Lenin, the catalyst of history

Lenin, the catalyst of history

Lenin haranguing the workers of the Putilow factories

© BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / BPK image

Publication date: April 2019

Historical context

The Stalinist revolution

Emblematic of the large frescoes commissioned by the Soviet authorities from artists, Speech by V. Lenin at the Putilov factory is one of the most striking paintings of the year of the "Grand Tournant". Isaak Brodski (1883-1939) plunged into politics very early on: excluded from the art school of the Imperial Academy for his political caricatures of 1905, he approached the already charismatic figure of Maxime Gorki, fellow traveler of certain Marxist currents in Russia. His most famous painting, Lenin in Smolny (1930), with an ultranaturalist style, settled him definitively among the official painters of the regime. He painted the Guide to the Revolution at least five times between 1919 (At the event) and 1933 (With Red Army units leaving for the Polish front). Speech by V. Lenin at the Putilov factory fits into the sub-genre showing the leader leading the masses during revolution and civil war.

In 1929, the Soviet Union took the Stalinist "Great Turn". Stalin took power definitively in 1927 by getting rid of both the so-called "Trotskyist" opposition and his allies Kamenev and Zinoviev, which had become useless. A major campaign to promote "workers" to positions of responsibility aimed to drive out of the system "bourgeois specialists", trained under the old regime, attacked at the Chakhty trial (1928). As the first resistances rock the countryside and the continuous influx of peasant labor upsets the working class, the propaganda machine is mobilized to cement a society in turmoil.

Image Analysis

The guide and the masses

Composed in dark tones of gray, brown and dirty or washed blue, Brodski's oil painting adopts the landscape format. Like a photographer, the artist chooses the most panoramic focal length in order to testify to the scale of a historical event: the speech given by Lenin in front of the workers of the largest factory system in the capital, that of the Putilov metallurgy. The upper half is occupied by a sky black with smoke against the background of which stands out a familiar horizon of Communist iconography - chimneys, power lines, huge workshops with windows obscured by industrial activity. The lower half is completely filled, not a space is left free by the dense crowd of workers, men and boys, often wearing a uniform cap. We can even make out to the far left people perched on a roof, a sign of the importance of the event. The only distinctive sign is the white spot of a newspaper, which we suppose to be the mass, here and there. Pravda of the Bolsheviks. The painter has reproduced with spectacular meticulousness the smallest details of clothing or skin tone, giving the image a hyperrealistic feel. The attitudes captured in the foreground connote the most extreme attention, all or almost all eyes converge on the center of the composition, slightly shifted to the right. There, on a red wooden platform, stands Lenin, halfway between the two parties. The leader of the revolution is captured in one of his characteristic attitudes, a hand forward to show the way forward. But if many drawings represent him dominating the masses, Brodski relegates him far into perspective and thus shares the leading role between the Guide and the working class base of Bolshevism.

Interpretation

History rewritten

As soon as he arrived on April 3 (April 16 in the Gregorian calendar), Lenin surprised the Bolsheviks by launching the slogan (not understandable then) "all power to the Soviets". It refuses any compromise with the ruling liberal opposition or with the other revolutionary parties of the Petrograd Soviet. He advocates immediate peace before all audiences, more and more sensitive to his intransigence, the simplicity of his promises, his persuasive force. However, the workers of the Putinov factories were very much involved in the war effort and, at this time of the year 1917, they camped on a militarist position both to defend the recently acquired "Freedom" threatened by German imperialism, but also to secure their employment in a context of serious economic crisis. It was not until the second half of September that the workers in the capital, who formed a qualified hereditary class, significantly supported the Bolsheviks. In 1929, when the first Five-Year Plan began, the single party intended to remind the workers of this alliance. The enthusiasm and the initial advantages for the proletarians evaporated, the mutineers of Kronstadt were crushed in March 1921. But faced with this new challenge, the double industrial revolution, the workers are expected to mobilize fully and that they adhere unhesitatingly to the line drawn by the Guide, however heterodox it may be.

Another more underground story lurks in the image. Until October 10 (October 23 in the Gregorian calendar), Lenin went into hiding in Finland, pursued by the police since a failed coup attempt on July 3, 1917 (July 16 in the Gregorian calendar). Arriving in Petrograd only on May 4, Leon Trotsky immediately seized the potential of Lenin's positions and moved closer to him despite the heavy dispute between them. It is he who most often and with great success becomes the speaker of the party while Lenin builds his strategy, consolidates his organization and writes fiery editorials in the Pravda. A Trotsky who is already forbidden to mention, and who will be denounced as the architect of the anti-Soviet plot by the prosecutor Vyshinsky at the Moscow trials (1936-1938). To paint Lenin is also not to take risks because the figure of Stalin, future master builder of the new official manual The Digest of the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1938), begins to prevail everywhere, even there (especially) where it was not.

  • factory
  • frescoes
  • Marxism
  • Stalin (Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, said)
  • working class
  • propaganda
  • Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, says)
  • Communist
  • Soviet
  • Trotsky (Leon)
  • Gorky (Maxim)
  • Kerensky (Alexander)
  • Kamenev (Lev Borissovich)
  • Zinoviev (Grigori)
  • imperialism

Bibliography

Marc Ferro, The Russian Revolution of 1917, 2 volumes, Paris, Flammarion, 1967.Alexandre Sumpf, Russian revolutions in cinema. Birth of a nation, USSR 1917-1985, Paris, Armand Colin, 2015. Nina Tumarkin, Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1983.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "Lenin, the catalyst of history"


Video: Lenins Secret Files