The Stalin Cult

Jan Plamper’s study is a commanding work of scholarship that tests many assumptions about the Stalin cult, places it in the context of modern authoritarian rule, and delves into extensive archival sources to examine its workings of the cult.   His analysis of the cult’s evolution through a systematic reading of Pravda discloses the different personas Stalin assumed in the course of his rule as party leader, as father of peoples, as military leader, as generalissimo, and as just a nice man who loved little girls.  Plamper denotes the shift from photographs to oil paintings as his favored genres.  The painting portray him as a wise and noble agent of change, whose eyes look out into the distance and the future.   Plamper’s chapters on the patronage and the process of criticism and approval of these paintings give a sense of the institutional realities and motivations of those involved in seeking his approval, though I share Joan Neuberger’s feelings that the “circular” analysis of the pictures is strained and unconvincing.  His analysis of comment books makes it possible for him to reach interesting conclusions about popular reception, though ones that he admits are quite tentative.  The books created a sense of participation and informed the authorities on technical matters such as how to arrange exhibitions and change guided tours.  The comment book figured in a process of making the audience a “cult producer,” representing a “pseudodemocratic practice.  Its main purpose became to show to the Soviet Union and to the world that Soviet art was produced by the people and for the people, and hence was `popular’ in both senses of the work.   Reception turned into performance.”(213)

Like Polly Jones and Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, I understand why Plamper avoids the problem of the genesis of the cult but also think that this leaves some basic issues unanswered.   He does cite traditions of reverence of the image of the tsar, the influences of icons, and Byzantine roots but argues quite convincingly argues that these are overshadowed by the very modern nature of the cult, which might draw on these sources, but rather sparingly.   He acknowledges the importance of the intelligentsia tradition of the discussion circle, the kruzhok, in the evolution of the intelligentsia, and the dominant images of the leader of the circle.  But as David Brandenberg observes there is little evidence of such cult like worship of leaders in pre-revolutionary socialist organizations or thought.   Indeed, both SRs and SDs were wary of strong assertive leadership as an aspect of despotic rule.

However, pre-revolutionary Russia political culture comprised other elements conducive to leadership worship—for example, the Jacobin tradition within populism going back to the revolutionaries of the sixties, Nechaev, the leaders of the People’s Will, and Peter Tkachev, and which was taken up by Lenin and placed in a Marxist context in What is to be Done?   I am aware that the significance of this text has in recent decades been challenged by revisionist historians. But I remain convinced that its image of professional revolutionaries, guided by theory and revolutionary consciousness, who could lead and dictate to the masses, remained fundamental to Leninist practice.  While the Bolsheviks certainly did mobilize the masses in 1917, this was under the leadership of professional revolutionaries in the party, and particularly Lenin as the decision overthrow the Provisional Government suggests.  So that while Orthodox Marxism might dictate a modest leadership, Leninism certainly did not.

Of course, the role of personal leadership came out only after October, 1917, but when it did, its signs were unmistakable.  As Olga Velikanova showed not only were efforts made to adulate Lenin, which he avoided, but from the start minor cults arose, around lesser leaders: the Gatchina area was named Trotsk, Ligovo, Uritsk after the Chairman of the Petrograd Cheka, Ashkabad, Poltoratsk after a Soviet leader of Turkmenistan.[i]  These developments were an outcome of the devastation of the administrative structure and legal basis of the Russian state and the eradication of the nascent parties and political life of prerevolutionary Russia.   In “Two Tactics of Social Democracy,” Lenin had introduced the principle of a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry based on an uprising of the masses, relying on armed force “and not on institutions of one kind or another and established in a ‘lawful’ or ‘peaceful’ way.’”

In this context, we witness an archaizing process that left the leadership with an inherited administrative system and practices and where the role of the ruler or leader had to compensate for the weaknesses of governmental institutions.  A basic tenet of tsarist rule had been that the ruler stood above interests and could govern for the “general welfare.”  The Bolsheviks restored this mental set, with theory guiding the state, now in the path to socialism.

While Plamper is quite right that Stalin did not appear in the guise of the tsar, for he was a modern leader, he nonetheless used some of the same institutions and practices.  The political police made sure that no one contested the leadership role of the party.  The “immodest modesty” of Stalin also resembled the conduct of several Russian tsars, who preferred not to exert their will openly, but waited till their servitors fathomed their wishes, or planted new ones in their minds.[ii]   In this respect, I wonder whether the officials that enforced Stalin’s wishes followed a similar etiquette, and whether they followed the pattern that Ian Kershaw described as “going toward Hitler.”   In this context, Stalin, like the tsars, ensured himself a freedom one might say capriciousness of decision, which must have infused all of the institutions and officials seeking to please him.   Jan Plamper’s book, by delineating so carefully the mechanisms and functioning of the cult, and by analyzing its grotesque, phantasmagoric products, not only makes known its details and evolution, but suggests the magnitude of its unspeakable horror.

[i] Olga Velikanova, The Making of an Idol: On Uses of Lenin (Göttingen, Muster-Shmidt Verlag, 1996), 37.

[ii] See M. D. Dolbilov, “Rozhednie imperatorskikh reshenii: Monarkh, sovetnik i `vysochaishaia volia’ v Rossii XIXv.” Istoricheskie zapiski 9 (127), 2006, 5-48; Anatolii Viktorovich Remnev, Samoderzhavnoe Pravitel’stvo: Komitet Ministrov v sisteme vyschego upravlenia Rossiiskoi imperii (vtoraia polovina XIX—nachalo XX veka)( Moscow: Rossiiskaia politicheskaia entsiklopediia (ROSSPEN), 2010.


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