In the spirit of my previous effort and charged with this assignment:
Write a 3-4 page essay on...
Compare Boris Kustodiev's painting "The Bolshevik" with an appropriate part (you choose) of Alexander Blok's poem "The Twelve." If you wish, you may also add a comparison of the song "Red Moscow".
I wrote this paper in approximately three hours the morning I turned it in. It was untitled, and in fact lacked an introduction altogether.

Kustodiev's "The Bolsehvik" and Blok's "The Twelve"

copyright 9 November 2001 by Mike Lietz

In Boris Kustodiev's painting "The Bolshevik" we see a leader who is literally larger-than-life carrying the red banner waving around him. Looking down at his feet we find that he in standing in the streets, the buildings of the town barely clearing his knees. Below his knees we can only see the tops of his boots as hundreds of dwarfed people line the streets at his feet. Civilians and soldiers alike are rallying at his feet, coming from all directions. They're coming to him from all sides, walking and driving in from the left, and coming over the hill in droves from the top of the scene, filling the streets just like the snow covering the roofs of the buildings. Some of the people in the crowd are looking up at the man, but he's not looking back at them, or down at all, as he stares forward, boldly waving his crimson banner. The soldiers are marching at his toes, headed on foot and on horseback out the gate at the bottom right of the painting. He bears their standard, the red flag, its color the same as blood, as though he would carry the aegis before a legion. They're the Bolsheviks, and he waves the symbol that unites them in their cause.

Another man with a red banner appears in the final lines of one of Aleksandr Blok's last poems, "The Twelve", a brilliant work about the October Revolution:

and in front the bloodied flag
& in front of the flag
invisible in the snow...
& he has a wreath on his head
white as roses can be
in front of the blood-drenched flag
walks Jesus Christ

This flag is in front of the twelve, a ragged and morally complicated group of Red Guard Bolsheviks who have left dead prostitutes and the wastes of the old system in their wake. They trudge behind Christ, ironically present to consecrate the (ostensibly religion-free) Revolution and their very un-Christ-like, bloody actions. The similarities to the Kustodiev painting are striking. In both we find snow everywhere, pure white snow that creates a distinct contrast to the red banners of the revolutionaries. Wind is whipping the snow around and brushing up against the soldiers' faces, and making the man in the painting's scarf flap almost as much as the flag above him. Also we find a leader, iconic if not directly religious, in front of them with a red flag. In both works we have a larger group of people acting as one cohesive Bolshevik unit, less as individuals and more as a group with unified goals and their catalyzing leader.

The song "Red Moscow" also explores some of these ideas. At its outset, we hear a band of men singing with trumpets leading and flute accompanying them, and then they are joined by a triumphant-sounding chorus of many women and men. The song is a unification of all of the people, an all-rallying hymn for the people lining Kustodiev's streets, as though the silver-helmeted soldiers marching at the bottom of the scene are joined in cadence by the civilians all around them. Again here we encounter the proto-religious, as the song very much resembles a sacred hymn at the same time it is a marching or battle anthem. The same parallels can be drawn to Lenin, the leader against religion while arguably becoming a religious figure himself, in the State non-religious religion. The figure in Kustodiev's painting could well be Lenin himself, as Lenin is often portrayed with steely determination and a fiery beard. As well, Lenin was in the forefront of the Bolshevik revolution. If we are to look at him as not only the leader in Kustodiev's painting, but also the Christ figure in Blok's poem, the religious parallels continue. Lenin as Christ becomes the Messiah for the Bolsheviks, granting them salvation for their evil actions and blessing their benevolent ones. The irony of finding Christ in a "revolutionary" poem becomes no less relevant than the installation of the Party leaders as idols in the society.

Though they are similar, the attitudes of "The Bolshevik" and "The Twelve" are not the same. Visually "The Bolshevik" carries more of a positive sense of unity and idealistic purpose, while "The Twelve" gets mired in gory details of killings and gunplay, with a much more granular focus. Blok's Red guardsmen are more fleshed out and less iconic than Kustodiev's crowds and the man that stands above them, but the rallying cry, the red flag that flies in front of them, is the common thread among all of the works. Of the three pieces of art, I prefer the painting, as it is the most accessible to me. I can't understand the lyrics of "Red Moscow" and thus the context and content are lost on me. Blok's poem is more understandable but still challengingly confusing at times, with somewhat vague symbolism-the question of who or what Christ is in the end, whether it is snow in the wind or the figure of Lenin or something else-and potential losses in translation detracting somewhat from its possible impact. Kustodiev's painting, however, is largely universal in language and relatively straightforward with its symbols, almost iconic. The man with the banner isn't Christ, nor is he snow in the wind, and he doesn't have to be Lenin either. He is there to be the collective will and determination of the Bolsheviks, a formidable force in their single-mindedness as well as ruthlessness, a presence that is greater and far bigger than the small people it embodies. As Blok's poem suggests in III, they intend to "set the world on fire ... all the blood running in the streets." It would be better, then, to not have Blok's empty, blizzard-blown streets to become throughways of blood, but to have the masses in the streets, singing "Red Moscow", rallying at the feet of "The Bolshevik" waving his red banner before them.


Again, not my finest work but there are some choice passages in there that keep me in stitches each time I read them. Especially the one that bandies religion about as effortlessly as some people throw pennies away. Despite its shortcomings, this paper got me an A- in Slavic 211: something about Russian Modernism.

I wanted to copy the Blok poem, but it'd be a lot of typing and its lack of web presence made me think that copying it might be a bad thing to do. However, I have inserted a small copy of "The Bolshevik" below. I think it's a great painting.

Kandinsky's 'The Bolshevik'


back to the other works