Picturing Stalin: Tracking a Tyrant’s Face Around the World
Today, when a photograph of Barack Obama or one of the Kardashians or Jeremy Lin — or, for that matter, a photograph of any of us — can be seen by literally millions of people within moments of being made, it’s easy to take the ubiquity of portraits of the famous, the powerful and even the notorious for granted. The dissemination and consumption of imagery — photographs, of course, but also caricatures, posters, graffiti and all manner of other still, static pictures — is now so all-pervading, so rife in so many disparate cultures that it’s easy to forget that, not too long ago, one person’s face being recognized on a truly global scale was a rare and striking phenomenon.
Cast one’s mind back, say, four or five decades, and the number of public figures whose faces were familiar to people on virtually every continent rapidly dwindles. Muhammad Ali. Che Guevara. John F. Kennedy. Pelé. Marilyn Monroe. More than a handful, for sure — but far from the countless “iconic” (and no doubt soon-to-be-forgotten) faces we’re bombarded with today. Travel back another decade or two, and not only is the number of globally recognized figures even smaller, but the means of transmitting, sharing or otherwise displaying those famous faces are seriously limited. It’s a wonder, sometimes, that any major figure of the mid-20th century ever made a splash, visually speaking, outside of his or her own pond.
Which brings us to Stalin. On the anniversary of the Soviet premier’s death, in 1953, LIFE looks back at the way one of the most immediately recognizable — and infamous — figures of the past 100 years was pictured in countries around the world at the very height of his power.
Far from the dizzying speed with which so much era-defining imagery travels today, whether it’s pictures of government-sponsored slaughter in Syria or miners pulled from the Earth in Chile or a young couple kissing in the midst of a riot in Vancouver, looking at these images of Stalin (left: a portrait by LIFE’s Margaret Bourke-White) one senses that his visual journey around the world was far more gradual, more deliberate, more akin to a glacier than a beam of light or a series of one and zeroes flashing across the Internet.
But the plodding nature of his portrait’s travels, from Russia to Finland to China to Guatemala and beyond, hardly lessens the power of its prevalence. In fact, if anything, the slow, steady creep of Stalin’s visage around the Earth sixty and seventy years ago feels, in some ways, far more remarkable than the instantaneous, impossibly varied juggernaut of pictures that we, simply by virtue of being conscious in the 21st century, are subjected to each day. There is something at once terribly gloomy and profoundly, clinically impressive in how widespread Stalin’s portrait became in time — as if one is mapping, in the face of its most prominent carrier, the path of a disease seen there, and there, and there ….