Jan Plamper


On his book The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power

Cover Interview of February 15, 2012

In a nutshell

This book is about Joseph Stalin’s personality cult—where it came from, how it changed over time, and how it was made.  In spite of its subject matter, I hope the reader will find the book also beautiful—it focuses on visual culture and has a lot of pictures.

The Stalin Cult begins by defining a modern personality cult, at the most basic level, as the symbolic elevation of one person much above others.

Modern personality cults, starting with Napoleon III’s, shared a number of common features. They were secular; the leader was venerated, not as a divinely appointed monarch, but as the embodiment of the will of the people. The cultic objects were always male. The intended audience was the masses, who were targeted via mass media. And finally, they thrived only in closed societies, within which media-transmitted criticism or the introduction of a rival cult was impossible.

Rather than viewing the Stalin cult as a product of Stalin’s psychopathology or eternal Russian mysticism-cum-authoritarianism, the book then makes a historical argument about its genesis, highlighting a host of factors, both general (e.g. the sacralization of man in the wake of the Enlightenment) and Russian (e.g. a tsarist “carryover”).  The book next traces the evolution of Stalin’s visual image in the newspaper Pravda across time. Subsequently, I analyze a socialist realist painting, Aleksandr Gerasimov’s Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin (1938), focusing on its spatial organization in concentric circles.


Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin (Aleksandr Gerasimov, 1938).  Image courtesy of soviethistory.org.

The rest of the book is devoted to the making and reception of the cult. It shows that—because of official embarrassment about the cult of an individual in a collectivist polity—there was no central Stalin cult institution (a Stalin cult ministry or some such).  Rather, many personal and institutional actors together produced the cult.  They formed a multifocal nexus which functioned autonomously—and Stalin could always cut across all established lines of command.

How did common people actually make sense of the cult?  Rather than pursuing the Holy Grail of “reception,” I reconstruct the ways in which cult producers ascertained the public’s reactions to a Stalin cult product, and how these reactions figured in the processes of cult production.

Finally, a word about the alchemy metaphor. I see that metaphor operating at two levels. On the one hand it describes the elevation of Stalin above his compatriots, how he was transformed from a pockmarked Georgian into the embodiment of global communism: the processes through which the various elements of the cult were chosen, combined, and interacted. Key to the alchemical process is the assumption that the end result is a sum that amounts to more than its parts—in other words, a surplus. Stalin’s elevation, his larger than-life presence, is precisely this kind of surplus. On the other hand alchemy also signifies a surplus of the unknowable—this second sense became increasingly important the deeper I looked into the cult.