Jan Plamper’s The Stalin Cult has catalyzed a dynamic, wide-ranging set of exchanges in the past week or so on Russian History Blog. His responses to the posts—particularly his engagement with Joan Neuberger—have been equally provocative. Here I’d like to prompt him to spell out his position a bit further on two other issues.
First, amid Plamper’s open-ended analysis of the emergence of the Stalin cult—“the historical paths . . . were tangled and many” (p. 2)—he rules out a Weberian approach to understanding the cult as an instrument of charismatic power. He writes Weber off with reference to an earlier publication,[1. Jan Plamper, “Introduction: Modern Personality Cults,” in Personality Cults in Stalinism / Personenkulte im Stalinismus, eds. Klaus Heller and Jan Plamper (Gottingen: V & R Unipress, 2004), esp. 34-37.] Edward Shils’s concept of sacrality and Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi’s comment that a Weberian reading of the cult fails to account for crisis times (e.g. 1930-1933, 1937-1938, 1941-1944) when Stalin’s secretariat reduced the prominence of the cult instead of bolstering it.
This argument presents a bit of a conundrum. If Plamper and Falasca-Zamponi are right that the regime scaled back the cult during times of crisis, then this dynamic ought to confound Shils as well as Weber. Shils’s theory, after all, offers a sense of legitimacy and authority that would presumably be in high demand during turbulent times. So is Shils somehow less vulnerable to Falasca-Zamponi’s critique than Weber?
Second, Plamper remains dismissive in regard to the question of reception—indeed, he seems more critical of this area of inquiry in his blog posting than in the book itself. He contends that I am recommending an “older,” “positivistic” approach that is apparently unable to satisfy concerns regarding “representativity,” self-fashioning, document genre, etc. What’s more, he suggests that any inquiry based on the Harvard Project, party and secret police svodki, etc. will inevitably produce an accommodation vs. resistance binary. This is an argument he has made before.[2. Jan Plamper, “Beyond Binaries: Popular Opinion in Stalinism,” Popular Opinion in Totalitarian Regimes, ed. Paul Corner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 64-80.]
Plamper concedes to Falasca-Zamponi that his skepticism in regard to reception and reception theory may be “slightly dated” and “caricature-like.” Perhaps he refers here to the disagreement in the 1970s-1980s between the German school of reception theory (which he obliquely refers to on p. 295, n. 6) and other traditions of literary criticism.[3. See Robert C. Holub, “American Confrontations with Reception Theory,” Monatshefte 81:2 (1989): 213-225; Peter U. Hohendahl and Philip Brewster, “Beyond Reception Aesthetics” New German Critique 28 (1983): 108-146; Holub, “Trends in Literary Theory: The American Reception of Reception Theory,” The German Quarterly 55:1 (1982): 80-96; etc.] In any case, more recent commentary on the subject recommends a hybridized approach, affirming that concerns over authorship, representation and self-fashioning can be reconciled with inquiries into the question of reception.[4. See, for instance, Martyn P. Thompson, “Reception Theory and the Interpretation of Historical Meaning,” History and Theory 32:3 (1993): 248-272.]
This, I suspect, is something Plamper could agree with. After all, in The Stalin Cult, he frequently refers to what he imagines the popular reception of the Stalin cult to have been. This is most visible in his analysis of the cult in Pravda, where such concerns metastasize into a rhetorical device of sorts. For instance: “If a Pravda reader on that December day [in 1929] had any inkling that the eight pages gave but a foretaste of a full-blown Stalin cult, the reader would have certainly thought that this phenomenon was going to be verbal, not visual” (p. 35). “Did images like these [Stalin as pallbearer] establish an uncanny link between Stalin and (violent) death, as in the purges that followed the Kirov murder? Did this link stay in collective memory, ready to be reactivated during mass terror as in 1937?” (p. 42). “In the spring of 1945, Pravda readers could get further visual cues that the end of the war was nearing. Stalin again appeared in the background of photographs…” (p. 55). “There may have been real-life explanations for this change [when Stalin’s profile in Pravda shifted after 1945], such as frail health. However, to Pravda readers this change announced a shift toward absent representations…” (p. 59). “On 23 February 1947 a quarter-page photograph showed Stalin in his parade greatcoat…. He peered attentively and pensively both at and past our imaginary Pravda reader” (p. 65). “[On May 1] [r]eaders encountered ritualized self-commitments to higher plan targets or greetings, both addressed to Stalin, by Yakut reindeer herders, Estonian collective farmers, and Abkhaz lemon growers. […] On May 2, 1947, our imaginary Pravda reader would have looked at a front-page with the usual paratextual matter occupying the masthead—the Pravda title on the left and a prolix slogan on the right” (p. 66). “Stalin alone gazed straight ahead into the camera—making eye contact with our imaginary reader” (p. 67). “To [Stalin’s] left there was another decree by Bulganin ordering a thirty-gun salute—ten more than on any other holiday our Pravda reader would have encountered so far in 1947” (pp. 68-69). “As our imaginary reader leafed through the newspaper there would have been more encounters with Stalin on pages two and three, shown in large posters in the stadium during the parade of white-dressed athletes” (p. 70). “In other words, our imaginary Pravda reader witnessed a double movement of Stalin’s dead body in the photographs during these three days in March 1953: by moving into the background it in fact moved into the foreground” (p. 83). Clearly more than just a figure of speech, Plamper’s fictional Pravda reader indicates concern over how the newspaper coverage was received within Soviet society at large.
Although Plamper is considerably more cautious in regard to archival sources’ potential to inform popular reception, he does not assume an absolute position here either. He notes that comment books contained “genuine sociological information on visitor reactions” during the 1920s (p. 213), before their transformation into more formalistic, performance-oriented exhibits during the 1930s. Even then, Plamper quotes from them at length, setting up a dialogue between the cult’s consumers and its producers (pp. 209-212). Fan mail for the actor A. D. Dikii is treated in the same way for the 1940s (pp. 215-217). After Stalin’s death, comment books once again are held to include a variety of popular views (pp. 219-220).
Plamper is certainly right to question whether the former Soviet archives can ever fully satisfy every question regarding reception. As Plamper noted in my earlier post, I readily concede that even when used critically and triangulated against other sources, these materials can at best offer only glimpses of this “holy grail.” But it seems rash to dismiss such investigations all together or to assert that they must inevitably collapse into some sort of accommodation vs. resistance binary. Especially in regard to the study of the personality cult and other forms of official propaganda, the question of popular reception would seem to be an essential one, not only to inform the dialogue between producers and consumers, but to avoid relying exclusively on our own potentially anachronistic assumptions about how such material resonated in Soviet society.