European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

02 June 2017

The Death of Lenin

Immediately after Lenin's death in 1924. Kazimir Malevich, most famous for his abstract painting ‘Black Square’, compared the revolutionary leader to Jesus Christ. He argued that Lenin’s death was ‘a new event’ whose significance could only be equal to the death of Christ. According to Malevich, it manifested the change from one world outlook by the other and this new outlook was ‘meant to change the image of the material reality’. Malevich suggested that Lenin’s body should be placed ‘in a cube, as if in eternity’ and that such a ‘cube of eternity should be constructed as a sign of its unity with the dead’. An installation based on Malevich’s idea has been constructed for the 57th Venice Biennale this year.

Lenin’s death in 1924 was presented by the Soviet state as a national tragedy. All newspapers and popular magazines came in special issues, as this issue of the illustrated magazine Prozhektor (Projector), that had a special title Smert’ vozhdia (The Death of the Leader).

Photograph of Lenin on his deathbed
Cover of Prozhektor with a photograph of Lenin lying in state
Pages from Prozhektor with a photograph of people queuing to see Lenin's body
Images from the commemorative issue of Prozhektor, no 2 (24), 1924. LOU.FMISC639

But Lenin’s death also marked by one of the first remarkable examples of Soviet ‘ceremonial albums’, the genre that would become very much known and valued primarily due to works of Russian constructivist artists. Following Lenin’s death, tributes were sent in from groups and institutions all over Russia to be laid on his coffin. A lavishly-produced book, ironically reminiscent of the equally lavish commemorative albums once produced for Imperial coronations, was compiled immediately after Lenin’s funeral to record them. It contains images and descriptions of about 950 wreaths, banners, ribbons and other objects that had been collected, described in details, photographed, documented and put into multiple categories: wreaths and banners from state organisations, party committees, soviets, co-operatives, factories, schools, etc.

Here are some examples of funeral messages and words of remembrance and tribute:

‘Lenin’s grave is a cradle of freedom for mankind’ (from the Central Aero-Hydrodynamic Institute)
‘To our dear Ilyich – the teacher to the world and healer of social illnesses’ (from male and female staff of the Kashchenko mental hospital);
‘To our dear miner, to our dear Ilyich’ (from the Donbass miners);
‘We will fully and with honour fulfil your behest: be on guard!’ (from the Cheka-GPU of the Ukrainian SSR)
‘Lenin– the sun of the future’ (from the Moscow Arts Theatre)

Shield with garlands of leaves and a hammer and sickle on a red background
Above: Wreath from the pupils of  ‘School No. 2’ with a notebook containing the children’s messages to Lenin; Below: Wreath from the Gomel regional committee of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). Reproduced in Leninu: 21 ianvaria 1924 goda (Moscow, 1924) 10790.pp.9.

A tribute to Lenin with his portrait in a wreath of dried flowers

Published in 13,000 copies, some of them with hard half-leather covers and some in paperback, the book was meant to immortalise one of the grandest funeral ceremonies in the 20th century. According to Churchill, Lenin ‘alone could have led Russia into the enchanted quagmire; he alone could have found the way back to the causeway. He saw; he turned; he perished’. Reflecting on Lenin’s death Churchill formulated his great role for the people of Russia: ‘Their worst misfortune was his birth: their next worst—his death.’

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is open until 29 August 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the reign of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website