In A Nutshell
Head of the Communist Party, instrumental in establishing the Soviet Union, responsible for the deaths of millions . . . and nude art critic. Joseph Stalin had something of an odd hobby, and that was writing vaguely humorous or downright strange pieces of commentary on prints of paintings by 19th-century artists. Some historians use the drawings as reasons to question Stalin’s sexual orientation, while others say he merely had the humor of a schoolboy. (Pictures in the link below.)
The Whole Bushel
We all have our hobbies, and if you’re living in the totalitarian, World War II Soviet Union, we’re guessing there aren’t a whole lot of options for entertainment. That still doesn’t make Josef Stalin’s newly discovered hobby any less weird.
He liked to write commentary on pictures of naked men.
More specifically, on prints of works by 19th-century Russian painters that just happen to feature men that are completely or nearly naked. In some, he censors their nudity by scribbling out the naughty bits. In others, he sticks to just making derogatory comments about the subjects in the prints. And sometimes, he references their similarities to people he’s had killed.
The prints were a part of an art exhibit going on in Moscow on the 130th anniversary of the dictator’s birthday. It’s a bizarre glimpse into the mind of a man who simultaneously dictated the brutal deaths of millions and fought on the side of Allied troops, instrumental in the defeat of Hitler’s armies.
And it’s the insight into a mind with an occasionally very, very childish sense of humor.
On one of the prints, showing a naked man with a naked woman, Stalin derides him for having forgotten what to do with her. Another, showing a nude man painted from behind, is the target of a scrawled insult that’s the Russian equivalent of informing him that he’ll go blind doing that, now get back to work.
Some have suggested that the drawings impart a sense of Stalin hiding either a severe case of homophobia, or that he was gay himself. Others, however, point to a long-standing Bolshevik tradition that was little more or less than grown men drawing during meetings and slipping their notes to others under the desk. With Stalin’s heavy-handed rule, however, fun and games stopped early, and it’s also possible that the commentaries are a look into a very lonely man.
True, he was alone because he was sitting on the top of a pile of skulls of his own creation, but lonely nonetheless. (Even at home—his first wife died from typhus, and his second committed suicide.)
Some of the drawings provide cryptic clues of a psyche that just might have been haunted by his own actions, as he wrote comments about some of his former associates who had fallen out of favor and ultimately been killed. One, a man named Karl Radek, was addressed by name. Radek, the “ginger bastard” of one of Stalin’s scrawled notes, was a close associate of Stalin’s who fell from the dictator’s good graces not long after helping him write the Russian constitution. His sentence of hard labor was cut short by his death, and there was never much doubt that Stalin had something to do with it.
While the drawings—19 in all—have been confirmed as Stalin’s, what hasn’t been confirmed is whether or not there are more out there, and if Stalin wrote them solely for his own entertainment or for another purpose. The ones that have survived were in the possession of a single family who, understandably, wanted to remain anonymous because of their implied connection to the dictator.