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.
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. 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).] 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.