The role of children depicted alongside Stalin within his personality cult


Figure 1: Stalin and Gelia Markizova (1936): The most famous image of Stalin with a small child (Bershadskii, plate 1). The rainbow frame was added in order to turn this icon into a comical anachronism

On February the 25th 1956, future Communist party leader Nikita S. Krushchev delivered his Secret Speech. Krushchev condemned the then-deceased Stalin for having created a leadership personality cult. This speech was paramount in an extensive de-Stalinization campaign, which sought to restore official policy to an idealized Leninist model through dismantling and destroying the image Stalin exuded through his propaganda. A personality cult entails a leader’s personal glorification. Propaganda was used to transform Stalin into an ideological symbol. This was nuclear in mobilizing the Soviet population to identify as a cohesive whole and live by certain dictated principles. The symbol of Stalin was complex and many-faceted. Pisch asserts that Stalin’s image was viewed through several archetypes: the Warrior, Teacher, Saviour and maybe the strongest of all archetypes: the Father (Pisch 69). A striking feature of Stalin’s propaganda images was that he often was depicted as a fatherly figure surrounded by devoted children. Moreover, in these posters he was referred to by the term rodnoi, implying a familial bond between him and the Soviet population (Bonnell 165; Pisch 69). In this blog post, want to focus on one print in particular:  V. Matvievskii’s Young Girl and the Leader.

Stalin’s cult is said to originate from the dictator’s fiftieth birthday in 1929, in which he was widely praised by the press (Tucker; Bonnell 156). The next years Stalin’s fame grew steadily but the overall emphasis was still on collective leadership within the socialist fatherland in the center and the symbol of Stalin merely operating in the background. Interestingly, in the early 1930s to the mid-1930s, the assumed gender of the Soviet union gradually changed from male to female, perhaps to compliment the pronounced masculinity of Stalin’s symbolic role. This facilitated Stalin’s function as a father figure, (Hoffmann 158). Especially in his early years, he was depicted as an approachable everyman. Stalin’s popularity, as reported by the press, really took off from 1934. It was also this year in which Stalinist propaganda for and about children emerged.

One famous newspaper photograph, which became particularly iconic is the “Young Girl and the Leader” (Figure 1). Here, Stalin is depicted with a seven- year-old-girl from the Buryat-Mongol Republic, Gelia Markizova. She presented him with a bouquet of flowers, which he reciprocated with a kiss. Typical of other public occasions in which children met with the Leader, a detailed account of this encounter was given in the newspaper report, thus disseminating the powerful symbol of Stalin as father. Pisch notes that flowers were also a key element to the Stalin personality cult, as they “symbolize celebration, festivity, fertility and abundance” (Pisch 238). One can regard the flowers as an expression of gratitude for the service and protection Stalin gave to the people. Another reading Pisch postulates, is that the child and the flowers “symbolize the fertility of the union of marriage” between Stalin, as the “great Father, wedded to the Soviet Motherland (Pisch 239). Catriona Kelly contributes another important perspective: Gelia also fulfilled the role of a “symbol of the Soviet nation in all its glorious diversity, an embodiment of the friendship of nations, protected by the care of the wise leader”, which at the same time also made Stalin stand out as the European juxtaposed to Gelia’s “Oriental character” (Kelly, 204). In contrast, after the Second World War, children of Russian appearance were almost exclusively used in imagery thus reflecting Russia’s suspicion of non-Russian nationalities that still were included in the Soviet union like the Tartars and the Chechenes. These nationalities were regarded as traitors because of their collaboration with the Germans during the German invasion. Another important shift that arose in the cult during the post-war period, is the widening of the physical gap between Stalin and children. Children’s own poems also occupied a smaller space in overall Stalinist propaganda. Kelly proposes two reasons for this: First of all, Stalin withdrew himself from public life in general; he attended less official and/or public ceremonial occasions. The second reason was that children’s independent creativity and capacity for social participation was regarded with less interest compared with the (pre-)war years. Even though images of Stalin with children did appear from time to time, they did not generate as much buzz as the image of Stalin with Gelia. Stalin, the mastermind and inspirational leader that led Russia to victory, was supposed to inspire awe from a respectful distance, rather than be used as a role-model. In the eyes of children, Stalin mutated from an “important human being” to a “super-human entity” (Kelly 213).

In conclusion, the depiction of children within Stalin’s personality cult was used to foster and fortify the infantilized bond between Father Stalin and the Soviet populace. During Stalin’s rule, this guise mutated from an approachable father figure and everyman to an almost God-like and unapproachable presence. In fact, his established personality cult and the massive amount of adulation it received, still seems to resonate to a lesser extent within the current time (“Sympathy for Stalin”).

Works cited

Bonnell, Victoria E. Iconography of power: Soviet political posters under Lenin and Stalin. Vol. 27. Univ of California Press, 1998.

Hoffmann, David Lloyd. Stalinist values: the cultural norms of Soviet modernity, 1917-1941. Cornell University Press, 2003.

Kelly, Catriona. “Riding the magic carpet: Children and leader cult in the Stalin era.” The Slavic and East European Journal 49.2 (2005): 199-224.

Pisch, Anita. “The personality cult of Stalin in Soviet posters, 1929-1953: archetypes, inventions and fabrications.” (2014).

Tucker, Robert C. “The Rise of Stalin’s Personality Cult.” The American Historical Review 84.2 (1979): 347-366.

” Sympathy for Stalin among Russians still high, poll shows” Russian Times, 25 Mar 2016, Accessed 9 October 2016

G.S. Bershadskii, E.P. Ernim Sovetskie deti. Comp. Moscow and Leningrad: Iskusstvo, 1940


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