The Stalin Cult

I’d like to thank Steve Barnes for inviting me to take part in this conversation, and to thank and congratulate Jan Plamper for his book.  I should say first of all that I consider The Stalin Cult a remarkable and groundbreaking study, which should quickly become essential reading for all scholars and students of Stalinism and Soviet culture. There is surprisingly little scholarship devoted exclusively to the Stalin cult (David Brandenberger summarises some key works in his earlier post), surprising given the cult’s evident importance for shaping  popular views of the leader and, more broadly, attitudes towards the regime that he headed for three decades. Even less of this scholarship is characterised by the rigour and empirical richness of Plamper’s study.

Until now, we have had very little evidence or analysis of the mechanisms through which Stalin’s image was constructed and disseminated across the Soviet Union. It is to the author’s credit that he has trawled through an enormous range of archives (not just the main party-state depositories, but also smaller and less well-known archives such as that at the Tret’iakov gallery) to trace these processes in as much, fascinating detail as possible. I particularly enjoyed the meticulous analysis of the meticulous scrutiny to which ‘draft’ paintings of Stalin were subjected before going on public display. Given that Stalin did not sit for his portraits, one feels a certain sympathy for artists rebuked for failing to represent Stalin correctly. Of course, as Plamper shows (as part of a broader and lucid analysis of how Socialist Realist doctrine was constantly evolving in practice, through such criticism of individual art-works), what was required of artists was not verisimilitude, as much as adherence to the canonical image, or narrative, of ‘Stalin’ (above all as the human, or superhuman, embodiment of progress to the future). What remains somewhat unclear in Plamper’s study is where this image of Stalin, used to judge these art-works, itself originated: was the cult textual in origin, with visual culture being used as another medium (arguably more ubiquitous, inescapable and therefore effective than, for example, literature) through which to convey its ideas? Clearly, the different media of the cult were intertwined and interdependent, but I would have welcomed more consideration of the ‘hierarchy’ of genres, for example whether oil painting (Plamper’s main, though not exclusive, focus) was intended to reproduce a pre-existing image of Stalin, or to originate new images of the leader.

It is equally to the author’s credit that he is honest about those aspects of the cult that cannot be precisely ascertained from any of the available sources: notably, the cult’s reception, and Stalin’s exact role in constructing the cult (though, as David Brandenberger’s post above also notes, the book does argue rather—too?—strongly against the view that Stalin disliked, or sought to limit, his cult). Regarding the latter, Plamper is appropriately sceptical, for example, about the ‘Stalin fund’ (now digitised by Yale, and hence now more likely to be mined by scholars), seeing parts of it as attempts at disinformation about Stalin’s participation in the cult. Regarding the former point, though, I concur with David Brandenberger in wishing that Plamper had not been so cautious about judging the issue of reception, though I am not convinced that émigré interviews offer a much better solution.

My own interest in the cult is ‘retrospective’: I am interested in the cult and its influence over the Soviet population, insofar as it helps to explain the difficulties that plagued the process of de-Stalinisation after Stalin’s death. It is ironic, though not very surprising (given the dire penalties for criticising Stalin during his lifetime), that we can currently glean a much better sense of popular attitudes to Stalin, and to his cult, from materials gathered after his death, and especially after criticism had been authorised and even encouraged by the new Soviet leadership. Of course, these sources have their own problems: especially in party meetings responding to the Secret Speech, for example, participants were clearly trying to tell Soviet leaders what they thought they wanted to hear. What is striking, though, is not only how differently they construe the limits of criticism, but also how much emotion pervades (and disrupts) even formal discussions of ‘the cult of personality’, and not just in the key year of 1956.  Plamper’s study ends with some examples of popular reactions to Stalin’s death three years earlier, as proof of the ‘alchemy’ that the cult had achieved by then; my own work on de-Stalinisation suggests that the cult’s image of Stalin persisted for far longer. How fascinating it would be to find records of attitudes to Stalin and his cult during, rather than after, this alchemical process. But do such sources exist anywhere in the Soviet archives?

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