The Stalin Cult

The Stalin Cult – Response by Jan Plamper

A huge thanks to all participants for taking the time to engage with my book and thanks to Steven Barnes for arranging this conversation and its stellar cast in the first place.

The conversation so far has broached many important issues, four of which have recurred in more than one post—(1) the genesis of the Stalin cult; (2) the phenomenon I call “immodest modesty” (did Stalin want his cult?); (3) my readings of key Stalin portraits and especially the circle pattern I identify in these; (4) and reception. Let me try to address the issues in this order.

The genesis of the Stalin cult. David Brandenberger, Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, and Richard Wortman in one way or another all ask if the paths to the Stalin cult that I retrace in the first chapter are the best, or the only, way of explaining the beginnings of the cult. The debate hinges on whether we pursue more long-term genealogical lines or turn to shorter-term explanations. All three discussants concur that short-term explanations are downplayed in my account. Brandenberger challenges my point that the culture of the intelligentsia circles, including leftist circles, fostered cult-building, arguing that there was little evidence of cult-building in Russian Social Democracy before the Revolution. Instead he brings back into play a Weberian interpretation of both the Lenin and Stalin cults as instances of “charismatic authority” and cites social integration of an anomic population as the cult’s main function. Falasca-Zamponi counters that the cult “was always dimmed in difficult times such as when the regime felt a threat to its power,” referring to collectivization, WW II, etc. Accordingly, she would like to know more about the inner-party power struggles and mechanisms (1927-29?) that were immediately behind the launching of the cult. Wortman, like Brandenberger, points out that cult-building was not prevalent in the prerevolutionary leftist intelligentsia and instead suggests that it was Leninism, a particular brand of Russian Social Democratic thought and practice, that, in combination with other factors (some tsarist elements plus the underinstitutionalization resulting from the First World War and the Civil War), created a fertile ground for Soviet personality cults. As evidence, he cites several minor cults constructed before Lenin’s death in 1924 around such Bolsheviks as Uritsky or Trotsky.

Regarding the most short-term explanations, the power struggles surrounding the launching of the Stalin cult on 21 December 1929 have been reconstructed by Benno Ennker (cited in my book on pp. 239 n. 6, 242 n. 5, 249 n. 2). This is, I believe, an important part of the story, but only a part. One still needs to explicate why the historical actors involved in this concrete situation built a cult—in spite of the fundamental problems the glorification of individual rule posed in a polity that claimed to be implementing a collectivist ideology. Charisma doesn’t do the job—for the reason that Falasca-Zamponi emphasizes (the cult-producers scaled back the cult whenever social integration was most needed) and for general theoretical reasons I elaborate elsewhere (cited on p. 240 n. 16).

The longer I looked into the cult, the more I wondered why it seemed to come so naturally to its makers, why it was so overdetermined. This is why I ended up sketching “historical paths” that “were tangled and many” (p. 2), all the while “allowing for much overlap and nonlinear historical development” (p. 24)—nods to Foucauldian genealogy and notions of causality and agency that are less direct and clear-cut than some might wish.

The Stalin cult, then, can be traced to a host of factors. Some of these are general, such as the contemporaneous modern personality cults of Mussolini et al. Some are Russian, such as the “tsarist carryover” and the socialization of Bolsheviks in intelligentsia circles. Here, the suggestions to investigate Leninism more closely are most welcome. Wortman’s brief sketch of what kind of picture might emerge is masterful. If I could write the book all over I would certainly incorporate this as another path among the complex and tangled multiplicity of paths I managed to identify. But I’d insist: as one of many other paths.

“Immodest modesty.” David Brandenberger takes me to task for reading too much between the lines and not allowing for enough sincerity when Stalin curbed his own cult. However, by citing the Short Course and Stalin’s censoring of “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,” and claiming that Stalin was particularly critical when cult products were “aimed at more educated and sophisticated audiences,” Brandenberger in fact seems to confirm my thesis of reading this censorship as shrewdly manipulative: Stalin instrumentally tailored the cult to specific audiences.

Richard Wortman is probably right when arguing that “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.” But that applied to most decision-making at the pinnacle of power in Stalin’s time—in a way, it is the universal definition of despotism. It doesn’t really account for the first and most obvious fact any study of the Stalin cult needs to explain: namely the enormous cult that did develop, despite its incongruity with Marxism and despite the vast resources it devoured in times of famine. The curbed cult-building, in my mind, should always be explained against the backdrop of the cult-building that did occur.

Interpreting the Stalin portraits: circularity. I’m not quite sure what to do with Joan Neuberger’s commentary, which claims that my readings of specific Stalin portraits, especially their spatial arrangement in concentric circles around the figure of Stalin, is unconvincing.

For one, I think she reads “circles” too literally. In one place I also speak of “concentric zones” (p. 98) and I believe I can show that the principle holds for most Stalin paintings (I adduce many more in addition to the Gerasimov and Shurpin paintings reproduced in her post). About my point that Gerasimov deliberately broke the railing behind Stalin and Voroshilov in order to allow for the creation of a visual axis between Stalin and the people on the embankment, celebrating the connection between vozhd’ and narod, Neuberger writes that “closer inspection reveals that even if the railing had been unbroken there, the people would have been visible.” I am aware of this, but it doesn’t answer the question of why Gerasimov chose to break the railing in the first place.

As for my general interpretation of socialist realism, I would suggest that Neuberger is too selective in focusing on one quotation and then reducing my analysis to this one quotation, whereas, in fact, I make multiple statements on socialist realism, which together construe socialist realism as an evolving, site-specific practice (see e.g. pp. 185-192). What is more, Neuberger takes the Groys quotation out of context and thus skews its meaning; Groys never implied that socialist realism was “a truly irreducible other.” Invoking Feyerabend, he spoke of socialist realism’s status in “today’s cultural context—in a world where otherwise ‘anything goes’” (p. 115). My observations that follow this quotation concern precisely this issue and the question of why we don’t have a “conventional” art historical interpretation of a Stalin portrait, whereas many other art products of past despotic regimes have become sufficiently historicized to enter the purview of regular art history. I do continue to maintain that back in 2003, when an early version of chapter 3 appeared, I was the first to interpret a socialist realist Stalin portrait with “normal” analytical tools borrowed from contemporary visual studies and that there are risks involved in trying something new. This being said, I agree that one can always do more and better; like most authors, I feel that I barely scratched the surface.

Reception. Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi is certainly right that in the opening paragraphs of the last chapter I offer a slightly dated, caricature-like depiction of “reception” that state-of-the-art cultural history has outgrown. Yet Brandenberger’s take on the issue illustrates that some of the older approaches to reception are still prevalent. So does the Russianist svodki discussion he alludes to. As Polly Jones intimates, the point about the Harvard interview project sources Brandenberger adduces is precisely that they do not “supply glimpses of the way that ordinary Soviets thought about the cult” (Brandenberger’s words). If one takes Brandenberger’s positivist stance, then questions of representativity, the identity and self-fashioning of émigrés, the structure of the interviews, etc. immediately come up. And I assure you, if, in the end, any “glimpses” remain at all, these will fall into accommodation vs. resistance binaries and leave you wondering: so what?

* * *

I hope this is enough by way of an initial response from me. I could have touched on many other fascinating issues brought up by the participants, including the questions that Polly Jones raises about the cult’s transmediality or its post-1953 afterlife, or Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi’s intervention about the conceptualization of the cult (are Shils and Geertz still the best we have in order to know the cult on a theoretical level?). We might return to them at a later point. In closing I want to reiterate my profound gratitude to the participants for their serious and perceptive engagement with my book.

3 replies on “The Stalin Cult – Response by Jan Plamper”

Though I know this does not fall in the purview of your book, I wonder about the mechanisms for the post-Stalin construction of the Stalin cult (a point raised in the comment from Polly Jones). What got me thinking about this was an item I saw today in the news about the revival of the Stalin cult today — and in particular the wild popularity of school notebooks with Stalin’s image on the front cover ( Obviously, this is a very different phenomenon from what you discuss and certainly fulfills very different functions. But it also must build on the foundations of the original cult construction. Or does it? Is there anything we can learn about the Stalin cult’s origins by looking at its present construction and propagation?
Thanks by the way to you and all the commentators for an extremely enlightening and useful exchange.

Hi Andy,

thanks for your comment. I’m not sure there is much we can learn about the Stalin cult’s origins by looking at Stalin’s image in present-day Russia. The situation today seems very different to me–a (more or less) open public sphere, new media, etc. I also wouldn’t call Stalin’s image in contemporary Russia a “cult.” I’d be wary of using that term expansively. It loses its analytical power and will end up being as unspecific as “culture.” In fact, in the book I opted for a “harder,” social-science-like definition (pp. xv-xvi) after audiences at talks kept mentioning current politicians, pop stars, and athletes as examples of personality cults.

To me, Stalin’s image in today’s Russia is most interesting in what it tells us about national identity, collective memory, and so on. But Polly Jones and others are much better qualified than myself to say something meaningful about this.

Best, Jan

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