin (I think I only have two) is a full-length statue about 7" tall that survived a tragic apartment fire in which just about all of my other worldly goods perished. This Lenin is now permanently scorched in a way that makes him more beautiful.

As far as collecting and cults go, I've collected Vladimir Vysotsky memorabilia for some time - the dissidents' deity, if you will - including a nifty bronze bust of him with a guitar located in an antique store in Chisinau which had the airport security people calling me back from the passport queue when they put it through the X-ray machine.

I am glad that Big Lenin is OK and glad to finally see a photo of him - reminds me of a smaller version of the one that used to live in the stairwell of my Leningrad elementary school, circa 1985.

Next thing you need to get is one of those big - and I mean BIG - medallions off a railway locomotive with Lenin's head on them. Or did those only have Stalin on them?