Feature

Pravda and Other Words for Truth

V.I. Lenin’s long journey from revolutionary hero to icon of kitsch

Photograph by Jaret Belliveau
A Lenin bust, purchased in a post-Soviet Riga, en route to a chic vodka bar in downtown Toronto.

In the summer of 1992, Canadian director Paul Haggis took a film crew to Riga, to make his first feature film, Red Hot, about four young musicians coming of age in late-1950s Soviet Latvia. Balthazar Getty played the lead, a baby-faced music student with ducktailed black hair and a slim-cut suit who discovered rock ’n’ roll via Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis records smuggled into the country by his uncle, a musician repressed under Stalin’s regime. Now all but lost to history—good luck finding a copy in your local video store—the film is part love story (the hero falls in love with the wrong girl, the daughter of a high-ranking Communist Party official) and part KGB intrigue (the albums are discovered, and a KGB agent traces them to the party official’s daughter). It culminates in an underground rock concert at an abandoned warehouse, which of course ends badly when the kgb arrives and the venue goes up in flames. The hero is last seen in handcuffs on a train, most likely en route to the gulag.

Red Hot takes a stereotypically Western view of the Soviet period, but what it lacks in accuracy it makes up for in visual authenticity: you can practically smell the refined air in the party official’s palatial art nouveau home, or the must of the hero’s dilapidated communal apartment. Not Haggis’s best film—he went on to direct the Oscar-winning Crash—but something of a coup for a Toronto props master named Ken Coontz.

I met Coontz one February afternoon after coming across a huge, silver-coloured bust of Lenin perched on top of a building at the corner of Woodbine and Gerrard in Toronto. During more than three years of living in the former Soviet Union, I’d grown accustomed to encountering Lenin in unexpected places; statues, busts, portraits, bas-reliefs, and murals all still clung to the landscape. Sometimes they were there because of nostalgia or simple affection, other times because there was no reason nor money to remove them (notably in villages that had dwindled to the very old and the very drunk). But a Lenin head this large and well crafted, in metropolitan Toronto? It didn’t take me long to track down the bust’s owner. I just knocked on the door of the building and invited him out for a coffee at the mom-and-pop place across the street.

“It was a crazy time,” Coontz told me, taking a sip before launching into what was clearly one of his favourite topics. “Of course it was dangerous. We were staying in the Hotel Latvia. I’m pretty sure the floor below us was a brothel. On the third night I was there, I was rushed by a gang in my hotel room. They stole money, equipment. I don’t think they realized we were going to be there for four months—what we were adding to the economy. We were the first Western crew to shoot an independent movie at the Riga Kino Studio. There was a French porno in production at the same time, but we were definitely the first Westerners to be doing what we were doing.”

One afternoon, Coontz got a call on set. His translator and fixer, Signe (a “smart, sassy it-girl, not a communist but a good German Latvian”), had found something he had to see. The crew’s driver brought him to the city’s Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Stalin-era neoclassical building, where he met Signe and a man he refers to as the Curator.

They entered a large room full of potential props, a graveyard of Soviet paraphernalia that included tapestries, statues, and busts of Lenin—the detritus of a rejected ideology. The Curator led them to one corner of the large shipping and receiving area, where he dramatically pulled aside a tarp to reveal a massive aluminum bust of Lenin. About a metre tall, it was planed in the strongly stylized lines of socialist realism: the forehead broader than in real life, the Asian-looking Kalmyk eyes more Slavic, the lips curled into the hint of a smile.

The Curator turned to Coontz and jokingly asked, “Perhaps you’d like to take that Mr. Lenin back to Kanads? ”

“Okay. How much? ” Coontz responded.

There was a moment of confusion. The Curator looked to Signe and asked her if this crazy Westerner was serious.

“Of course he is serious. He is from Canada,” she replied.

Raw materials were scarce in Riga at the time, and the metals trade was hot. The Curator had to make a few calls before he could quote a price. A number was stated, Signe was consulted, Coontz and the Curator shook hands, and Mr. Lenin was his.

By the time I came across the bust, it had been in Toronto for more than fifteen years, far from the country that had birthed it, and increasingly distant from the historical events that had infused it with meaning. When the bust was constructed, it was a tribute to Soviet ideology, leadership, and (as any good Marxist historian would emphasize) industrial might. To those who suffered under the excesses of Lenin’s regime and its aftermath, it would have meant something very different: an unwelcome reminder of a brutal, authoritarian political system that destroyed hundreds of thousands, even millions, of lives. Nearer that time and that place, the statue was rooted in something tangible, inescapable.

But hovering above Woodbine and Gerrard, it was little more than a curious decoration on an otherwise nondescript street corner. Across many decades and 7,000 kilometres, it had gone from living artifact to decorative souvenir—a giant, metallic analogue to the Che Guevara and “Chairman Mao is my homeboy” T-shirts on display in any hip North American neighbourhood. Its journey seemed to me a perfect metaphor for the cultural process through which we avoid confronting difficult histories by turning them into consumable kitsch. When I met Coontz’s Mr. Lenin, he was well on the way down that road, and as it happened he was about to go farther still.

Photograph by Jaret Belliveau
Ken Coontz’s Lenin bust overlooking Woodbine and Gerrard in Toronto’s east end.

Coontz is in his fifties, and his face bears the marks of a battle with cancer in his thirties that cost him the use of one eye. But he spoke energetically about his work and his collections, tracing his interest in military paraphernalia to his heritage as a navy brat. He told me his great-grandfather was US Navy Admiral Robert Coontz, who had a ship named for him. “Look him up on the Internet,” Ken advised. (Turns out it was two ships.)

He referred to himself as a “multi-generational hoarder,” and indeed he had made a career out of this tendency. The job of a props master is part curator, part collector: a good one finds and selects objects that are both aesthetically attractive and recognizably representative of a given locale and time period.

“I brought back other things, too,” he told me. “Uniforms, small statues, oil paintings, other art. I’m an antique dealer. And a history buff.”

I could see the Lenin from our spot in the coffee shop. Coontz’s front window was covered in red foil, gold letters spelling out “Happy Holidays” in a neat arch, a gold hammer and sickle in the corner lending the display the effect of a Soviet flag. Lenin was similarly festive: a Santa Claus hat sat atop his bald pate.

“I sell some of the things, but some of them I keep. They’re political documents, objects with history. But that,” he said, pointing at the Lenin bust, “that was a purchase of opportunity. It’s a cool thing. It’s the coolest thing I own.”

Not just cool, but valuable. When Mr. Lenin first came to Toronto, he lived in Coontz’s backyard at his old house in East York, then made his way to Coontz’s next place in the city’s Beach district, to the south of us. One night, a young bartender walking home from her shift came across the bust posed on the front lawn of a local church—the work of pranksters. She flagged down a cabbie, and they ended up taking it back to the cab lot. When Coontz woke up the next morning, he reported the bust stolen, claiming it was valued at around $20,000. The police pieced together the cabbie’s report and the complaint, and the bust was returned that afternoon. For insurance purposes, Coontz put a military dog tag on it, then installed it on his roof. When he moved to his current digs, Lenin once more went safely above ground.

Here at Woodbine and Gerrard, the Lenin is better known for being Coontz’s claim to fame than for the political or cultural achievements of its model. There are, of course, those who recognize him; Coontz told me about a Russian man who used to stop by every year on Lenin’s birthday and express gratitude for the joy the statue gave his wife. “Every time they drove by, she would blow him a kiss,” Coontz explained. “He made her happy.” Coontz, too, spoke of the bust with affection, though he was careful to explain that he did not support communism. He also appreciated the irony of such an artifact standing watch over his gentrifying neighbourhood.

We sat for a few moments in silence. He had things on his mind. The owner of his building was planning to put a condo development on the site. Coontz was also having health problems, and was booking appointments for tests and with specialists. Money was tight and work scarce.

Then he told me that for financial reasons, he had decided to sell his prized possession. The buyer was Pravda Vodka Bar, an upscale joint dedicated to the former Soviet Union’s favourite liquor. Another journey, this time less epic, had been arranged. Mr. Lenin was headed for one of the chicest spots in downtown Toronto—a place about as far from his roots as he could get.

The real-life mr. lenin was born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov in 1870, in Simbirsk (later renamed Ulyanovsk), a small city on the banks of the Volga River. He was an overachiever, the son of parents from the intelligentsia who could fairly be called over-supportive of their six children: every one who reached adulthood became an anti-czarist revolutionary. Vladimir ended up on this path after his brother was executed as a terrorist.

After being expelled from university for his involvement in Marxist politics, he studied law independently, moving in 1893 to St. Petersburg. His rising profile brought him to the attention of the authorities, and in 1895 he was convicted of plotting against Czar Alexander II. He spent two years in prison, then was exiled to Siberia. In 1900, when his sentence was up, he left Russia and took up residence in central Europe. There, he authored one of the founding texts of Bolshevism, What Is to Be Done? The book, written under the pen name Vladimir Lenin, called for a revolutionary vanguard to lead the working class in revolt, and it was instrumental in splitting the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party into two factions: the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Lenin manoeuvred his way to leadership of the Bolshevik Party and, in the wake of the 1917 revolution, became premier of the Soviet Union.

As ruler, Lenin enacted astonishing changes. From literacy campaigns and land reform for the peasants to widespread industrialization and modernization, he transformed the political and physical landscape of the ussr. These achievements inspired an image of him as a man whose devotion to ordinary citizens changed history and liberated the lower classes from servitude.

In reality, though, Lenin’s interest in the revolution was driven less by a love of the proletariat—only one member of his inner circle came from the peasantry, and he was later executed as a czarist spy—than by a desire for revenge against the aristocratic system. And once he took power, his policies were often less than sympathetic. In 1917, he established the Cheka (the secret police force that begat the KGB), and appointed Felix Dzerzhinsky as its head, with instructions to rid the party of detractors. He is also credited with creating the framework for the gulag prison system by establishing “special purpose camps” in Siberia. When mismanagement of industry and food production lowered living standards in Russia to terrifying levels, he executed the party members he deemed responsible. Arguably most chilling was his treatment of the kulaks (wealthier peasants) during the food shortages of 1918, when he dispatched demobilized soldiers to the farmlands to forcibly seize grain, and mercilessly suppressed the uprising that came about in response. It was only after he announced the New Economic Policy in 1921, abandoning the forcible seizure policy and replacing it with new taxation and market systems that allowed peasants to sell their surpluses on the open market, that the economy began to improve and his image as saviour was set.

Lenin died in 1924 from complications related to a series of strokes. By then, he was truly beloved as a strong leader, a father figure who had guided the country out from under czarist rule and ended a brutal civil war. More than 500,000 mourners came to pay their respects over the four days he lay in state in the Hall of Columns. In response to this overwhelming show of public grief, the Politburo decided to leave Lenin’s embalmed body on display in a crystal sarcophagus inside a granite mausoleum erected in Red Square, the centre of Moscow and the heart of the ussr. Pilgrims began travelling to the city to pay their respects, eventually numbering in the millions. This is where the cult began: Lenin the man reborn as Lenin the myth, his body reborn as artifact.

Spontaneously at first, objects bearing his image began to proliferate: busts, statues, portraits, paintings, medallions, pins, coins, rugs, stationery, notebooks. Small shrines popped up, often in spots in the home where religious icons were traditionally hung. Shortly after his death, the Chief Committee on Political Enlightenment (the Glavpolitprosvet) began a campaign to establish “Red Corners” (or “Lenin Corners”) in all institutions. Propaganda shrines went up in schools, factories, workplaces, workers’ clubs, libraries, and village reading rooms; farms, libraries, newspapers, streets, and cities—notably Leningrad—were named after him. In the years following his death, scenes and stills from Lenin footage became the basis for propaganda posters, newsreels, and agitprop films. Artists and writers participated in creating elegiac works in his honour; as the Russian futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote, “Lenin—lived. Lenin—lives. Lenin—will live.”

Lenin’s cult status lasted throughout the Soviet period, and remained intact in many former republics even after the Berlin Wall came down. But the Baltics were a different story. At the end of the Second World War, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia had been absorbed by the USSR, cut off from the rest of Europe by the Iron Curtain, and plunged into a period of tremendous cultural and social upheaval. When they finally re-established independence in 1991, nationalist ideologies were resurgent and relations between locals and ethnic Russians grew tense. The ubiquitous monuments to Lenin became lightning rods for years of oppression and mistreatment at the hands of Soviet leaders. People gathered in city squares across the Baltics to watch statues of Lenin torn down, sometimes destroying the monuments with their own hands. When I visited Lithuania for the first time, in 1992, I remember walking with my aunt through the grey, beaten-down streets of Vilnius to Lukiškių Square, the main square close to the current parliament building (and former soviet). On the site where the largest Lenin statue in the country had once stood, overlooking the KGB headquarters, there was nothing, just a square of freshly turned earth edged in marble. Today, almost twenty years later, the space remains empty.

Lenin remained something of a commodity in the Baltic countries, however, his image sold as scrap or repurposed as souvenirs and sold to curious tourists and collectors like Coontz. I recently viewed some archival footage of Vilnius’s Lenin coming down in August 1991; the moment he hit the ground, people began chipping away at his torso for souvenirs. The author of the archival footage told me that as he walked away with his own marble souvenir in hand, kids began plying him for American dollars for the chunks they had just picked up off the ground. This was their first response to the collapse of the Soviet Union: to try to turn history into money.

Photograph by Jaret Belliveau
The Lenin bust in its new home, Pravda Vodka Bar in downtown Toronto.

Robin singh, the owner of Pravda, met me on a snowy Monday afternoon. His bar is located at 44 Wellington Street East, just east of Toronto’s financial district and light years (well, a few kilometres) from Coontz’s ramshackle neighbourhood. The interior was luxe, all plush red velvet and gold chandeliers, hung with mirrors that reflected the lusciousness ad infinitum. Vodka bottles lined the shelf behind the well-polished bar, their labels etched in both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. It was three o’clock, and the waitresses were busy restocking the bar’s hundred-plus varieties and readying the tables. Singh sat me down on a velvet couch tucked beneath a small overhanging balcony. One of the waitresses brought over a sweating bottle of cold mineral water and a couple of shots of Slava, a Ukrainian brand.

There are several other vodka bars in downtown Toronto, but Pravda is one of the oldest, at more than six years. The two newest both owe their existence to Pravda: Rasputin, on Queen East, is run by a former employee; and Samovar, in Cabbagetown, belongs to Singh’s ex-partner. Both are operated by Eastern European immigrants. Singh, thirty-eight, is also an immigrant; he came to Canada from Cape Town in 1996. Though he admitted that growing up under apartheid gave him his own particular view of communism (the South African Communist Party was strongly linked to the ANC and the struggle to end apartheid), he told me his decision to open a Russian-themed bar decorated with Soviet-era artifacts and propaganda was strictly strategic. “I’m a businessman,” he said, “and it’s the in thing right now. Do I feel uncomfortable with the theme? The Soviet Union collapsed. It’s not coming back.”

His main concern for Pravda was authenticity, he said, particularly in its decor. “No place in Toronto is themed like we are,” he bragged. “Others have a face to the place but no substance. I wanted this to look like somewhere the diplomats and politicians would have hung out in Soviet Russia.”

The walls are covered with original Soviet art and well-made reproductions. The usual Russian tchotchkes—balalaikas, matryoshki, samovars—line shelves and fill cabinets. Singh pointed out some of the objects he’d bought from Coontz in the past: small bronze Lenin statues, portraits of Lenin and other Soviet leaders, a large cast iron bell engraved with tiny Cyrillic letters. Pravda even has a gulag room, a small alcove with bars on the walls and an alarmingly prisonlike door that leads to a storage closet. “You think of Russia, and you think of prisons—of the gulag,” Singh said. “It’s all about the things people associate with Russia.” At one point, the room featured a Russian prison toilet filled with ice to keep bottles of vodka cold. He removed it, though; for some reason patrons didn’t like sitting near it.

Singh’s customers do, however, enjoy one vestige of communism: the abolition of private property. Stuff goes missing all the time. When the bar first opened, it had shot glasses with the Pravda logo etched on them; they lasted all of two weeks. One particular statue of Lenin, about a foot high, was repeatedly “liberated” by a group of traders from Merrill Lynch who considered a quick rub of his little bald head good luck before a big trade. Singh would receive photographs of the statue in corporate headquarters all over the world, Amélie style. It’s now kept above the coat check, safely out of reach.

Framed propaganda posters hang from Pravda’s red and gold walls, and red and gold banners depicting Soviet leaders drape from the ceiling. Among them are Gorbachev, Brezhnev, Khrushchev, Marx, and even Dzerzhinsky, the diabolical-looking founder of the KGB. One familiar face, however, is conspicuously absent: Joseph Stalin.

Stalin’s brutality is relatively well known; what is less well known is how effectively he used the Lenin cult to promote his own image. Many artworks and statues from the Stalin era show him and Lenin together, with Lenin often depicted bestowing wisdom on the future leader. Much of the paraphernalia created during the Stalinist period was adorned with a trio of profiles—Marx, Lenin, and Stalin—to further suggest the lineage.

In reality, Lenin had studiously avoided naming Stalin his successor, going so far as to warn of his inheritor’s brutishness. When Stalin died in 1953, he was embalmed and put on display in the same mausoleum as Lenin. But as social repression eased and exiles began to return from the gulag with terrible stories, Stalin’s cult crumbled. The final blow was Khrushchev’s damning speech at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, which led to a wave of de-Stalinization: monuments tumbled, portraits were torn from walls, statues were smelted down. In 1961, Stalin was removed from Lenin’s mausoleum and buried in Red Square. The only statue of him I came across during my travels in the former USSR was a nearly six-metre-tall one in front of the municipal government building on Stalin Avenue in Gori, Georgia. It was protected by a local administration that took great pride in promoting the birthplace of the leader of what was once the largest nation on earth. But even this attitude has been changing: after war broke out between Russia and Georgia in August 2008, officials at the nearby Stalin Museum announced that it was going to be rechristened the Museum of Russian Aggression. This June, the statue was quietly taken down and moved there.

At Pravda, I found just one small piece of Stalin paraphernalia: a bas-relief hanging on the wall next to the entrance. I pointed it out to Singh and asked if he had any others on display.

“You have a good eye,” he replied. “We had more of them, but some people protested, so we took them down. They said, ‘Stalin was a Hitler.’ And really, we are not here to create controversy. We sell vodka.”

The last time I saw Coontz was on the morning of Mr. Lenin’s move. The sky was overcast, and a layer of wet snow iced the sidewalks. We met early in the morning at the same coffee shop we’d sat in just a few weeks earlier and waited for his crew, five guys from the neighbourhood. I’d met most of them the previous night at Jimmy’s Place, the bar across the street that Coontz jokingly refers to as his living room. It was the anti-Pravda: a proper hole in the wall with a karaoke machine in the window, a well-loved pool table, and a TV suspended over the bar that had been tuned to the Canada-Russia Olympic hockey game. Most of the patrons had been watching the game, at least until Coontz, dressed in a blood red Mao Zedong T-shirt, had started passing around vodka shots. But no one seemed the worse for wear the next day, even at 8 a.m. Once they assembled, Coontz took charge—nothing was to be done without his command. He used a small ceramic bust of Lenin and two rulers, representing the two ladders that would guide the bust to the ground, to demonstrate the method for removing Mr. Lenin. The team had ropes and long poles with hooks on the ends to help stabilize the bust. Everything would be straightforward, so long as they didn’t slip on the treacherous ice.

When Lenin peeked over the ledge, rope noosed around his neck, blanket cradling his descent, I was reminded of images I’d seen of gleeful protesters pulling down Lenins in Vilnius, Riga, Berlin, and even Addis Ababa. When he got to street level, the men propped him up in front of Coontz’s front door and pulled out their digital cameras. Coontz brought out some vodka, courtesy of Pravda, and we toasted the bust with plastic cups. The truck arrived at 9 a.m., and two movers hoisted Mr. Lenin into the back, wrapped him in a blanket, and secured him with straps. There was no fanfare, no parade, no twenty-one-gun salute. The truck rumbled off down the slushy street, transporting him toward his ultimate calling: huckster of vodka.

Ipaid a visit to Mr. Lenin at Pravda a few weeks later. He was sitting on a custom-made shelf mounted to the outside railing of the second-floor bar and seating area. From this vantage, he could watch over the entrance, observing the Bay Street suits and spangled devotchkas coming and going in the glinting light of chandeliers, and soaking up the din of clinking glasses and laughter.

Singh’s aim of authenticity notwithstanding, the bust that seemed ironic and tongue-in-cheek up on Coontz’s roof had been reduced to pure kitsch. It had gone beyond the merely sentimental, sensational, and slick—beyond the physical embodiment of nostalgia that Milan Kundera called “the absolute denial of shit”—into an environment with little regard for its historical relevance or social import. It seemed at once utterly fake and entirely believable.

In a sense, though, this was the fulfillment of the role laid out for Lenin the moment he died. The fledgling Soviet Union had needed to inscribe a founding legend, so the Communist Party positioned its first leader in a way even the peasantry could understand and internalize. This colossal act of fakery was typical of the party line, from the execution of five-year plans in four, to falsified quotas and massive propaganda campaigns that advertised the utopianism and egalitarianism of communist life even as its leaders basked in luxury. All the negatives of the Soviet Union—the hardships of mass industrialization, the horrors of the gulag system, the repression of cultural and artistic freedom—had been coated in the clean lines and idealized faces of Soviet propaganda. And so, from the moment of his death, Lenin had been as total a sham as much of the Soviet system had. Seen through this lens, Pravda was just another burlesque.

There are bars akin to this one in former communist countries now, wielding their Soviet aesthetic in the same way hipster coffee shops use retro styling to evoke the feeling of a “simpler” time in North America (Americana is, after all, just another form of consumable kitsch). Soviet historic sites, meanwhile, are being remade into tourist attractions. Some, like the Karosta military prison in Liepaja, Latvia, offer visitors “live action” tours—recreations of what it was like to be incarcerated in the institution’s dank cells. Visitors are yelled at, ordered around, interrogated, and made to suffer physical punishments for their misbehaviours. For participants, it’s a lot of fun, and perhaps a masochistic form of catharsis. In this way, the physical and psychological remnants of the Soviet system have been transformed into a resource.

At Pravda, Mr. Lenin served as the North American spin on this process—an ironic, distant nod at a once-evil empire, relegated to encouraging the consumption of premium vodka and Russian fusion food. Mounted in his place of honour, he looked good, I thought—right at home in red and gold and glitz, more comfortable than he will ever be in his crystal sarcophagus in Red Square. As for us patrons, well, if any Cold War fears still lurked in our cultural subconscious, they could be washed away with a shot of vodka and a side of black bread and pickles. I tossed back my glass and offered a silent na zdorovye to Lenin, revolutionary hero, patron saint of vodka bars.

This appeared in the September 2010 issue.

Medeine Tribinevicius received a National Magazine Award nomination for her 2010 Walrus feature, "Pravda and Other Words for Truth."