Russian and Soviet Art Russian Space History Soviet and Russian Space Flight

Russian Space History — Philatelists

This is in response to an interesting comment on my earlier post regarding the stamp image I used, which commemorated Aleksei Leonov’s 1965 space walk ( The comment noted differences between the United States and the Soviet Union. Not only was the Soviet Union more concerned with celebrating space feats on stamps, but Soviet cosmonauts were themselves directly involved in the creation and promotion of those stamps. After his flight Gagarin wrote an article on the theme of cosmonauts on stamps and carried on a correspondence with avid philatelists. Leonov, the cosmonaut-artist, actually drew the images that appeared on many cosmonaut-themed stamps (yet another illustration of how the cosmonauts promoted themselves above and beyond official state promotion).

A stamp celebrating Leonov's space walk
A stamp celebrating Leonov’s space walk

Cosmonautics was also celebrated on coins issued for various jubilees of Soviet space accomplishments. I’m not aware, though it is far from my specialty, of the extent to which American astronauts appeared on coins, if at all. With regard to the celebration of Soviet cosmonautics in various media Cathleen Lewis at the Air and Space Museum has done quite a bit of work.

Russian and Soviet Art Soviet Era 1917-1991 Teaching Russian History Uncategorized

Win a beautiful book of posters!

A few weeks ago I was contacted by The New Press and offered a copy of their new publication, Koretsky. The Soviet Photo Poster: 1930-1984, for a prize draw to be launched from this site.  This beautiful edition includes 200 colour images as well as interesting commentaries from Erika Wolf, a visual historian based in New Zealand. If you would like to enter the draw, all you need to do is to read to the bottom and leave a post!

Films Russian and Soviet Art Teaching Russian History

Watching October

I have an uneasy relationship with using films in my classroom.  Since I most often teach early modern history, I tend to avoid the whole genre because I’d prefer to avoid ahistorical images in my classroom.  When I teach modern history, however, and particularly Soviet history, I feel film is an important part of its history.  I’ve shown various recent films toward the end of class, but I always show something from Eisenstein for the 20s or 30s.  I’ve found that students have an easier time understanding Battleship Potemkin, but, for whatever reason, I continue to plod on with October, which is so wondrously problematic for a class of students.

Blog Conversations Russian and Soviet Art Soviet Era 1917-1991 Soviet Intelligentsia Stalinism The Stalin Cult

The Stalin Cult – More (Clearly, I hope) on Thinking Visually

I hope I made it clear that I consider The Stalin Cult an excellent work of political and institutional history, from which I learned a great deal about a subject I care about. But my objections to its treatment of the visual culture so central to Stalin’s personality cult do not end with circles. And I do like a good argument. (Can I blame my parents? I grew up in household where arguing about ideas was a sign of love and respect.) Plamper’s discussion of individual works of art may, as he put it, “borrow tools from contemporary visual studies,” but it does so rather unevenly. The result is a book that deserves all the praise it has received from the other bloggers, who largely ignored the visual, but it doesn’t give us a proper sense of the visual culture that made up the cult or the visual experience of living in it.

Russian and Soviet Art Stalinism The Stalin Cult

The Stalin Cult: Painting and Socialist Realism

As a historian interested in visuality in general and Soviet visual culture in particular, I read Jan Plamper’s book with great interest and benefit, but with some perplexity.  The book offers us an excellent survey of the production of some of the visual components of the Stalin personality cult and an interpretation of some of those products. The chapter on photos of Stalin in Pravda gave me an almost palpable sense of the progression of the cult over time. The chapters devoted to the artists and institutions that produced the Stalin cult contribute an important case study to a developing body of scholarship about socialist realism in the visual realm. Its discussion of those products and of socialist realism as a system of artistic production, however, left me unsatisfied.  I am not trained as an art historian so I want to be careful about making definitive statements here, but I found several of the arguments in the book to have been suggestive but under-developed.

First, I have no doubt that Stalin was understood to be the central point of concentric circles radiating out from his body, his office in the Kremlin, and so on to the borders of the empire, as Plamper argues, but I struggled in vain to see anything circular in the composition and conceptualization of the paintings he singles out for analysis. Both Morning of the Motherland and Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin look to me to be constructed of networks of diagonal lines, making up numerous independent and overlapping triangles.

Morning certainly does place Stalin’s heart in the sun’s spotlight at the center of the painting, but the plows, plow lines, power lines and road all converge at a vanishing point behind Stalin, forming triangles on the horizontal plane of the landscape and a vertical triangle from the right and left edges of the canvas up to Stalin’s head as the apex. The smokestacks in the distance may be on a circular line, as Plamper suggests, but it’s hard for me to see that and it’s more plausible to my eye to see them as another flat line along the horizon making up the base of another triangle with Stalin’s head as the apex again.

Stalin and Voroshilov is even more insistently angular, with diagonals crisscrossing throughout the composition, creating a sense of dynamism underlying the solidity of Stalin’s immobile form (he seems to be both standing still and walking at the same time, a neat trick!) and among the solid, stable architectural elements. One can easily imagine the conceptual circles Plamper proposes, but I can’t see them anywhere in these two paintings.

Films Russian and Soviet Art Soviet Era 1917-1991

Desert of Forbidden Art

This 2010 documentary, which has deservedly gotten a lot of press, is well worth showing to students ( It follows a treasure trove of Russian art stashed in a remote desert region of Uzbekistan known as Karakalpakstan, where the art was hidden from Soviet censors. Getting there required crossing a vast desert—punctuated by breaks at fly-infested truck stops. Nukus was the principal city of this desert outpost and the location of the museum housing this unlikely art collection. The art was forbidden, not because the artists were consciously anti-Soviet, but because they simply followed their own muses, irrespective of the dictates of the official Soviet artistic style under Stalin.

That such a collection of astounding avante-garde art could exist in Nukus amazed a New York Times reporter, who happened upon the museum during his time as a foreign correspondent covering Uzbekistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Cold War Russian and Soviet Art Soviet and Russian Space Flight Soviet Era 1917-1991

A Priest Contemplates Gagarin’s Feat

Here is a painting entitled “Meditation,” which was done in 1964 by Pyotr Mikhailov. It is from the old Leningrad Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.  In it a priest contemplates Gagarin’s flight into space. What is not clear to me, however, is just what this piece of official art would have conveyed to viewers. It hardly seems like a straightforward piece of atheist propaganda, or does it?

Films Post-Soviet Russia Russian and Soviet Art Soviet Era 1917-1991

The Russian Concept?

I’ve just seen an engaging 2010 documentary entitled the “Russian Concept” (for a trailer see: Based on interviews with artists, art collectors and esteemed art historians, the documentary provides a short and entertaining survey of art little known to Western college students. Its subject matter is primarily unofficial – and sometimes persecuted – art from the Soviet era, much of it purchased by the art collector Norton Dodge (who smuggled 10,000 art works out of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, earning him the nickname the “Lorenzo de Medici” of Russian art). But it also examines the fate of art in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union.