Stalin’s Cult of Personality: Its Origins and Progression

Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ given at the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956 denounced Josef Stalin for “[perverting] Party principles” by creating a “cult of the person of Stalin”. Though the term ‘cult of personality’ was coined in the 19th century, it was popularised in its use as a referral to Josef Stalin’s regime. For me, ‘cult of personality’ means the veneration of one omnipotent, infallible leader – a belief ingrained in society, visually and culturally. Autocratic totalitarianism, enshrined in propaganda. This article will take us through an analysis of how Stalin established and maintained a cult of personality, touching on how successful it was.

Establishing a ‘Cult of Personality’ – the legacy of autocracy

Looking backwards from the rule of Stalin, to Lenin and the Tsarist regime, it is clear that modern Russia had a history of autocratic rule, making it easier for Stalin to establish himself as an autocratic ruler. The Russian people were habituated to supporting an all-powerful leader, not just tacitly however, since the regime had a visual place in modern Russian society. This is not to say that the Russians were always happy with their leader (casting our minds to the subject of the Russian Revolution), but that, culturally, images of and references to the autocratic ruler were commonplace in society.

Lenin Corner

An example of a Lenin Corner in an elementary school.

In 19th century Tsarist Russia, the legitimacy and presence of the ruler could be felt through various mediums. The Tsar was “the guardian and defender of the Orthodox Church.” Considering the Russian Orthodox Church did not have a papacy, the Tsar was the head of the church. This meant that obedience to God was also obedience to the Tsar. Every household had a ‘Red Corner’ with ikons of saints that supposedly produced ‘sacral energy,’ showing the authority of the Church in people’s homes: married couples used to cover the ikons with a curtain when arguing for fear of being “punished.” The legitimacy of the Tsar at the top of society was also secured by the Imperial line of succession, as well as the Law – Tsars had the power to rule by decree. The 1832 Fundamental Laws convey the “Emperor of all the Russias” as “an autocratic and unlimited monarch.” In terms of presence, the power of the autocratic regime could be seen through architecture – be it the Kremlin, the Winter Palace or more recently constructed monuments such as the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, or the equestrian statue of Nicholas I in St. Petersburg.

Fast-forwarding to Communist Russia, the rule of Lenin certainly paved the way to Stalin’s acquisition of despotic power. Lenin himself enjoyed cult-like status, for instance, when Russian workers visited Lenin in his office in the Kremlin, they had to go through a disinfectant room before being ushered into his presence. The politician Grigory Zinoviev wrote of Lenin in 1918 that he was “the chosen one of millions.”  The cult of Lenin only intensified after Lenin’s death in January 1924. When he died, an autopsy on his brain was performed to scientifically prove him a genius. He was then embalmed and placed in a Mausoleum that still stands today. Small shrines – ‘Lenin Corners’ – were introduced in workplaces and villages, designed according to guidelines issued by the party in February 1924. They also existed earlier in the 1920s in schools prior to party instruction. He was the leader of the Revolution and the founder of Marxist-Leninism.

In Lenin’s shadow – Stalin’s road to power

Komsomol Generation

“Long live the Komsomol generation! Stalin” (1948)

After Lenin’s death on the 24th January 1924, Stalin emerged as Lenin’s legatee at Lenin’s funeral whilst Trotsky, Stalin’s main political rival, was out of town and unwell, unable to attend. Prior to Lenin’s death, Stalin had climbed his way through the ranks of the party by working his way into Lenin’s inner circle; he was described as “Lenin’s right hand man.”  This is an accurate interpretation of Stalin’s role in government: he had indeed been appointed General Secretary of the Communist party in April 1922 and Lenin and he had initially been close. However, nearer to Lenin’s death, Lenin had begun compiling a political testament expressing distrust towards Stalin after learning of Stalin’s rude character and his potential to organise violence against his opponents. He urged that Stalin be removed from his position as General Secretary. To bypass this and continue building his power base, Stalin ensured that references to said testament were considered anti-Soviet and a punishable offence. Stalin’s cult was dependent on Lenin’s legacy – he falsified photographs and essentially re-wrote the past to legitimise succession. Furthermore, images of Lenin were used constantly throughout Stalin’s rule to continually reinforce this idea. Revolutionary Russia and Leninism as a whole was an invention that could be reproduced. By portraying himself as the embodiment of Marxist-Leninism, Stalin could build from the already-existent hero worship of Lenin, and transfer that admiration and trust to him as a leader figure, and create his own cult in the wake of Lenin. Stalin upheld the core principles of Marxist-Leninism: having a centralised government and the ideology of a class-struggle both on a domestic and global scale, making him in tune with the public sentiment. People trusted him as Lenin’s successor to lead them on the path to socialism.

The maintenance of Stalin’s ‘Cult of Personality’

Glory to Stalin

“Glory to Stalin – to the great architect of Communism!” (1940)

Stalinist propaganda was everywhere, indoctrinating the peoples, conditioning them to believing that Stalin was infallible and god-like, working to achieve perfect socialism with regards to the best interests of the people. An example of how grotesque and over-the-top his propaganda was can be seen with the celebration of his 70th birthday: a gigantic portrait of Stalin was suspended above the Red Square from a balloon, and “the day’s copy of Pravda devoted every line of its 12 pages except for 2 column inches of women’s chess to him.” His image was all around, there were icons of him in every home, marches and parades involved giant banners of his face, and there were many oil paintings produced of him. Cinemas displayed Soviet documentaries, and Stalinist posters were commonplace. The image of Stalin had penetrated society and bound all the people to his constant presence, regardless of their education or background. The cult was always visually forced upon them. Even during the famines, it was said that there was “no bread on the table but Stalin on the wall.” At Stalin’s funeral the crowds were such that many were crushed to death. Stalinist propaganda served well in masking the darker side of the regime, and in bending the truth. For most people, it was not until years after the regime that they realised its flaws. As Andrei Sakharov (the famous Russian nuclear physicist) said, “it was years before I fully understood the degree to which deceit, exploitation and outright fraud were inherent in the whole Stalinist system. That shows the hypnotic power of mass ideology”.

Stalin’s dedication to keeping himself a public figure, hiding his private life and personality, mystified him and made his cult stronger. His conviction and belief in his own cult added to this, he was obsessed with his own image: for instance, he chided his son Vasily for exploiting the name Stalin, saying that “Stalin” was “Soviet power…not you, not even me”. He had his speeches recorded onto gramophones with one side consisting solely of applause and cheering. The cult was his political machine, which secured his position in power.

He also used education and youth movements – the Komsomol and the Young Pioneers – to create a new generation of believers in order to maintain his position in society. Schools were organised as miniature versions of the Soviet State, with children encouraged to denounce rule breakers, resulting in classroom trials. Playground games included a Soviet version of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ known as ‘Reds and Whites’, with boys fighting over who was to play Lenin in the game. Being part of the Pioneers was fashionable and they wore their red neckerchiefs (part of the uniform) with pride, giving them a sense of social inclusion. By encouraging children to behave like Party Members, and overtaking the role of the family in shaping their minds and values, Stalin’s cult was sure to survive many generations following such heavy indoctrination. Even higher education included a heavy focus on indoctrinating its students. Through the reformed education system, the youth were gradually moulded into accepting Stalin and the current system, stemming the development of a will to question the system they lived in.

Stalin had people blindly trust in his leadership because his regime generated success, despite his brutality: “after a ten-hour day the worker went to night-school on an empty stomach in a freezing room on a backless bench… He didn’t have much but felt he’d have more next year. His children were going to school. He was secure against sickness, as were his children. Unemployment had been forgotten”. The historian Brian Moynahan describing the worker as being “on an empty stomach” is an understatement considering the fact that there were several famines, some so dire that in one case some parents had pickled and eaten their own child from starvation. However, the underlying meaning rings true: while America and the rest of the world were experiencing the Great Depression, Russia was emerging as an industrial superpower, due to Stalin’s Five Year Plans, contrasting highly to the largely illiterate and industrially backward state that existed during the time period of 1855-1917.

Did people genuinely subscribe to Stalin’s ‘Cult of Personality’?

Woman and Children

Woman and children work at a Gulag (1932)

However, it is questionable how much of this public sentiment was genuine and whether people were simply forced into outwardly adoring Stalin. There are countless examples of the fear that Stalin provoked within people. For instance, at a party congress, when Stalin’s name was mentioned everybody stood up, remaining on their feet as they were fearful of sitting and ending their gesture of respect. Eventually one old man got tired and sat down, and he was arrested the next day. Stalin’s use of terror fortified the obedience of the Russian people. An example of this was the Great Terror, with mass murder on such a scale – “killing by quota” – that during the Great Terror from 1936 to 1939 there were approximately as many executions per day as there was in the entire period from 1855 to 1917. People were under constant threat of being arrested, as a result of being monitored by the secret police, the NKVD. Similarly, Stalin had the power to have party officials arrested and replaced as he had the ability to command brute force and violence whenever he felt fit. It is difficult to estimate how many people died during the Great Terror, but it is known that over 20 million people were interned in Gulags, of which, an estimate suggests, that about half of them died (mainly of starvation). This type of fatal repression featured again in World War II – ‘the Great Patriotic War’ – where deserter Soviet soldiers were shot. Stalin consolidated his position of power even more after the war, taking responsibility for the victory, and seeming great for being a good statesman and sacrificing 27 million lives (more than 40 times than the lives lost of Britain and America combined) to the cause of peace. World War II demonstrated a great propaganda victory for the rule of the lie.


Man of Steel

The name ‘Stalin’ itself, means ‘Man of Steel’: with stal meaning steel in Russian, and ‘-in’ being a suffix used by many Bolsheviks, including Lenin. This name was created by Stalin during his Revolutionary career. He was in fact born as Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili on 18th December 1878 in the town of Gori, Georgia (which was then part of the Russian Empire).

Ultimately, we can see that Stalin would not have been able to establish a cult of personality without drawing from the   successes of his predecessors, particularly Lenin, and traditions of autocracy. Had it not been for Marxist-Leninism, Stalinism would not exist. By manipulating the past, Josef Stalin was able to carve out a position of autocratic power for himself. Although his cult was dependent on that of Lenin throughout the regime, with Lenin’s image being used constantly in propaganda posters, as Stalin’s regime came into fruition, his terror and propaganda machine allowed for him to maintain such power until his death in 1953. Anyone who opposed Stalin was an enemy of the party, making it very difficult for opposition to exist, especially a united one likely to overthrow his leadership. While it is difficult to truly ascertain how genuinely popular Stalin was, or whether people were either too afraid or misinformed to rebel, one fact remains: Stalin remained leader of the Soviet Union until he was on his deathbed. Allowing him to maintain a position of power and terror for years, there is no doubt that Stalin’s cult of personality was one of the strongest cults of the individual in modern history.

Written by Julia Kenny


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