The Stalin Cult

The Stalin Cult – Between Reality and Representation

I am grateful to Steven Barnes for inviting me to participate in this conversation on Jan Plamper’s fascinating book, The Stalin Cult.  As an outsider to the field of Russian studies, I hope my comments will add to the liveliness of the debate on a topic that is intellectually puzzling and stimulating.  In the first page of the introduction to The Stalin Cult, Jan Plamper boldly sets the tone for his study by asserting that the person of Stalin was indistinguishable from his portrait.[1. Jan Plamper, The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).] In a few striking lines, Plamper draws attention to the way the Soviet people thought of and related to Stalin during his years of reign ‒ a blending of reality and representation that often showed no clear demarcating lines.  This blending, according to Plamper, is key to understanding the Stalin cult.  It indicates the central role portraits played in the production of the cult; in addition, and most importantly, it reveals the constructed nature of the cult itself via the medium of art.  The book’s goal is indeed to delineate the modalities in which the cult was launched beginning in 1929 (and later adapted and modified according to the historical circumstances) by underlining the cult’s orchestration from above, including Stalin’s personal involvement.  The book thus analyzes and dissects the manufacturing of the cult both temporally and stylistically through a semiotic reading of visual representations that reveal even more layers of interpretive complexity in a phenomenon where the line between fake and authentic becomes ever more blurred and trickier to decipher.  Stalin’s “immodest modesty” is a case in point.  Archival sources, generally considered reliable keepers of historical data, were “contaminated” by the regime to hide the constructed nature of Stalin’s modesty, in an endless game of role playing that continuously undermined any mundane notion of reality, at the same time that it made hard any effort at fact-finding on the part of future researchers.

Plamper clearly states that his study focuses on the making of the cult of Stalin as opposed to its genesis or its function.  Indeed, that’s where his book’s originality resides, and I fully embrace Plamper’s approach.  Plamper pays attention to the practices and institutions that made possible the production of the cult, and looks at the relationships between the party and the artists in charge of producing images of Stalin as a way to decipher the artists’ representational choices.  The idea at the heart of the project is that we cannot take the cult of Stalin at face value, as a naturally evolving phenomenon.  Accordingly, the art that sustained the cult was not a spontaneous and free expression of the artists’ outpouring of admiration for the leader.  Indeed, the book proves the intricate ways in which various political protagonists controlled the cult of Stalin through direct influence on and patronage of artists.

However, I have to confess that throughout the book the issue of the cult’s genesis kept lingering in my mind because I could not quite gauge why the regime or/and Stalin himself decided to implement the cult.  What kind of purpose did they think the cult would serve?  Or did they conceive the cult outside of specific goals?  If one focuses on the legitimizing function of the cult, for example, it is clear that the cult failed right when the regime needed it the most.  As Plamper shows, Stalin’s cult was always dimmed in difficult times such as when the regime felt a threat to its power.  What was the regime then thinking when setting up the cult?     In other words, if legitimation was not the regime’s main motivation, what did the cult mean to those who produced it as well as those who were its target?  Who decided to make a cult of Stalin and why?  Was it the result of a power struggle, a competition within the party?  Was it a way to eliminate the competition, or was always something the party wished to pursue for different reasons?  Ultimately, the larger issue that Plamper’s book raises for me is: can one separate the production of culture from the meanings and aims involved in the process of production?  I am operating here within a classic Weberian approach: to understand an action one must know the meanings guiding it.