6. Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes: Stalin Builds on the Flatlands Past
Triptych No. 3
Catherine the Great finally ended the slave raid threat by bringing the entire vast steppe into the Russian Empire, conquering the Crimea (including its Ottoman enclave) in 1783.
But even after that, civil liberties didn’t blossom. Why not?
Triptych No. 3: Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes. 72" x 84".
Institutions that have been forged over a period of five centuries don’t change overnight. Catherine herself ruled as an autocrat, extending serfdom, decreeing deportation to Siberia for peasants who complained about lords’ mistreatment, instituting strict press censorship, arresting political dissidents.
Later autocrats made use of established institutions—controlled press, secret police, patronage—and ingrained habits and thought patterns to maintain and strengthen their power.
Thus, the legacy of Russia’s flatland lasted into the 20th century, symbolized by my character Stalin, who built the most vicious autocracy in Russia’s history. Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes is the first of what will be three triptychs dealing with that legacy.
How did I visualize the concept that Stalin built his autocracy more on Russia’s defensive past than on Communist ideas from Europe?
As I contemplated how to visualize Russia’s past as godparent to its present, a childhood memory came back to me of my Sleeping Beauty picture book. The story began with an illustration of Sleeping Beauty in her cradle, her three fairy godmothers flying in a circle above her. Each fairy godmother bestowed a personal blessing for some life bounty on the little princess.
I began to imagine that my whimsical Russian “godparents”—Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great—would also fly in a circle above a cradle bequeathing historical blessings on an infant: Stalin. In Panel 1, Catherine gives her blessing from Russia’s flatland past to the delighted, mustached baby Stalin.
Catherine speaks for herself through her lyrics [listen to song]:
You’ll want to bring back serfdom quick so you can reign nonstop.
But you can’t call it serfdom, Joe, cause that would be a flop!
So dress it up in resplendent clothes to hide the hideous facts.
I know about espousing good to veil your nasty acts!
She advises Stalin (Panels 3 and 4) that new European ideas championing the lower classes can be used to muddy popular consciousness of what the ruler is really doing or saying:
You’ll spout ideas from Europe
About the people’s smarts.
In my day it was Montesquieu,
In yours it will be Marx.
Catherine counsels Stalin in panels 5 and 6 about serfdom, the fundamental economic engine of Russian society—or as Stalin renamed and reinstituted it, collectivization. (Some have called it serfdom with tractors.)
Since the fall of Communism, Russia is again becoming more centralized. Putin has asserted control over the media. No non-Kremlin newspaper can garner significant circulation. Journalists who report stories the government doesn’t like are mysteriously killed. Real opposition political parties aren’t allowed to run candidates.
Will Russia ever become a fully pluralistic society?
View more closeup images of triptych panels here.