In reply to my question about “going toward Hitler,” Plamper writes “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.” I am not sure that that is a definition of despotism, though it certainly is a principal characteristic. And perhaps it does not relate directly to the question of the Stalin cult. But I was wondering about the modus operandi of Stalin particularly in regard to his image of modesty, and in comparison with other cults particularly Hitler’s ideologically proclaimed leader principle. (pp. 18-19) In regard to the strategies of the artists or journalists to determine the images and shifts in imagery that Plamper shows so well, was this the result of a message communicated by figures close to Stalin, and/or a process of approximation awaiting higher approval like “going toward Stalin?” I raise this question by way of clarification not of disagreement. It may be that the manner of modesty was not only a way to avoid the ideological difficulties of personal rule in a Marxist framework, but also a means of generalizing uncertainty, the signs of approval even being less obvious than in Hitler’s open dictatorial rule.
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.