Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas

Im Auftrag des Instituts für Ost- und Südosteuropastudien Regensburg
herausgegeben von Martin Schulze Wessel und Dietmar Neutatz

Ausgabe: 63 (2015), 1, S. 158-159

Verfasst von: Jan C. Behrends


Jan Plamper: The Stalin Cult. A Study in the Alchemy of Power. New Heaven, London: Yale University Press, 2012. XX, 310 S., Taf., Abb., Graph. = The Yale-Hoover Series on Stalin, Stalinism, and the Cold War. ISBN: 978-0-300-16952-2.

The leader cult around Joseph Stalin is at the core of Soviet political and cultural history. Jan Plampers study of the Stalin-cult broadens our knowledge about the representation of Stalin in the press and about his image in the visual arts. Using both published texts and images as well as archival records Plamper provides substantial insights in the representation of Stalins power as well as the mechanisms of cult production. He also attempts to situate the Stalin-cult in the history of Russian and European representations of power in the modern era. The author uses Napoleon III as a starting point for his exploration of modern leader cults. Without explicit reference to Max Webers theory of charismatic rule he points to the fact that both Hitler and Stalin rose during times of crisis while underscoring that each modern political systemliberal democracy, fascism, national socialism as well as Bolshevismused modern mass media to create images of their leaders. Thus, to Plamper leader cults were indeed a sign of troubled times but by no means an exclusive trait of dictatorships. Nevertheless he acknowledges that the monopoly of mass communication was specific to the leader cult in Germany, Italy and the USSR. At the same time he points to specific Russian preconditions of Stalins cult, e.g. the traditional cult of the tsar, the veneration of individuals within the revolutionary Russian intelligentsia and the Lenin-cult. He rightly points to the various origins of Stalins cult which may therefore be interpreted both as a modern and as a Russian phenomenon.

The empirical part of the study is divided in two parts on cult products and on cult production. The first part traces the image of Stalin in time and space. Using Pravda as his main source, the author assesses representations of the leader in that newspaper. He can show that the leader-cult was clearly tied to both the Soviet holiday calendar and to major political events. Thus, from the mid-1930s onwards Pravda acknowledged Stalins role as supreme leader of party and state. During the years of crises and defeat from 1941 to 1943 his image was not seen as often on the front-page of the partys paper. Plamper uses 1947, an average year of late Stalinism, to follow the leaders representations in Pravda. The dissection of the whole year confirms his argument that the image of the leader tended to be used on Soviet holidays, beginning with the anniversary of Lenins death in January and ending with 5 December, the day of theStalin-constitution. The author concludes his study of Stalin in Pravda with a description of his 70th birthday in 1949 and his death in March 1953. The following chapter on Stalins image in space relies mainly on the fine arts. A skillful interpretation of Aleksandr Gerasimovs painting Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin (1938) forms the core of the chapter. Using this and numerous other examples the author can establish how Stalin became the center of representation in official Soviet art. This process reached its height in the late 1940s when indirect representations of the leader or allusions to him sufficed to evoke his image.

In the second part of his study Jan Plamper explores how the dictator himself governed his cult and how the system of patronage in Soviet art functioned. He can show that Stalinlike Napoleon or Hitlertried to evoke an image of modesty. The Soviet dictator went so far as to publicly denounce his own cult and to suppress some of the veneration offered to him by his comrades. Like the mainstream of historical research, Plamper correctly interprets Stalinsmodestyas part and parcel of the leader cult itself. The making of Stalins portraits forms the core of the second part of the book. Using extensive archival evidence Plamper tries to reconstruct how portraits of the leader were commissioned and approved. The author points to the central role of Soviet Defense Commissar Kliment Voroshilov who early on offered his patronage to loyal artists. In this role, he also brokered access to scarce resources and to the leader himself. While artists were certainly among the privileged in Stalinism, their work was subjected to various levels of control before it could be released for public consumption. The absence of a market for the arts did not suppress competition: During the 1930s there were various contests for official portraits. This was also the time of monumental exhibitions of socialist realist art that prominently featured the leaders portraits. Plamper carefully recounts the making of individual portraits as well as the establishment and the problems of an official canon. Finally, the author examines the role of the audience. He uses comment books and celebrity evenings to get a glimpse of popular opinion about cultic artifacts. The comment book was one of the ways that allowed the population to respond to the leader cult. The audience could also express its feelings about various kinds of Staliniana or it could meet those actors who portrayed the leader in the movies of the late 1940s. While these sources provide some interesting insights, the author rightly admits that we cannot and will not be able to fully reconstruct the impact of the cult on the Soviet population. Plampers book, however, first and foremost confirms the assertion that Stalin himself controlled and masterminded the various aspects of the cult. Plamper can also show thatas in other spheres of Soviet societypatronage and personal relations played an important role.

Jan Plampers study is an important contribution to the history of the Stalin-cult. It will serve as a basis for further comparison of European and indeed global modern leader cults. The authors integration of visual sources and his mastery of the art historical aspects of the cult make it a unique achievement in the field. Further research will need to integrate Plampers arguments into the broader fabric of the leader cult in Soviet history which also includes e.g. its role in the mobilization of the populace, its canonical texts, the international dimension of the cult, the effects of the cult on the post-Stalinist USSSR, and its interaction with other European leader cults.

Jan C. Behrends, Potsdam

Zitierweise: Jan C. Behrends über: Jan Plamper: The Stalin Cult. A Study in the Alchemy of Power. New Heaven, London: Yale University Press, 2012. XX, 310 S., Taf., Abb., Graph. = The Yale-Hoover Series on Stalin, Stalinism, and the Cold War. ISBN: 978-0-300-16952-2, http://www.dokumente.ios-regensburg.de/JGO/Rez/Behrends_Plamper_Stalin-Cult.html (Datum des Seitenbesuchs)

© 2015 by Institut für Ost- und Südosteuropastudien Regensburg and Jan C. Behrends. All rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact jahrbuecher@ios-regensburg.de

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