One of the most unexpected findings in the central Communist Party archive in Moscow is a collection from the twenties and thirties of drawings by Bolshevik Party leaders of their fellow commissars. These portraits and cartoons were sketched on notebook pages and on the backs and margins of Party records. The dates and inscriptions indicate that they were mostly drawn during official gatherings—plenums of the Central Committee and Party congresses. Often a drawing would be passed around and annotated by the artists’ comrades in a sort of Politburo parlor game: Stalin’s blue pencil jottings are easily recognized alongside the crude jokes of his entourage. In contrast to the official discourse of a dismal era, the “funny pictures” that follow stand as spontaneous, and frequently sincere, responses by Bolshevik leaders to one another and to the events of the time. They are largely free of the falseness and sycophancy of the Soviet elite on the eve of the Terror. Within a few years, most of the artists and their subjects were shot on Stalin’s orders.

—Alexander Vatlin and Larisa Malashenko


Self-portrait by Nikolai Bukharin. February 17, 1927. Bukharin, whom Lenin described as “the darling of the party,” served as editor of Pravda from 1917 to 1929.


Josef Stalin by Nikolai Bukharin. February 20, 1928.