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 hope I made it clear that I consider The Stalin Cult an excellent work of political and institutional history, from which I learned a great deal about a subject I care about. But my objections to its treatment of the visual culture so central to Stalin’s personality cult do not end with circles. And I do like a good argument. (Can I blame my parents? I grew up in household where arguing about ideas was a sign of love and respect.) Plamper’s discussion of individual works of art may, as he put it, “borrow tools from contemporary visual studies,” but it does so rather unevenly. The result is a book that deserves all the praise it has received from the other bloggers, who largely ignored the visual, but it doesn’t give us a proper sense of the visual culture that made up the cult or the visual experience of living in it.
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.
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.
As a historian interested in visuality in general and Soviet visual culture in particular, I read Jan Plamper’s book with great interest and benefit, but with some perplexity. The book offers us an excellent survey of the production of some of the visual components of the Stalin personality cult and an interpretation of some of those products. The chapter on photos of Stalin in Pravda gave me an almost palpable sense of the progression of the cult over time. The chapters devoted to the artists and institutions that produced the Stalin cult contribute an important case study to a developing body of scholarship about socialist realism in the visual realm. Its discussion of those products and of socialist realism as a system of artistic production, however, left me unsatisfied. I am not trained as an art historian so I want to be careful about making definitive statements here, but I found several of the arguments in the book to have been suggestive but under-developed.
First, I have no doubt that Stalin was understood to be the central point of concentric circles radiating out from his body, his office in the Kremlin, and so on to the borders of the empire, as Plamper argues, but I struggled in vain to see anything circular in the composition and conceptualization of the paintings he singles out for analysis. Both Morning of the Motherland and Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin look to me to be constructed of networks of diagonal lines, making up numerous independent and overlapping triangles.
Morning certainly does place Stalin’s heart in the sun’s spotlight at the center of the painting, but the plows, plow lines, power lines and road all converge at a vanishing point behind Stalin, forming triangles on the horizontal plane of the landscape and a vertical triangle from the right and left edges of the canvas up to Stalin’s head as the apex. The smokestacks in the distance may be on a circular line, as Plamper suggests, but it’s hard for me to see that and it’s more plausible to my eye to see them as another flat line along the horizon making up the base of another triangle with Stalin’s head as the apex again.
Stalin and Voroshilov is even more insistently angular, with diagonals crisscrossing throughout the composition, creating a sense of dynamism underlying the solidity of Stalin’s immobile form (he seems to be both standing still and walking at the same time, a neat trick!) and among the solid, stable architectural elements. One can easily imagine the conceptual circles Plamper proposes, but I can’t see them anywhere in these two paintings.
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?
I’d like to thank Steve Barnes for inviting me to take part in this conversation, and to thank and congratulate Jan Plamper for his book. I should say first of all that I consider The Stalin Cult a remarkable and groundbreaking study, which should quickly become essential reading for all scholars and students of Stalinism and Soviet culture. There is surprisingly little scholarship devoted exclusively to the Stalin cult (David Brandenberger summarises some key works in his earlier post), surprising given the cult’s evident importance for shaping popular views of the leader and, more broadly, attitudes towards the regime that he headed for three decades. Even less of this scholarship is characterised by the rigour and empirical richness of Plamper’s study.
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.
Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Kim Jong-Il, Joseph Stalin. The mere sound of these names conjures up mental images of the personality cult–films, monuments, renamed cities, prose, poetry, and, perhaps most of all, portraiture all designed to raise a dictatorial leader to mythic, super-human status. All Russian history professors teach about the Stalin cult, and students find it endlessly fascinating, yet surprisingly little serious academic research has been devoted to the topic–until now. Yale University Press has just published Jan Plamper’s The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power, and we have brought in a terrific group of experts to discuss what is, in my estimation, an instant classic in the field of Russian history.
Since we held our first blog conversation on Gulag Boss in the fall, we have received a lot of positive feedback on the format and hope to make this a regular feature here at Russian History Blog. (You can read my initial thoughts on the form of the blog conversation.) Periodically, either my co-bloggers or I will pick a book (new or old) or a topic, bring in guest bloggers with appropriate expertise, and invite our readers to participate via commenting on the individual posts. From time to time, we hope to coordinate our efforts with the New Books Network, as we have done for this conversation. Sean Guillory, host of New Books in Russian and Eurasian Studies interviewed Plamper about the book and I urge you to listen to the podcast and join us for the conversation here at the blog. I also hope you will become a regular at New Books in Russian and Eurasian Studies where many an author, myself included, are given the opportunity to talk about our works.