Stalin's Cult of Personality

Nowadays, the idea of a personality cult around a political leader seems truly bizarre. The notion that we'd have artwork, busts, and even rooms devoted to our politicians is an alien concept. In the Soviet Union during the 20th century, however, the cult of Stalin certainly existed.

Stalin's Cult of Personality Stalin's Cult of Personality

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Table of contents

    Cult of Personality

    Also known as a personality cult, it refers to a situation where a public figure is shown as an idealised, heroic, god-like figure.

    Stalin's Cult of Personality Origins

    Joseph Stalin propagandised his relationship with Vladimir Lenin to establish his cult of personality. Let's explore how and why he did this.

    Lenin's Death

    One of the critical components of Stalin's cult of personality was the death of Vladimir Lenin.

    Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin had initially been close friends. When Stalin was appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1922, he became, by definition, Lenin's right-hand man. As time drew on, however, Lenin's reservations about Stalin grew. Lenin began to view Stalin as rude, impatient, and somewhat disloyal. By the time Lenin died on 24 January 1924, he had concluded that Stalin was not the right man to succeed him.

    Despite Lenin's critique, Stalin fought off his political rivals and emerged as the leader of the Soviet Union after Lenin's death in January 1924. Stalin managed to all but suppress Lenin's criticism of him, frequently depicting Lenin as his great teacher.

    Did you know? After Lenin's death, nearly half a million pictures of Lenin and Stalin chatting on a bench appeared across the Soviet Union.

    The Cult of Stalin Lenin and Stalin StudySmarterFig. 1 Stalin and Lenin chat together on a bench.

    Stalin's Cult of Personality Progression

    Stalin's 50th birthday party in December 1929 developed his cult of personality. Stalin managed to utilise the momentous occasion to establish himself as Lenin's successor and the new father of the Soviet Union.

    Ostensibly, the party was a joint celebration intending to commemorate both Stalin's birthday and honouring the life of Lenin. In public, Stalin rejected all notions that he was Lenin's equal, appearing modest and humble to the Soviet people. However, as plans for the party drew nearer, the celebration shifted dramatically and centred predominantly on Stalin. By 1933, there were twice as many pictures of Stalin in Moscow than Lenin himself.1

    Components of Stalin's Cult of Personality

    Stalin's cult of personality relied on three central tenets:

    Propaganda

    Propaganda was at the centre of Stalin's cult of personality. State censorship and press restrictions allowed Stalin to portray himself near-perfectly. All pictures, films, and posters showed Stalin in a positive light, depicting him as a god-like figure who was the undisputed father of the Soviet Union.

    Rewriting History

    Rewriting history became a fundamental tenet of Stalin's cult of personality. Upon becoming leader of the Soviet Union, Stalin's contribution to the 1917 Revolution was heavily exaggerated; he was portrayed as an ardent Bolshevik revolutionary and the most loyal follower of Lenin. Such revisions remained commonplace throughout his premiership. When communist official Avel Enukidze was denounced as an enemy of the state, Stalin simply ordered Enukidze to be removed from all Communist Party photos.

    Idealisation

    Throughout his leadership, Stalin was portrayed as superior and almost god-like. He was shown as Lenin's heir, the perfect Soviet worker, a war hero, an economics expert, and the father of the Soviet Union.

    Stalin's Cult of Personality Examples

    After establishing his cult of personality, Stalin became omnipresent in all aspects of Soviet life.

    Culture

    Throughout his leadership, Stalin became the focus of arts and culture. There were countless poems, films, pieces of literature, and even pieces of music written about him. Musical testimonials of Stalin's greatness began with Alexander O. Avdeenko's 'Hymn to Stalin' in 1935 and culminated during the Second World War when Stalin's name was included in the Soviet National Anthem.

    Many monuments also iterated the love of the Soviet leader. This is exemplified in the Stalin monument in Prague – a massive seventeen thousand tonne monument that took some five years to construct!

    The Cult of Stalin Stalin Monument StudySmarterFig. 2 Prague's Stalin Monument.

    As well as grand public monuments dedicated to Stalin, artworks of the Soviet leader were also prevalent in the homes of everyday people. Many Soviet citizens had Stalin-themed rooms adorned with artwork of their leader.

    Public/Personal Life

    Throughout his leadership, Stalin kept his public and personal life completely separate. This created a sense of mystery and made his cult of personality even stronger. He dismissed all interest in his family life, only giving away limited private information. The sense of mystery surrounding Stalin made him popular all over the world.

    The Cult of Stalin Stalin's 70th birthday StudySmarterFig. 3 People in China celebrating Stalin's 70th birthday.

    Education and Youth

    Education and youth were crucial factors in the development of Stalin's personality cult. The Komsomol was particularly integral to the growth of Stalin's personality cult. The Komsomol sought to raise the next generation of Stalinists, with members encouraged to live the type of socialism that Stalin envisaged.

    Komsomol

    A Soviet political youth organisation for people between the ages of nine and twenty-eight.

    In 1935, the sentence: 'Thank You, Dear Comrade Stalin, for a Happy Childhood!' appeared on countless youth institution doorways such as schools, nurseries, and orphanages. Schools were arranged like miniature versions of the Soviet state, with youths encouraged to condemn those who broke the rules. Instances of lying and rule-breaking would often result in 'classroom trials'.

    In the school playground, children would even play their own version of the 'Cowboys and Indians' based around the Russian Civil War.

    Religion

    Stalin led a campaign of repression and persecution against religions and religious leaders. As his leadership progressed, he reached an almost God-like status, referred to as the 'father' of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the cult of Stalin adopted forms of Christian tradition such as procession and devotion; parades for Stalinism were regular occurrences, with busts and effigies of the leader common practice.

    The Press

    In the early days of Stalin's leadership, the press drew links between Stalin and the everyday worker. Newspapers would often feature letters from workers hailing the Soviet leader.

    After the Second World War, however, Stalin withdrew from public life. Consequently, the Soviet press focussed on Stalin's relationship with Lenin. The newspapers positioned Stalin as Lenin's companion, maintaining that Stalin was continuing the legacy of Lenin. Stalin played into this stereotype, passionately defending Lenin's teachings in public.

    Government Support

    While the cult of Stalin's personality did not reach the same levels among government officials as it did among the masses, censorship and fear of marginalisation gave the impression that Stalin was popular among high-ranking party officials.

    The End of Stalin's Personality Cult

    After Stalin's death on 5 March 1953, the process of political reform known as de-Stalinization took place. This political process saw the erosion and Stalin's personality cult.

    De-Stalinization

    The period of political reform under Nikita Khrushchev in which Stalin's influence was eradicated throughout the USSR.

    The First wave of De-Stalinization

    Nikita Khrushchev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin. In 1956, Khrushchev delivered his iconic 'Secret Speech' to the Twentieth Party Congress. In this speech, he attacked and denounced Stalin's personality cult, castigating Stalin's brutal policies and oppressive leadership.

    The Second wave of de-Stalinization

    Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985. Similarly to Khrushchev, Gorbachev denounced Stalin while giving a speech in 1987:

    It is sometimes asserted that Stalin did not know the facts about the lawlessness. Documents we have at our disposal speak to the fact that this is not so. The guilt of Stalin and of his closest associates before the party and people for indulging in mass repression and lawlessness is enormous and unforgivable. This is a lesson for all generations.2

    Gorbachev then established the policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). Both of these policies saw the condemnation of Stalin and the Soviet leadership.

    Stalin's Cult of Personality Consequences

    Stalin's personality cult enabled his totalitarian regime and granted him absolute power within the Soviet Union. As 'Father of the Soviet Union', Stalin had the overwhelming support of the Soviet people, meaning he could carry out extreme policies domestically and abroad. Through the development of his personality cult, Stalin was elevated from a mere mortal to an omnipotent being who was central to Soviet society.

    Stalin's Cult of Personality – Key takeaways

    • A cult of personality or personality cult is a situation where a public figure is shown as an idealised, heroic, almost god-like figure.
    • Stalin established his cult of personality after the death of Vladimir Lenin.
    • He maintained his personality cult through the press, government support, religion, education, and youth.
    • Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev tore down the cult of Stalin; this has become known as the process of de-Stalinization.

    References

    1. Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 (2016), p. 269.
    2. Mikhail Gorbachev, 'Speech celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Russian Revolution ', (1987)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Stalin's Cult of Personality

    What is meant by a cult of personality?

    A cult of personality or personality cult is a situation where a public figure is shown as an idealised, heroic, almost god-like figure. 

    How did Stalin build a cult of personality?

    Joseph Stalin propagandised his relationship with Vladimir Lenin to establish his cult of personality. He maintained that he was carrying on the work of his friend and teacher, Lenin.

    How did the cult of personality help Stalin to control Russia?

    Stalin's personality allowed him to solidify, strengthen, and legitimize his leadership.

    Why did Stalin introduce the cult of personality?

    Stalin's personality cult allowed him to excerpt total control of the people of the USSR.

    How was Stalin presented in the cult of personality?

    Initially, Stalin was presented as a humble, every day citizen who wanted to carry on the work of Lenin. As his personality cult grew, he came to be presented as the father figure of the USSR.

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