The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power

Polly Jones is impressed by a rigorous iconography of one of the age of extremes' greatest tyrants

April 12, 2012

When Joseph Stalin died in March 1953, huge crowds of Soviet citizens flocked to Moscow to view his body lying in state. Hundreds of them were trampled underfoot, killed in the crush of mourners near the Bolshoi Theatre. This story has long served as an illustration not only of Stalin's power to cause death and injury from beyond the grave, but also of the depth of popular devotion to the leader. Jan Plamper's groundbreaking book is an important step towards understanding the "alchemy" through which the diminutive Georgian Iosif Dzhugashvili was transformed into the very embodiment of Soviet progress, capable (in life, and in the early, hysterical days after his death) of inspiring great devotion and self-sacrifice.

In his rigorous yet ambitious study encompassing the entire Stalin period, Plamper focuses above all on the visual image of Stalin that was created, and then meticulously honed, by artists and the Soviet party-state during these three decades. In tracing the mechanisms of "cult construction" in unprecedented detail, Plamper's account intersects with several important debates about Stalinism: the role of patronage, the labyrinthine workings of the Soviet bureaucracy and - most interestingly of all - the tensions embedded in the state aesthetic doctrine, which required artists to create works that were both socialist and realist, while continually shifting the definition of both terms.

These questions are most fully explored in the second half of the book, where Plamper moves on from a solid, but rather plodding, analysis of images of Stalin to an in-depth analysis of their creation. This part of the book represents the key point of its appeal, drawing on a rich range of new archival sources to reconstruct the path that a Stalin portrait - or even a reproduction - had to travel before it could be released for public view. It traces the tense and tortuous negotiations between artists, critics, cultural bureaucrats and party-state leaders, including Stalin himself, whose role is viewed as crucial, despite his protestations of modesty (including a stubborn refusal to pose for portraits), which were after all obligatory for any leader of a supposedly collectivist system.

In two dense but lucid chapters, Plamper not only provides the best account currently available of the complex workings of the Soviet art profession, but also offers a series of striking insights into the honing of Stalin's image. This was an especially intensive process in the 1930s before the emergence of a canonical image, which could then be mechanically reproduced (a process fascinatingly reconstructed here) as well as imitated by other artists, who often found this safer than working from a blank canvas. Plamper shows how the insistence on artists' repainting and retouching portraits not only shaped an increasingly superhuman image of the leader, but also provided an increasingly detailed "map" of the borders and rocky terrain of Socialist Realism itself.

The Stalin cult presents immense challenges to the historian: its gigantic scale, the complex interrelations between its various genres, its relationship with other "personality cults" in Russian and world history, and above all the difficulty of researching its popular reception. Plamper's book offers a bold and important corrective to the scant attention that the cult has hitherto received, and does not shy away from these questions, although it answers some more satisfactorily than others. From the start, the author compares the Stalin cult with other "modern personality cults", showing how Stalin's image was consciously differentiated from that of the "hysterical" Hitler and image-conscious Western leaders, while sharing many of these cults' structures and aims. His definition of this modern phenomenon - especially its "patricentric" bias, and the necessity of a "closed society" - seems rather too broad, however (what of the cults of Eva Peron or Charles de Gaulle, for example?). Conversely, the final chapter, on the cult's reception, is almost too careful to point out the flaws in the available sources, concluding that no evidence of popular attitudes can be deduced from them. It is somewhat regrettable that this rigorously documented study should end by evoking the "unknowable" "alchemy" generating Stalin's popularity.

None of this should detract from the fact that Plamper's account represents the most rigorous and lucid analysis of the Stalin cult, not just in art but also in Soviet culture as a whole, by any historian to date. It will be essential reading not only for Soviet historians, but also for all those interested in the genesis and evolution of Stalinism, a key phenomenon of the modern politics that Plamper analyses so eloquently in this remarkable book.

The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power

By Jan Plamper

Yale University Press, 352pp, £40.00

ISBN 9780300169522

Published 28 February 2012

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