What to get for a leader who runs everything

Kremlin museum shows presents to Russia's heads

November 18, 2006|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun foreign reporter

MOSCOW -- Stalin didn't write thank-you notes.

As a matter of fact, the former Soviet Communist Party head never even cared to see most of the gifts sent from well-wishers near and far: a wooden pipe carved with the likeness of him and President Harry S. Truman playing chess; a telephone in the shape of a hammer and sickle; a table lamp fashioned from a scaly, petrified armadillo.

"Stalin didn't like them and didn't pay any attention to them," said Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov, co-curator of an exhibit on gifts to Soviet and Russian leaders now showing in Moscow. "Lenin and his wife, they were writing thank-you notes often, but Stalin virtually never did."

Tens of thousands of gifts have made their way to the Russian seat of power through the years, sometimes delivered with an address no more specific than "Kremlin, Moscow."

They were sent as signs of friendship and admiration, as acknowledgments of Soviet strength and achievement. They were sent, at times, with diplomatic motive; at other times, with seemingly no motive at all.

A Moscow hairdresser gave Vladimir Lenin a portrait of him made from human hair (others were made of bird feathers, postage stamps and tobacco leaves). Saddam Hussein sent Leonid I. Brezhnev a ruby-encrusted sword of silver and gold, signing the card, "With best wishes."

The Canadian national hockey team gave Mikhail S. Gorbachev an orange-and-blue jersey with his name stitched on the back; his number, of course, was 1.

"There are stories behind each gift, and people behind each gift," said Olga Sosnina, art historian at the Moscow Kremlin Museums and the other curator of the exhibit.

The show, which includes 500 items, some never before publicly displayed, from 14 Russian museums, highlights a deceptively simple fact: Gifts are more than just presents. Through them, historians can unravel some of the complex relationships between the Soviet state and whoever was trying to reach out to it, whether a peasant or the Afghan king.

"We normally associate the Soviet era -- the Cold War -- with barriers, blocks, walls, borders," said Ssorin-Chaikov, who lectures in social anthropology at Cambridge University. "If you actually look at these gifts, you see the world in an entirely different perspective. You see a network of global connections."

The gifts also reveal political changes that shook the Soviet Union until, under the weight of its own failings, it fell apart.

In the early days of the Cold War, Josef Stalin was given an intricately woven rug depicting his likeness surrounded by scenes of Soviet military and industrial might. In 1989, the present to Gorbachev was a sweat shirt displaying his round, smiling face.

Such a gift would once have been not only unthinkable but blasphemous. And its giving became a harbinger that democracy, in some form, was on its way.

Some gifts were presented publicly, on the occasion of leaders' birthdays or anniversaries of party congresses; others were sent without fanfare, sometimes with a handwritten note marked "Personal." They came from foreign heads of state and governments, students and steel mill workers. Hungarian livestock workers sent Stalin a shepherd's whip made of leather, wood and mother-of-pearl. Former Japanese prisoners of war sent him a "letter of thanks" on a 9-foot silk scroll, including pictures of their life in captivity.

Those gifts were among the many showered on Stalin when he turned 70 in 1949. That year, the state organized a grand exhibition of the presents in Moscow. And as the years passed, some of them took on new, and unintended, meanings. The pipe depicting Stalin and Truman engaged in a friendly game of chess, given in 1946 by the U.S. National Chess Team, for example, became a metaphor for Cold Ward competition.

A French anthropologist and sociologist, Marcel Mauss, did groundbreaking work in the 1920s interpreting the meaning of and motivations behind gifts -- work upon which the exhibit's curators drew. Mauss believed that while presents are, in theory at least, given voluntarily, there is in reality no such thing as a free gift.

"They create obligations to reciprocate," explained Ssorin-Chaikov. "If I give you a gift, you will think what to do in response -- even if I just send you flowers."

That is perhaps why, of all the Soviet leaders, Stalin treated gifts -- such as the gold wedding band sent from a female autoworker, presumably a widow, in 1949 -- in the least personal way.

On rare occasions, however, he did personally respond to the giver. He penned a note, for instance, to the wife of Lavrenty Beria, head of the Soviet secret police and the man who carried out his ruthless purges, after she sent a jar of jam for his 70th birthday.

The exhibit does not include many gifts to Vladimir V. Putin, who claims not to care for ostentatious presents.

But the current Russian president has certainly received his share. Last year for his birthday, he received a shotgun from his friend, then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. He has also received a telescope; two gold-plated cold steel weapon sets, including swords, daggers, a ceremonial ax and an Indian club; a miniature set of Pushkin's poems the size of coins; and several horses. (Putin himself gave North Korean leader Kim Jong Il three horses for his birthday in 2003).

Four years ago, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin gave his Russian counterpart a crystal crocodile when Putin turned 50. Voronin's explanation, presumably meant as a compliment, was this: The crocodile is the only animal that never retreats.

erika.niedowski@baltsun.com

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