As Vladimir Putin attempts to restore his failing cult of personality by pretending to be the leader of a flock of cranes, Ruskie.info takes a look back at one of the more serious cases of a leader cult that Russia has had before.
The book “Preschool children on Lenin” was first published in 1924. It’s a collection of children conversations and games recorded by their teachers shortly after the first Soviet leader’s death. Reprinted by the “Red Sailor” publishing house in 2007, the book gives interesting insights into children psyche affected by the intense early years of the Soviet State and the establishing of a new political cult to replace the faith both in monarchy and religion.
Obviously, as with any book about Lenin printed in the Soviet Union, the material of this one should be taken with a pinch of salt; however, authors do claim they haven’t changed a word in children’s speech, recognizing the importance of the original language and phrasing. The editing that did take place, it seems, had mainly to do with keeping the positive comments on Lenin, and leaving all the negative ones out. The image of the leader that we get is idealized, and is, presumably, a product of propaganda mixed with actual conversations that took place between adults around the children.
According to the kids, Vladimir Lenin led a very humble life:
Lenin’s bed was worse than yours, he had just one pillow and a squeaking floor. He did everything for the people, and nothing for himself.
While playing with plasticine, a girl is sculpting her own leader:
My Lenin has a bag behind his back. He bought things for himself and his wife. He does everything by himself, you know.
The heroes of the book are working-class children, and they knew Lenin was their friend. Which made him a) a friend of workers b) a friend of children:
Lenin loved children, and when he was alive, he used to say: “I don’t want wreaths, bury me as a worker.” He told them to give money to the children.
Uncle Lenin (in Russian, “uncle” doesn’t necessarily mean relative — for small children, it’s a name for any male adults; same with “aunt” and women — Ruskie.info) loved children. He didn’t love adults the same amount.
“Everything” that Lenin did for workers is virtually everything good that has happened around. Kids know that there were war and poverty “before Lenin,” and are not aware of the poverty and war that are still taking place in other parts of the country at the time:
— Lenin did everything for the workers. He drove us around in a tram, built theaters, foster homes.
— He gave us a piano.
— It was the Soviet that gave us the piano.
— Well, who is there in the Soviet? He was the head of it.
Lenin’s death raises a ton of complicated questions, starting with the most basic one — how come he died? We see that this was explained differently to kids by their parents and teachers, if explained at all. Some children have a vague conviction that the causes of death were natural:
— Why did he die?
— I know: he had a headache. My dad told me.
— He worked hard, that’s why he dropped.
— He had heart problems…
— Like you know! I’ll tell you why he dropped: h e w o r k e d h a r d!
Some know that Lenin was killed, but invent the details themselves:
They murdered him, put two guns to his head — like this and like this (puts his fingers to both sides of the forehead.) They’re going to bury him at the Red Square.
There are also children who were shown a painting of Kaplan’s assassination attempt and were told some basic facts about it.
Grandpa Lenin was making a speech, then one woman came and shot him. He was wounded, but then he got better. They took the woman and shot her. She was evil, wanted to kill our Grandpa Lenin.
And one Tolya even came up with a topical game:
Tolya pretended his valenok (felt boot) was a revolver. He would throw a wooden cube in it, pretending the noise produced was a gunshot.
— Auntie, this here is a revolver with which Lenin was shot!
A similar difference can be seen in children’s opinions on the doctors that treated Lenin. Some think they weren’t able to help, some think they didn’t want to:
— The doctors are so bad, couldn’t heal him.
— The peasants are so bad, couldn’t call for better doctors.
— They should have called our doctor, she’s good at it. All of our kids here were ill, but nobody died.
— The doctor was a bourgeois, that’s why he didn’t heal Lenin.
Lenin’s body was brought to Moscow in a funeral train, and then put on display for all to say their goodbyes. Teachers tell children stories about the funeral, then children re-tell them to each other.
— There were many lights, and live flowers. The soldiers were standing still, not breathing, just like Lenin.
— He was very white, laying in the middle, palm trees in the corners, and watchmen standing right here. The wife and the sister came, but no mother for some reason.
— I’m going to sculpt (from plasticine — Ruskie.info) everybody going to the House of Assembly. Many, many people. The whole city came, right?
— The whole city! Do you remember, N.N. (the teacher) said, even the peasants and school kids came!
— Screw them, I won’t sculpt everybody. We’re workers, so I’m going to just sculpt workers.
— He lies under a glass lid, and raises his arms up.
— The dead can’t raise arms.
Children want to take part in the activities themselves:
— Teacher, will we go see Lenin?
— Won’t he spoil?
— You know what, when we come to his grave, let’s feed medicine to him, and then blow, blow, and blow, until he becomes alive, and then we’ll run away with him.
When seeing Lenin is not possible, kids’ imaginations makes up for it. Funeral becomes a popular game:
Playing airplanes in the morning. The children, with opened arms, pretend they’re flying, then glide down by coming to their knees. They call the teacher, she rejects.
— No, come sit. We’re going to fly to Lenin.
— Did you think we were just riding around?
— Oh, we forgot to decorate ourselves.
They decorate themselves with twigs, put several of them behind the teacher’s belt:
— Alright, now you can go see Lenin.
They come to the portrait, “glide down,” and stand in silence for several seconds, looking down.
— Lenin died.
— Yep, he did.
Quietly, without noise or buzzing, their raise their hands and fly away.
— Have you been to Lenin? — a girl asks.
— Just now, on an airplane.
Without airplanes, funeral may get a little boring:
Volodya lies down on chairs.
— This is — Lenin died, — says Valik — And we’re going to be watchmen.
Vanya talks to the girls:
— And you finish painting the ship. Paint it black and red.
The boys abandon their game and join the girls.
After all, Lenin doesn’t have to be dead to be a part of a game:
— You know what, it’s better if you stand. You’ll be alive, a live Lenin is better. You stand here, and we’ll be people from the factory. Teach us.
Children are by nature creative and imaginative, they invent their own reality that’s more exciting than the one adults have to live in. Instead of staying in line to the coffin, they pretend to fly a plane there. A pretend-funeral has as much in common with a real one, as a game of Cowboys and Indians has with actual guerrilla warfare. As a matter of fact, funeral games do often turn into a game of Cowboy and Indians — except there are Communists instead of Cowboys, and Capitalists or Bourgeois instead of Indians:
One part of the school court was the Red Square, the other was the Kremlin. The boys were defending the Red Square, where Lenin was buried, and didn’t let girls to go in without a pass.
— I am a commissar.
— Me too. We will not let you go without a pass.
Then, talking to the girls:
— Your pass? Are you bourgeois or communists? We’re not letting the bourgeois to go in, right, Vitya?
— Right. Because the bourgeois are glad that Lenin has died.
The game ended with Vitya and Vasya shooting Kolya, who didn’t abide and tried to enter without a pass. The wounded was carried into the house.
Vitya explains, “It’s not our fault. We didn’t know he was on our side, and shot him.”
Children play mourning, because adults seem to actually mourn around them. One girl says, “I want to cry about Lenin. Who wants to cry with me?” — others join, and they cry. The concept of grief is generally understood:
— We shouldn’t sing “Snowflakes” today, we should sing the funeral march.
— Girls are playing with their dolls and do anything! They’re not sorry for uncle Lenin!
But mourning for a public figure is a new thing for kids and it gets confusing at times:
— Will aunt Anya (music teacher) come today?
— I thought she won’t. Lenin has died, and we’re going to sing and play?
— It’s ok to sing anyway. And it says in the newspapers that we shouldn’t cry.
Nature of Lenin
Workers’ children agree that Lenin’s contribution to the society was immense and positive. However, they often don’t fully understand what or who Lenin exactly was. It’s common to assume that “Lenin” is more of a social status or an occupation, than a personality.
— Is there another Lenin? So that if one dies, there would be another spare one. Let him work too, so that there are no poor people.
— Will our Lenya Ulyanov become Lenin too?
— How does one become a Lenin?
— I know! You need to think about workers day and night, and come up with ideas for them to live better lives. Then you’ll become Lenin.
Moreover, as early as in 1924 Lenin’s cult is perceived by some as a religious one:
— When they put Lenin in the grave, the sun disappeared, and the rainbow too.
— Trotsky needs to see a doctor. You can’t live without a Lenin, the earth and the sky will burn down. So we need another Lenin.
The mix of the Soviet official atheism, the recent influence of the church, and the traditional Russian superstition forms an interesting mosaic view of the world:
— They’re building a coffin for him of 18 sazhen (around 35 meters — Ruskie.info), and when there’s a flood in Moscow, it will not sink, but we will.
— The flood will last for 40 days and 40 nights, it will be raining all the time, and all those who believe in God will drown, and those who don’t will be on a mountain and won’t drown.
The children are playing “Saying goodbye to Lenin,” one girl sees it, frowns, and says:
— It is sinful to play like this. Lenin will punish you, and somebody will die.
The boys protest, but the girls agree with Lyuba, and so the game is over.
Interestingly enough, “I don’t believe in God” doesn’t necessarily mean “There is no God” (nicely corresponds with modern Russians’ attitude “I am Christian, but I don’ believe in God.”):
— Do you believe in God?
— Me neither. God doesn’t like Lenin, because he was a communist. I like Lenin and I want to be a communist.
Now that Lenin is dead, it is commonly understood, life is about to change. The scary uncertainty felt by teachers and parents has an effect on the children too.
— Lenin died, and now the bread portions are going to be like this. (Puts two fingers very close to each other.)
— Lenin died, and now there’s going to be a tsar again. He killed mothers with children. They went to him to ask for bread, and he killed them all.
Raya asks if there is macaroni on lunch today. Vera answers:
— Lenin used to give us macaroni.
— Lenin died, there will be no macaroni now.
In other quotes we hear echoes of political conversations held by adults. 7 year olds might not know much about politics, but they are aware of the essentials: the Communist Party has lost its leader and there is a lot of uncertainty about who is going to be the next one. Interestingly enough, Stalin’s name is not heard at all: children’s (which means — their parents’ and other adults’ around) main candidate is Trotsky, but they also mention Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Kalinin (3 of 4 were later prosecuted by Stalin.)
— Aunt Lena, you know what: when we grow up, we’ll take rifles, like the Red Army soldiers have, and go to uncle Trotsky and uncle Kalinin, we will be their comrades and help them protect the workers. They will be old by that time.
— I wish the tsar died instead of Lenin.
— Ah, the tsar died a long time ago.
— Aunt Sonya, is Trotsky alive?
— OK, well, it’s good that at least Trotsky is alive.
— There’s Trotsky, he’s the same as Lenin.
— He’s also sick, so he’s going to die soon too. We need a healthy one, or else it’s not good.
— How are we going to live without Lenin now?
— Trotsky will get better and become instead of Lenin.
— Trotsky doesn’t know us! Doesn’t know our Home (foster home — Ruskie.info)
— Didn’t Lenin tell him that he has a “Little Red Star” home?
— It’s going to be bad now, they won’t give us white bread anymore.
— No they will. There’s Trotsky, he’s also good, he’s nailed to a wall at our home. (Lenin’s and Trotsky’s portraits were often hung next to each other in Communist households — Ruskie.info)
One of the boys claims Trotsky is kinder than Lenin. An argument starts. The first one says:
— Trotsky is kinder, because he’s the head of all the soldiers. If a soldier wants to enlist, he enlists him. He gives him a rifle, an overcoat, and a hat. And if he asks again, he un-enlists him, but takes the rifle and the overcoat back.
— But Lenin is the main chief, so he is kinder.
Just like funeral or war, politics can be a game.
Children form a club, invite kids from the middle and the young groups:
— We’re going to have a funeral feast for Lenin here.
They improvise a tribune, Tolya being the orator. He climbs the platform and addresses the public:
Quite, and remember my speech. It’s about the workers and the capitalists. There were a lot of capitalists, but Lenin came and drove them away. They all ran away from Moscow, got it? At that time, the cannons were firing. Now I’ll show you Lenin’s portrait. Raise your hands if you haven’t seen it.
(Kids raise hands.)
— Now put them down. Lenin died not a long time ago, he worked very hard. He liked workers. He drove away the capitalists. Those who fought capitalists and died, were buried near the Kremlin. Lenin did everything very well.
Tolya asks kids to raise hands again, and then shows the portrait once more.
— Now you can go for a walk, then I’ll make another speech. They’re going to bring Lenin in now, and you should clap.
The boys bring in the bench on which Valya is laying down.
In his memoirs, Trotsky says that Lenin wanted him to become the commissar of internal affairs. He declined the offer, using, among other arguments, his nationality: “Should we just hand such a weapon as my jewishness to our enemies?” Lenin was almost outraged: “We’re having a great international revolution here, how do these trifles matter?” Trotsky answered, “The revolution is great allright, but we still have a lot of fools as well.”
One of the little boys channels his parents’ take on these “trifles” perfectly:
They will choose a new Lenin now. They’ll choose Kalinin. There are two Kalinins: one is Russian, one is a Jew. So they’ll pick the Russian one.
Kalinin was not “picked.” What he did accomplish is becoming the only politician mentioned in these conversations to survive Stalin’s purges. Kamenev and Zinoviev were sentenced to death penalty for being a part of a so-called anti-Soviet “Trotsky-Zinoviev Center” and shot in 1936. Trotsky himself was murdered by Stalin’s agent in Mexico in 1940.
Joseph Stalin became the object of the next and so far the last major cult of personality of Russia. The phrase “Thanks to our beloved Stalin for our happy childhood” is still recognized even by the younger generation of Russians.
As for Vladimir Putin, there were several instances when children in kindergartens and schools were asked to draw the President for his birthday. The main difference between these modern drawings and the similar ones of Lenin, made almost a century ago, is the activities the leaders are engaged in. Soviet kids got their image of Lenin from their politicized parents and teachers, that’s why they drew revolutionary struggles, Lenin in jail, or his meetings with Communist comrades. Nowadays children get the image of the President from TV — that’s why they draw him playing with animals, wrestling, and very often — just talking into the camera.