The Stalin Cult—Theory, Practice & the ‘Holy Grail of Reception’

I’m pleased to be given the chance to comment on Jan Plamper’s The Stalin Cult, as it is a book that I’ve been waiting to read for some time.1 His subtitle—“a study in the alchemy of power”— invokes a mythical process that at one time was held to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary—in this case, the short, pockmarked Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili into the Father of the Peoples and Architect of Communism, Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin.  This is an imaginative, eye-catching turn of phrase; that said, Plamper correctly refuses to allow these poetics to distract him from what is a rigorous and exacting empirical investigation of the production and projection of Stalin’s cult of personality.  Indeed, Plamper’s study dispels much of the mystery surrounding the cult—how it was developed and according to what formula; who was responsible for its individual components and overall concoction; what elements and circumstances contributed to its maturation and ferment; and how Stalin regarded the admixture that resulted.  More than alchemy, then, the cult in Plamper’s telling turns out to have been a perfectly rational, “knowable” aspect of Stalinist governing practices.  Moreover, unlike the long-forgotten alchemic formulae of old, the recipe that Plamper describes has clearly remained in circulation within communist regimes since 1953, most recently transforming the third son and Swiss schoolboy Kim Jong Woon into the Great Successor Kim Jong-un.

The Stalin Cult supplies the first monographic-length, archivally-based study of the cult, building on Plamper’s own research and a handful of article-length studies by Benno Ennker, Leonid Maksimenkov and others.  Much of the book focuses on a single dimension of the Stalin cult—representations of the leader in oil portraiture—where Plamper examines material that has escaped sustained analysis until now. Along the way, the book may overemphasize the role of the Stalin cult in Soviet mass culture at times, suggesting for instance that the new emphasis on individual shock worker heroes, Arctic explorers, aviators and other Soviet notables during the late 1920s and 1930s was a byproduct of the cult (37, 41).2 But the end result is a path-breaking work that challenges many of the field’s most timeworn assumptions about the cult and the personality that it celebrated

Plamper opens the book by attempting to resolve the paradox surrounding how an ostensibly materialist, Marxist-Leninist society like the USSR could embrace the organized worship of its leaders.  Although many authors have historically attributed the cult of personality to Stalin’s supposed psychological insecurities and craven need for supplication, others (myself included) have argued that the cult fulfilled a more pragmatic role informed by Max Weber’s theory of charismatic political authority.  According to this interpretation, the Bolsheviks after 1924 deployed first the Lenin cult and then the Stalin cult as instrumental mechanisms to mobilize a diverse society that was too divisive and decentralized to have much else in common.3

Plamper rejects both of these explanations for the cult and opts instead for a somewhat under-theorized emphasis on sacral authority, which he pairs rather incongruously with G. V. Plekhanov’s materialist thesis on the role of the individual in the Marxist historical process (xvi-xvii, 19, 25). Rejecting the notion that the cult was deployed instrumentally, Plamper argues that the Bolsheviks adopted this practice after Lenin’s death in 1924 due to a predisposition for the cult-like veneration of leaders that dated to their days in study circles (kruzhki) in the prerevolutionary underground (19-22, 25, 89). This explanation suggests that the personality cult ought to be viewed as a more normative, organic outgrowth of the Russian Social Democratic tradition than is generally believed.  Plamper may well be right here, although this explanation would be more convincing if there were better evidence of cult-like activity within the Bolshevik party before 1917, or if there were any similar pattern of cultish leader worship among the Mensheviks.  Stalin famously associated the excesses of his cult with the Socialist Revolutionaries, of course, but this was really little more than gratuitous name-calling—there’s no evidence that the SRs ever celebrated their leaders with any hint of the reverence that USSR afforded Lenin and Stalin starting in the mid-to-late 1920s.4

Plamper opens the empirical core of his study with two sweeping chapters on the practices and patterns of the cult’s representation in Soviet mass culture—“Stalin in Time” and “Stalin in Space.”  These observations set up two more chapters on the inner workings of cult production, dissemination and display.  Here, Plamper resolves longstanding questions about who supervised the cult and its how centralized its command and control structure actually was.  He also explains who the patrons were and why a self-respecting world-class painter would accept such a “social-commission” (sotsial’nyi zakaz) that left him or her no room for artistic self-expression.  Equally interesting, Plamper addresses practical questions that must have bedeviled the internal rationalization of the cult—how could artists effectively represent the leader in oil if he refused to pose for them? How could artists learn from the leadership’s critiques of their work when Stalin and his comrades-in-arms were frequently unable to express their criticisms in coherent, articulate terms?

Central to Plamper’s discussion of the cult is Stalin’s personal relationship to the celebration of his own person.  Here, Plamper rejects recent scholarship contending that Stalin only grudging tolerated the cult and suggests instead that his attitude ought to be described as “immodestly modest” (123-135, etc.).5 Put another way, Stalin accepted the veneration that the cult supplied, took an active role in its development, and criticized it only when it produced art that broke with convention, intruded upon his personal life, or celebrated his comrades-in-arms too enthusiastically.  Plamper’s judgment here works well for journalism and the fine arts, but is perhaps at odds with the cult’s other fields of representation—fiction and non-fictional writing, cinema and theater—where Stalin was more critical of the cult, especially in mass cultural material aimed at more educated and sophisticated audiences.  While editing the 1938 Short Course on the History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks), for instance, he removed over ten thousand words of cultish commentary by Em. Iaroslavskii and P. N. Pospelov, reassigning historical agency in these sections from himself to either Lenin or the party as a whole.6 When asked by incredulous foreigners about why he put up with the endless hallelujahs and professions of faith, he explained that they were not really addressed to him personally—the cult celebrated him only as a personification of Soviet power.7 This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that Soviet mass culture focused almost exclusively on static, official images of Stalin as party leader and head of state and paid little attention Stalin’s actual personality or personal life.8

In the final section of the book, Plamper addresses how those at the center of the cult’s creative processes—the artists and their bureaucratic handlers—attempted to use resources like exhibition comment books and audience questions at live events in order to gauge the cult’s effectiveness.  A fascinating stretch of analysis, it suggests that those involved in the production of this quintessentially top-down cult were very concerned (and even defensive at times) over the public’s reaction to their work.  Regrettably, Plamper declines to pursue this line of analysis further to investigate the cult’s broader popular resonance, even in impressionistic terms.  He justifies his reluctance to pursue what he calls “the holy grail of reception” by questioning how reliably sources like the largely ceremonial comment books actually represent public opinion. Doubts over the methodology behind other sorts of archival material on the public mood (nastroenie) lead Plamper to dismiss these sources as well—specifically the much-discussed party and secret police svodki (203-204).9 Still other resources, like the 1950-1951 Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System, would presumably fare no better in his eyes.

As problematic as such sources are, it seems incautious to exclude them entirely from such a study. Plamper’s analysis is illuminating, whether he is systematically tracking the contours of Pravda’s depiction of Stalin or reconstructing the history of specific works such as A. M. Gerasimov’s canonical 1938 Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin.  Yet this scholarly approach doesn’t reveal much about the way that the cult was experienced among ordinary people whose veneration of Stalin was often more superficial and formulaic than it was articulate and nuanced.  This is clear from interviews from the Harvard Project, which describe the cult as mind-numbingly routine.10 Among this survey’s 79 mentions of art linked to the Stalin cult, 65 deal with the most banal example of this phenomenon—the ever-present Stalin portrait in homes, offices and classrooms (and include 29 accounts of defacing this ubiquitous icon). 11 instances mention newspaper images of Stalin, but most of them actually focus on the taboos associated with the reuse of these editions (such media was not to be used for toilet paper, wrapping fish, etc.). Other, more distinguished sorts of public displays and exhibitions are mentioned in passing only three times, with no discussion of composition or aesthetics at all.  These results may, of course, overemphasize the audacious and irreverent; that said, they also suggest that the art associated with the cult was a more mundane fact of everyday life than previously believed.

When pressed to comment on the meaning of the cult, Harvard Project informants regularly associated praise for Stalin with pledges of allegiance to the party and the state. A former newspaper and radio executive explained this conflation in two separate interviews in 1950-1951, noting that Stalin was regarded as the personification of these other institutions: “Stalin’s name is a symbol along with the Party and that is why he receives all of these greetings and worship.” “Stalin probably does not think of himself as Stalin when all the kudos are being given. He thinks of himself as useful symbol.”11 The general secretary, in this sense, was little different than Uncle Sam or John Bull.

Such anonymous comments are useful to this discussion not only because they supply glimpses of the way that ordinary Soviets thought about the cult, but because they echo what Stalin himself understood about the functioning of the cult. As Plamper recounts on the first page of his introduction, Stalin once harangued his son Vasilii for invoking his famous last name in order to dodge accountability for a drunken scandal.  When he warned his son not to let it happen again, Vasilii whined: “But I’m Stalin too.”  “No you’re not,” the general secretary rebuffed. “You’re not Stalin and I’m not Stalin. Stalin is Soviet power. Stalin is what he is in the newspapers and the portraits, not you, not even me!” (xiii).  Thanks to Plamper’s book, we finally have a sophisticated, thorough-going account of what Stalin was trying to convey through these newspapers and portraits.


  1. The book follows his 2001 dissertation and a 2010 Russian translation of the monograph—Jan Plamper, “The Stalin Cult in the Visual Arts, 1929-1953” (Ph.D. diss., University of California at Berkeley, 2001); idem, Alkhimiia vlasti: kul’t Stalina v izobrazitel’nom iskusstve (Moscow: NLO, 2010).
  2. See my own Propaganda State in Crisis: Soviet Ideology, Indoctrination and Terror under Stalin, 1927-1941 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), chap. 4.
  3. Compare Robert C. Tucker, Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941 (New York: Norton, 1990), 3, to J. Arch Getty, “The Politics of Stalinism,” in The Stalin Phenomenon, ed. Alec Nove (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1993), 119; Brandenberger, “Stalin as Symbol: a Case Study of the Cult of Personality and its Construction,” in Stalin: a New History, eds. Sarah Davies and James Harris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 249-270.
  4. See, for example, RGASPI, f. 558, op. 1, d. 3218, ll. 1-4, published in P. N. Pospelov, “Piat’desiat let Kommunisticheskoi partii Sovetskogo Soiuza,” Voprosy istorii 11 (1953): 21.
  5. On Stalin’s grudging toleration, see Sarah Davies, “Stalin and the Making of the Personality Cult in the 1930s,” in The Leader Cult in Communist Dictatorships: Stalin and the Eastern Bloc, eds. Balasz Apor et al. (London: Palgrave, 2004), 29-46.
  6. Brandenberger, Propaganda State in Crisis, 203.
  7. See, for instance, Lion Feikhtvanger (Leon Feuchtwanger), Moskva 1937 goda (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1937), 64-65.
  8. Plamper would be right to observe that there are exceptions to this rule in the visual arts, e.g. the humanizing photographs of Stalin with children like Mamlakat Nakhangova and Gelia Markizova.
  9. See http://rorotoko.com/interview/20120215_plamper_jan_on_the_stalin_cult/?page=1 (last accessed March 21, 2012); Plamper, “Beyond Binaries: Popular Opinion in Stalinism,” Popular Opinion in Totalitarian Regimes, ed. Paul Corner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 64-80.
  10. HPSSS, no. 308, schedule A, vol. 16, p. 19; no. 408, schedule B, vol. 20, p. 15; no. 475, schedule A, vol. 24, p. 35; no. 9, schedule A, vol. 1, p. 89; etc.
  11. HPSSS, no. 630, schedule A, vol. 29, p. 33; no. 518, schedule A, vol. 26, p. 44; no. 470, schedule A, vol. 23, p. 92; no. 29, schedule A, vol. 3, p. 21; etc.  For the newspaper and radio executive, see HPSSS, no. 359, schedule A, vol. 19, p. 15; no. 359, schedule B, vol. 6, p. 12.
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