I will begin with two different descriptions of the state of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union -- one from the left and another from the right on the political spectrum.
The first statement comes from Leon Trotsky's 1936 book "The Revolution Betrayed," where among many points of criticism of Stalin's regime, Trotsky introduced his fierce critique of the state of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Stalin's policies in regards to Party life. According to Trotsky, Stalin stroke a fatal blow to the CPSU by easing admission into the Party, which resulted in tens of thousands petit-bourgeois and ideologically-immature workers joining the Party ranks, and as a result, dramatically weakening it. Trotsky viewed this policy of "democratization" of admission into the Party as a fundamentally counterrevolutionary act. Trotsky stated that Stalin, a grave-digger of the Revolution and a petit bourgeois himself, purposely opened up and simplified admission procedures into the Party for general population in order to neutralize the Party's revolutionary potential by bringing in a very large unprepared and/or indifferent to the Revolutionary cause element into the Party ranks.
According to Trotsky, by mid 1920s the true Communists were in the minority in the Party. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union was no longer a revolutionary party, but a convenient tool in the hands of Stalin's bureaucracy. By then, CPSU was no longer the party of Lenin, Trotsky assures us. And from his forced exile and shortly before his violent death in 1940 from the hands of Stalin's henchman, Trotsky longs for the old Party, which was a small and highly ideologically-mature group of advanced working class -- a party, admission to which before the Revolution was no trivial matter.
The second account comes from the right. In her novel "We the Living," set in post-Revolutionary Russia circa mid 1920s, Any Rand describes the despicable level of corruption amongst the Party ranks -- when petit bourgeoisies, completely indifferent if not hostile to the Communist cause were cynically joining the Party and putting on black leather jackets in order to advance their careers and secure comfortable future, having realized that the Soviet regime is here to stay. Rand describes an act of joining the Party as a sign of moral disintegration and conformism. For Rand, joining the Party in the mid 1920s was nothing more than an act of "exchanging one's soul" for lucrative employment, access to special stores, and other perks the Soviet government had at its disposal.
However, neither Trotsky nor Rand deny that amongst the tinted ranks of the Party of the post-Revolutionary era, there were still pockets of true Communists of the "old school" as well as new recruits, who believed and acted in accordance with the Communist ideals and principles. For example, one of Rand's positive heroes in "We the Living" is a Civil War hero and true Communist (even by Rand's standards) Andrei Taganov. He, however, falls victim from the hand of the canning and plotting opportunist and Party apparatchik Pavel Syerov. One of the curious themes of Rand's book is an epidemic of suicides of the old Bolsheviks and true Communists, who cannot bare witness to what the Party had become, which swept across Russia in mid 1920s.
Dead and Alive
The transformation of the small and ideologically-mature party into a swollen, "million-weak" party in the country where this party came to power and is now uncontested, which Trotsky describes, created a completely different situation than existed before the Revolution. No longer being a Party member meant dire sacrifice and danger. Joining the Party after the Revolution had become a thing to do. It had become trivialized. Additionally, a Party membership's direct link to government employment made it susceptible to corruption. However, at the same time one cannot say that the Party had no true believers. True believers were plenty as well. The Great Patriotic War as well as the era of Khrushchev's "thaw" brought in an influx of new and enthusiastic true Communists in the Party ranks.
At the beginning of the perestroika era in 1985, according to the official Soviet statistics, there were 19 million members in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The fact remains, however, that there was very little resistance on the part of these 19 million to the dissolution of the Party and the Soviet Union in 1991. The 19 million seems to have simply gave in and gave up. After 1991 only a small number of former members of the CPSU joined various other newly-formed organizations and parties of Communist orientation. The 19 million seems to have disappeared, dissolved amongst the rest of the population, and got on "with the program" of the new societies formed in place of the USSR.
Who were these 19 million? When and why did they join the Party? When and why did they leave? What happened to these people after 1991? Who are they now?
Many former members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union are still alive and well. Perhaps not 19 million as in 1980s, but certainly in the millions. These days, many of them are involved in industry, business, government, culture, and the military of post-Soviet societies. The former members of the Party are still among the living and breathing citizen, who are active participants in public and economic life of their respective countries. The former members of CPSU are still among us.
Portrait of 19 Million
Project "Portrait of 19 Million" is a participatory project, based on an open call. Everyone is invited to partake in this project, including professional, amateur artists, as well as people of other professions. The participants are asked to submit a portrait (or a self-portrait) of any person who by the beginning of perestroika was a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, notwithstanding age, occupation, or social status. These portraits can be executed in any medium and style, including painting, drawing, studio photograph, amateur photograph, photo on cell phone, video, and so on.
In addition to submitting a portrait, the participants are also asked to fill out a provided biographical questioner with information on the subject of the portrait. Questions include: Name, place, and date of birth? Educational background? When did you join the Party? Place of employment at the time of joining the Party? What did you have in common and what differ you from other members of the Party? Place of employment as of the beginning of perestroika? When did you leave the Party? Have your political believes changed since then? Place of employment at present time? and so on. Focusing on experiences of concrete people, "Portrait of 19 Million" utilizes artistic and sociological tools to sample the state of the Soviet society at the beginning of perestroika and the changes that have occurred since then.
Since the mid 1920s, a membership in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had become more and more a fact of life, of daily existence beyond politics. That's why "Portrait of 19 Million" is about the wide range of human narratives and about life as such during the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. Communist Party of the Soviet Union wasn't a homogeneous group. Members of CPSU were as diverse as the population of the Soviet Union herself. These people joined the Communist Party at different times, for different reasons, and under different circumstances. Their political believes vary. Their social make up wasn't uniform. During the post-Soviet era, these people also took different paths -- some of the formers members of CPSU stuck to the past believes while others embraced new currents.
On the one hand, "Portrait of 19 Million" acknowledges the submergence of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Soviet people and the blurring of lines between a Soviet citizen and a member of CPSU. On the other hand, "Portrait of 19 Million" opposes the practice of trivialization of the fact of membership in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It rejects the excuse "they joined because everybody else was joining -- it was a thing to do" as attempt to free historical actors from responsibility.
"Portrait of 19 Million" is a continuation of two of my previous portraiture projects. One of them, "Communist Party USA," was a series of portraits of current members of the American Communist Party, which I painted in the Party's national headquarters in New York City in 2007. "Communist Party USA" was an attempt to put my finger on the state of American Communism circa 2007 and to portray real people in the United States today, who identify as Communists. While working on this project, it was important for me to revisit the specters of both Soviet Socialist Realism and Sots Art, without falling into either trap. I painted my subjects -- current members of the American Communist Party -- wearing everyday clothes and in trivial settings of their offices, which looked not unlike any modest business office in the US. I painted my sitters as individuals, as Americans who happened to be Communists.
The "Communist Party USA" portraits were accompanied by short biographies and interviews with my sitters that I compiled. Each biography included the sitter's date and place of birth, education, and employment history. Additionally, I asked each subjects such questions as "What is your view of the Soviet Union?", "What is your view of today's Russia?", and "What is your view of Mikhail Gorbachev?"
Two years later, in 2009, I used the same strategy in a project titled "American Cold War Veterans Association." This time I painted portraits of members of a small group of American servicemen and women, who formed a grass-roots organization -- American Cold War Veterans Association. Members of the association have strong personal and emotional connection to the Cold War legacy and identify as victors and veterans of the Cold War. They served in the US Army and Navy between 1945-1991 and were being prepared to defend the United States in case of Soviet attack. Some of them were in the nuclear defense forces and some were stationed on American bases near Soviet border.
The goal of the Association is to seek equal status and recognition of Cold War veterans in rights and benefits with veterans of other US wars, including WW2, Korean, and Vietnam Wars. In addition, the organization also seeks for all Cold War veterans to receive an official governmental Cold War Victory medal. The American Cold War Veterans Association consists to date only of low-ranking military personnel and operates without any support from the government or the Pentagon.
Projects "American Cold War Veterans Association" and "Communist Party USA" both utilize humanist, observational, and realist approach to portraiture as opposed to the legacy of Socialist Realism and Sots Art. Although these two series of portraits depict historical subjects on opposite sides of political and ideological divide that defined the 20th century, both American Cold War Veterans and American Communists are treated with equal empathy and respect.
The difference between "American Cold War Veterans Association" and "Communist Party USA" on the one side and "Portrait of 19 Million" on the other is that I approached portraying Cold War Veterans and American Communists as a private, intimate gesture by the artist and painted the portraits myself. "Portrait of 19 Million," on the other hand, is approached via an open call for participation, where everyone can make a submission. "Portrait of 19 Million" attempts the impossible and utopian -- to create nineteen million portraits -- through democratic participation.
The other point of difference between "Portrait of 19 Million" and the earlier "American Cold War Veterans Association" and "Communist Party USA" is that while in "American Cold War Veterans Association" and "Communist Party USA" I depicted small and marginal groups within the mainstream American narrative, "Portrait of 19 Million" portrays members of the major and numerous political party, which until recently held uncontested power in one of the largest countries of the world for seventy years. The fundamental historical irony, however, is that all these three groups -- present-day American Communists, American Cold War Veterans, and former members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union -- are completely invisible in their respective societies today.
"Portrait of 19 Million" is an attempt to sample both the state of contemporary post-Soviet society as well as to highlight its dependence on Soviet history. This project posits the critical relevance of the "disappeared" 19 million former members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the post-Soviet societies today. It renders members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union visible once again and re-actualizes the Soviet past.
In my text "Responsibilities of the Post-Soviet Artist," which came out in 2006, I proposed that the post-Soviet artist must assume responsibility for Soviet history and that an overwhelming sense of denial and repression of Soviet history in current post-Soviet societies must be fought with. Today in 2011, I still believe that reclaiming and activist engagement with Soviet history is a much more effective way of dealing with the (post) Soviet trauma than denial and repression. Taking responsibility for one's history means regaining critical agency toward/within that history. Soviet history should be viewed as a site of intervention and interventionist tactics should be applied to the discipline of history. Approaching history via interventionist tactics means uncovering and exposing repressed histories and scrutinizing the generally accepted "official" historical narratives.
Activism within the discipline of history is about formation of a parallel/alternative base of knowledge, which starts with collecting historical data. "Portrait of 19 Millions" does precisely that: it collects historical data, which adjusts our understanding of historical processes. "Portrait of 19 Millions" comes to life from a frightening realization of the fact of non-contradiction between the historical tragedy of the Communist project in the 20th century and triviality and everydayness of being a member of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.
To my theoretization of responsibility for history circa 2006 I would like to add that today I see this responsibility as at once personal and shared. "Portrait of 19 Million" is impossible without a sense of shared responsibility. For that purpose, "Portrait of 19 Million" equates the Party with the People and presents the former members of the Communists Party of the Soviet Union not as targets for blame for the impossible Soviet past, but as Soviet People as such -- as an impossible community -- both then and now. This project is an open call to look at the Soviet history with eyes wide open, to accept jointly responsibility for the past, and to recognize our own features in the "Portrait of 19 Million."