Building Stalin’s Personality Cult as a technique of power legitimization

by Ekaterina Soubeva, JCU Alumni and Former President of the IR Society.

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The personality cult towards Stalin can be defined as a strong adoration and kind of worship of Stalin as a leader, which later transferred to his system of government. After the death of Lenin, who was a strong charismatic leader, the Russian revolution needed another strong charismatic leader, who could lead the country through the difficult reforms associated with the transformation to communist system. Stalin did not have the strong charisma of Lenin but he managed to get into power. This led to the need to legitimize his power, unite the nation and present himself as a natural heir of Lenin and his ideology. Stalin’s personality cult was used to build his charisma. The main aim of the establishment of this personality cult was to establish and maintain control, which was very successful considering that Stalin’s name defined a whole political system: “Stalinism”. The personality cult was so strong that Stalin’s name became one with the system he controlled.

The development of the cult can be divided into three main parts, each displaying different features and techniques used to build and sustain the cult: Origins of the cult (1929-1933), Cult fully established (1933-1939), Height of the cult (post 1945). In each of these stages different techniques were used to build and sustain the cult, depending on the situation in the country and the needs of the leader. The beginning of the cult can be traced back to 1929 and the 50th birthday of Stalin. This birthday was commemorated lavishly with huge celebrations and even renaming of towns. The Russian press, especially the newspaper Pravda, which was controlled by Stalin, came out with articles glorifying the leader and portraying him as a hero and a God. Russia, before the revolution of 1917 was an empire ruled by a tsar, who used to be adored and glorified. This adoration and glorification of the tsar was a powerful tool for unification of the masses, especially the poor and uneducated, which were the majority of people in Russia. This need for a charismatic leader transferred from the tsar to Lenin and after Stalin came into power he need to transfer this to himself in order to establish and maintain power and control over the population. In this case the personality cult presented as a necessary tool to achieve this control. Of course, the cult was just one of the main techniques Stalin used to control the masses, including terror and oppression. However, terror and oppression were used towards the ones opposing Stalin and his vision for Russia, while the cult was used for the general population, for the mass population to unite them by giving them a leader to follow and presenting this leader as a hero through extensive use of propaganda and censorship.

From December 1929 onwards the state controlled media and the communist party leadership started to build up the personality cult and portray Stalin as a hero. At the beginning, Stalin was portrayed as equal to Marx and there was a strong emphasis and exaggeration of his connections to Lenin. The state controlled newspaper portrayed Stalin as “Lenin’s most faithful and dedicated pupil and associate”. The tactic of equating Stalin to Lenin was used in the first stages of the building of the cult to help a smooth transition from the charismatic leader Lenin to Stalin, and to try to transfer some of Lenin’s charisma to Stalin, which would help him establish and maintain control and legitimize him as the natural heir of Lenin. Portraits of Stalin with Marx, Engels and Lenin appeared on every official celebration. ‘The Holy quartet’ portraits were put on the Bolshoi Theatre for all official celebrations and parades. (Tucker 6) Stalin was put on the same level as Marx and Lenin regarding Communist philosophical theories. According to Tucker, Stalin took lessons in Marxism as a philosophy and also in Hegelian dialectics twice a week for around 3 years. (Tucker 4) Later on, when the cult was fully established these were replaced by portraits of Stalin alone.

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From 1936, when the cult was fully established Stalin was portrayed as the father of the nation, all powerful and all knowing. The propaganda was especially strong in this period. Portraits, posters and statues of Stalin were all over the USSR – in schools, in administration offices, in every town and village – towns and streets were renamed. The press used phrases as Universal genius’ and ‘Shining Sun of Humanity’, when describing Stalin. In this period the Russian Orthodox Church was abolished and many of the priests were either killed or sent to the Gulag. The portrayal of Stalin as a father of the nation had a double purpose. First it established him as the one leader of the nation but it also had religious connotation. Since the church was abolished, a lot of religious elements and symbols were used into the building of the cult to shift the belief and adoration from the church to the leader. People now called Stalin a father and not the priests in the churches. Between 1933 and 1939 Stalin becomes a symbol, which people associate with the Soviet system itself. Stalin’s name was even included in the new Soviet anthem. Ironically, there was even a peace prize – Stalin Peace Prize that was introduced. Even though in 1936 Stalin banns the practice of naming towns and streets after him to show modesty, he sometimes spoke of himself in 3rd person. This is also evident in when his son uses his name to get out of trouble. When Stalin learns of what his son has done, he is furious and explains the importance of the name as a symbol of the system and that it cannot be used lightly as it represents the whole nation, not just one person.

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“Thank you beloved Stalin for the joyful childhood.”

One of the main part of building the personality cult was the use of the arts – literature, poetry, music, paintings and films. In 1938 the ‘History of the All-Union Communist Party’ was published. This was part of the rewriting of history in order to give Stalin a bigger role in the 1917 revolution and portrayed him as the closest friend and follower of Lenin. The role of Trotsky was diminished and he was described as a traitor, pointing to the fact that he was initially part of the Mensheviks. This book was used as a history textbook in Soviet schools and become a bestseller throughout the USSR. The party history was rewritten also through falsification of documents and photographs. Another part of rewriting the history was the famous letter to the journal Proletarskaia revolutsia that Stalin wrote: “the party pasts of real revolutionaries be evaluated not on the basis of documents that archive rats might turn up or fail to uncover but rather on their individual deeds to communism.” (qtd Strong, Killingsworth 16) After this there was a rush among historians to reevaluate and eventually rewrite history. An evidence of the strong impact of this letter is that after it one of the books about the history of the Commintern was banned because it mentioned Stalin only twice.

This period gave birth to a new movement in the art – the social realism. This was the official style, the accepted style of all arts. Artists were forced to glorify Stalin and the Soviet system. Literary works had to go through a check if they portray the leader and the system in the right way before they get published. Theater plays went through the same process. The poets were encouraged to glorify Stalin in their works. It is interesting to see a poem by an Iranian poet, Lakhuti, who lived in the USSR that glorifies Stalin:

Wise master, Marxist gardener!

Thou art tending the vine of Communism.

Thou art cultivating it to perfection.

After Lenin, vozhd of Leninists (qtd Tucker 19)

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In Persia it is a tradition that dates back to its Empire days to glorify its leaders and it is interesting to see how this Iranian glorifies Stalin in his poetry. This was combined with a huge amount of propaganda images, creating a feeling of unity and purpose – one of the more famous slogans stated that every unit produced is a nail in the coffin of capitalism. Moreover, Stalin’s image was everywhere. In 1939 the newspaper Pravda published between 5 and 40 images of Stalin every month. (Plamper 51) The peak of visual representation of Stalin was between 1934 and 1939, when between 68 and 142 images of Stalin were published annually in Pravda. (Plamper 228) Constant present helped make the personality cult stronger and was used to manipulate the public opinion.

The main aim of the personality cult in this period was to unite the nation and show them that Stalin is a great leader that will lead them through the difficulties of the economic and political struggles Russia was facing. The cult was particularly important during the first 5 year economic plan, which comprised of collectivization and rapid industrialization. The cult also was supposed to distract the masses from the ongoing terror and tyranny of the purges and the oppression of any kind of opposition or difference in opinions. In this period the collectivization and the rapid industrialization had an enormous human cost – millions were killed or died in the Gulags. The terrors of the Gulags were described by the famous Russian author Solzhenitsyn, in whose books the reader can see the tyranny and terror that Stalin used to achieve his goals. One of the most famous sayings of Stalin was “Death solves all problems – no man, no problem.” At the same time, while these atrocities were happening the state controlled media was showing a different picture – one of happy peasants, women and children. The censorship made sure that the media was full of positive stories showing the progress of the Soviet system – the industrialization and the rapid economic growth. The masses were exposed only to the good things that came out of the regime, which made the personality cult even stronger.

Stalin’s relationship with children was an important part of the personality cult. Children were encouraged to see Stalin not only as a father but also as a role model. “Children read, and learnt by heart, standard texts about Stalin’s superhuman courage and wisdom.” (Kelly 5) The slogan “thank you for a happy childhood” was plastered all over schools and kindergartens. The image of Stalin was present in every classroom, similar to the present of the Christian cross is public schools in Italy. Images of Stalin also appeared in children’s magazines, especially the Pioneer press and a tribute to the leader was added to the Pioneer oath. Stalin was also a character in Russian folk tales, known as skazkas and in lullabies. As children are the future of every nation, the fact that Stalin was portrayed as a father figure was associated with the fact that he can take care of the nation and provide for a better future.

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“Under the leadership of the great Stalin – forward to Communism!”

After the end of the Second World War the personality cult towards Stalin was at its height. Stalin was portrayed not only as the Father of the Nation but not he was the man who saved the Soviet Union – from 1945 onwards people started referring to him as ‘Generalissimo”. His childhood home was transformed into a museum, where people can go on a pilgrimage. The war had united Russians under Stalin’s leadership as never before. The struggle and the huge amount of losses during the war legitimized Stalin’s rule and the cult had become stronger than ever. After the war Stalin was seen as a hero, who brought a great victory to all the Russian and also as the savior of Europe. The cult was exported to the new territories under the Soviet Control, especially in Eastern Europe Stalin was portrayed as a liberator. In 1949, the celebrations for his 70th birthday were even bigger and lavisher than for his 50th. The cult has become a way to unite all Russians and people living under Soviet Control, under the Communist Rule and was an effective tool in suppressing any dissent.

The cult was a mix of realpolitik and the psychological needs of Stalin. “Stalin was undoubtedly concerned to forestall future trouble by making his political supremacy more unassailable”. It is interesting that the cult became much stronger after Stalin gained absolute power which according to Tucker shows that it was just a tool of realpolitik but also served Stalin’s psychological need to be considered a hero. (Tucker 2) It is important to note that Tucker writes his analysis in the 1970s during the Cold War and it could be argued that his arguments are Western oriented and one-sided, a way to undermine the USSR and the Communist system as a whole. However, during the 16th party Congress 1930, Louis Fisher reports that the personality cult “exposes a weak side of Stalin’s character” (qtd in Tucker 3)

According to Strong and Killingsworth the study of personality cult is less relevant when we look at countries under Communist rule as their legitimacy is based on tyranny and oppression. (Strong, Killingsworth 3) However, the cult did have a role in the power legitimization process, even if it was mainly to distract the people from the real situation and present them a happy, positive image of the system that they can live with. Russian society after the Revolution was too poor and too uneducated, which according to Marxist theory is not ready for a Revolution. This is why after Lenin’s death Stalin had to find a way to unify and giver purpose to the masses and at the same time legitimize his power. The building of the personality cult suited these goals perfectly. The leader is crucial to establishing legitimacy in a totalitarian system, at least in the beginning. Later on, the charisma of the leader, manufactured or not, can be institutionalized, which would make the system stable even after the death of the charismatic leader. It would be interesting to compare to the personality cult of Stalin, in a communist regime, and Ayatollah Khomeini, in the Islamic republic of Iran. In both cases the charisma of the leaders was so well institutionalized that the personality cult became a cult to the ideology and the system itself, which makes it viable and sustainable in the long run.

Works Cited

  • Kelly, Catriona; Riding the Magic Carpet: Children and leader cult in the Stalin Era; 2005
  • Killingsworth, Matt and Strong, Carol; Stalin the Charismatic leader? Explaining the “Cult Personality” as a legitimation technique; 2011
  • Plamper, Jan; The Stalin Cult; Yale University Press, 2012
  • Tucker, Robert C.; The Rise of Stalin Personality Cult; 1977
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