The Stalin Cult – Between Reality and Representation

I am grateful to Steven Barnes for inviting me to participate in this conversation on Jan Plamper’s fascinating book, The Stalin Cult.  As an outsider to the field of Russian studies, I hope my comments will add to the liveliness of the debate on a topic that is intellectually puzzling and stimulating.  In the first page of the introduction to The Stalin Cult, Jan Plamper boldly sets the tone for his study by asserting that the person of Stalin was indistinguishable from his portrait.1 In a few striking lines, Plamper draws attention to the way the Soviet people thought of and related to Stalin during his years of reign ‒ a blending of reality and representation that often showed no clear demarcating lines.  This blending, according to Plamper, is key to understanding the Stalin cult.  It indicates the central role portraits played in the production of the cult; in addition, and most importantly, it reveals the constructed nature of the cult itself via the medium of art.  The book’s goal is indeed to delineate the modalities in which the cult was launched beginning in 1929 (and later adapted and modified according to the historical circumstances) by underlining the cult’s orchestration from above, including Stalin’s personal involvement.  The book thus analyzes and dissects the manufacturing of the cult both temporally and stylistically through a semiotic reading of visual representations that reveal even more layers of interpretive complexity in a phenomenon where the line between fake and authentic becomes ever more blurred and trickier to decipher.  Stalin’s “immodest modesty” is a case in point.  Archival sources, generally considered reliable keepers of historical data, were “contaminated” by the regime to hide the constructed nature of Stalin’s modesty, in an endless game of role playing that continuously undermined any mundane notion of reality, at the same time that it made hard any effort at fact-finding on the part of future researchers.

Plamper clearly states that his study focuses on the making of the cult of Stalin as opposed to its genesis or its function.  Indeed, that’s where his book’s originality resides, and I fully embrace Plamper’s approach.  Plamper pays attention to the practices and institutions that made possible the production of the cult, and looks at the relationships between the party and the artists in charge of producing images of Stalin as a way to decipher the artists’ representational choices.  The idea at the heart of the project is that we cannot take the cult of Stalin at face value, as a naturally evolving phenomenon.  Accordingly, the art that sustained the cult was not a spontaneous and free expression of the artists’ outpouring of admiration for the leader.  Indeed, the book proves the intricate ways in which various political protagonists controlled the cult of Stalin through direct influence on and patronage of artists.

However, I have to confess that throughout the book the issue of the cult’s genesis kept lingering in my mind because I could not quite gauge why the regime or/and Stalin himself decided to implement the cult.  What kind of purpose did they think the cult would serve?  Or did they conceive the cult outside of specific goals?  If one focuses on the legitimizing function of the cult, for example, it is clear that the cult failed right when the regime needed it the most.  As Plamper shows, Stalin’s cult was always dimmed in difficult times such as when the regime felt a threat to its power.  What was the regime then thinking when setting up the cult?     In other words, if legitimation was not the regime’s main motivation, what did the cult mean to those who produced it as well as those who were its target?  Who decided to make a cult of Stalin and why?  Was it the result of a power struggle, a competition within the party?  Was it a way to eliminate the competition, or was always something the party wished to pursue for different reasons?  Ultimately, the larger issue that Plamper’s book raises for me is: can one separate the production of culture from the meanings and aims involved in the process of production?  I am operating here within a classic Weberian approach: to understand an action one must know the meanings guiding it.

Thus, I think Plamper’s stimulating book invites us to reflect on what socialism meant to the organizers of the cult and on how their idea of socialism affected their approach to art.  The specificity of the organizers’ demands when it came to creating images of Stalin, for example, what they thought Stalin should look like, begs the question of why certain visual elements were seen as more fit to convey Stalin’s centrality and power.  One also wonders what explains the artists’ difficulty at sharing that vision, at least some of the times, if not always.  After all, the artists wanted to participate in the glorification of Stalin; they shared the party’s sentiment, unless they were only faking their admiration because they needed work.  This is another topic that the issue of meaning helps raise, along with the question whether the controllers of the cult developed their vision of Stalin independently of what they thought people were supposed to see.

What about the relationship between production and reception?  Plamper has a very sophisticated approach to the issue and rightly takes into account the methodological complexities of reception research.  Although I think reception theorists share Plamper’s cautiousness about the approach and do not narrow-mindedly take reception at face value, I understand Plamper’s insistence on the fabricated nature of mediums such as the comment books that were supposedly more democratic and less controlled.   Indeed, I think Plamper’s analysis of comment books is, simply put, brilliant.  However, the model Plamper describes when discussing reception is a bit outdated and seems to subscribe to a linear understanding of cultural processes rather than emphasize culture’s dynamic and organic nature.

In terms of interpretation, Plamper seeks to analyze the personality cult without drawing on any conception of political religion, and he does this by explaining the cult as a rechanneling of the sacred into politics.  I know it is hard to draw lines here.  However, wouldn’t the Benjaminian concept of auraticization be more useful for taking distance from a political religion approach?  This is of course my personal bias as I think it is critical to distinguish between the aesthetic and the religious when dealing with “totalitarian” politics (intended in cultural terms).2 The aesthetic dimension of totalitarianism ‒ the impulse to construct and create that finds expression in the desire of making a new man ‒ for example, highlights the peculiarity of political systems such as the Soviet one in ways that the mere reference to the sacred fails to fully convey.

Less central to the book’s argument, but theoretically engaging at a larger level, is the issue of the spread of personality cults in the Soviet Union to other figures besides Stalin and Lenin.  The presence of these minor cults makes the case of the Soviet Union quite unique, I believe, and certainly raises critical questions about the theoretical implications of such trend.  It also presents a challenge to the theory of centrality Plamper advances as an explanation for the sacralization of particular figures.  Can there be multiple centers?  But if so, what does this multiplicity do to the nature of power in the Soviet Union?  The question of centrality also raises the issue that I think Plamper’s book helps magnify: after so many years since Shils’s and Geertz’s publications on center and charisma, and after multiple studies inspired by them in the 1980s and 1990s, what can we make of their legacy?3 Is their approach timeless to the point that even in the new millennium work continues to be done following their tracks?  Is the cultural turn standing the test of time when considering the study of politics?

Although I have many other thoughts about, and inspired by, the book, let me conclude with a final remark.  Plamper’s rich study is based on the idea that the person of Stalin was indistinguishable from his portrait.  One could add that the same Stalin did not exist beyond his representation, thus echoing and stretching a little bit Stalin’s own brilliant, though maybe only anecdotal, realization that “Stalin” was something bigger than the person.4 I am reminded here of a line in Orhan Pamuk’s book, My Name Is Red, where the master miniaturist talks about the meaning of illustrations and says, “it’s not the image of the horse, but the horse itself that’s beautiful; that is, seeing the illustration of the horse not as an illustration, but as a true horse.”5 We are brought back to square one or, to continue with geometric metaphors, we are coming to the end of the circle.  What is reality and how it interacts with representation remains a puzzle. It’s an intangible, as Plamper so masterfully evokes in the case of Stalin, that does not us allow to fully comprehending the alchemy of power.


  1. Jan Plamper, The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).
  2. Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Rethinking the Political: The Sacred, Aesthetic Politics, and the Collège de Sociologie (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011).
  3. Edward Shils, Center and Periphery: Essays in Macrosociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975); Clifford Geertz, “Centers, Kings, and Charisma: Reflections on the Symbolics of Power,” in Local Knowledge (New York: Basic, 1983).
  4. Plamper, The Stalin Cult, p. xiii.
  5. Orhan Pamuk, My Name Is Red (New York: Vintage, 2002), p. 267.
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