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The Cult of Personality in Russia, from Kerensky to Stalin


Domenico Losurdo

Translated using the Portuguese edition of the book,often consulting the Spanish edition, not the original Italian edition.

Translated by David Ferreira

The Cult of Personality in Russia, from Kerensky to Stalin

The denunciation of the cult of personality is Khrushchev’s principal argument. However, in his report the question that ought to seem obligatory doesn’t show up: are we faced with the vanity or narcissism of a single political leader, or with a phenomenon of a more general character that takes hold in a determined, objective context? It may be interesting to read the observations made by Bukharin while in the United States, as they finalized the preparations for their entry into the First World War:
So that the state machinery was as prepared as possible for military affairs, it itself became a military organization, which is commanded by a dictator. This dictator is president Wilson. Emergency powers were given to him. He has nearly absolute power. And in the people they seek to encourage submissiveness toward the “great president”, like in the Byzantine Empire of old where they deified their monarch.117
In situations of acute crisis, the personalization of power is often combined with the veneration of the leader who holds power. When he arrives in France in December of 1918, the victorious American president is hailed as the savior and his Fourteen Points speech is compared to the Sermon on the Mount.118

The political developments that take place in the United States between the Great Depression and the Second World War are worth considering. Having ascended to the presidency on the promise of solving a deeply troubling social-economic situation, F.D. Roosevelt is elected for four consecutive terms (although he died at the start of the fourth term), a unique case in the history of his country. Aside from the long duration of this presidency, what’s unusual are the hopes and expectations placed on it. Leading figures speak of a “national dictator” and invite the new president to demonstrate all his strength: “Become a tyrant, a despot, a true monarch. During the Great War we took our constitution and put it aside until the end of the war." The continuation of the state of emergency demands we don’t allow ourselves to be impeded by excessive legal scruples. The nation’s new leader is called upon to be, and is soon defined as, an “individual of providence”, that is, in the words of cardinal O’Connell: “a man sent by God." The average person writes to and expresses themselves to F.D. Roosevelt in even more emphatic terms, declaring that they look to him “almost as if they were looking to God” and hope to one day place him “in the immortal Pantheon, alongside Jesus."119 Invited to behave as a dictator or a man of providence, the new president makes ample use of his executive power from the first hours of his mandate. In his inaugural message he demands “ample executive power [...] as great as that which would be conceded to me if we were really invaded by a foreign enemy."120 With the outbreak of hostilities in Europe, even before Pearl Harbor, F.D. Roosevelt begins, on his own initiative, dragging the country toward war on the side of Britain; subsequently, with a unilateral executive order, he imposes the confinement of all Japanese American citizens in concentration camps, including the women and children. It’s a presidency that, while it enjoys widespread popular support, leads to warnings of the danger of “totalitarianism”:  this happens during the Great Depression (it’s former president Hoover in particular who makes that accusation)121 and it especially happens in the months that precede the entry into the Second World War (when senator Burton K. Wheeler accuses F.D. Roosevelt of exercising dictatorial power and of promoting a “totalitarian form of government”).122 At least from the point of view of the president’s adversaries, totalitarianism and the cult of personality had crossed over the Atlantic.

Certainly, the phenomenon that we are investigating here (the personalization of power and the cult of personality linked to it) is present only in embryonic form in the American Republic, protected  by the ocean from any attempted invasion and with a political tradition quite different from Russia’s. One must concentrate on that country. Let’s see what happens between February and October of 1917, therefore, before the Bolshevik ascension to power. Driven by his personal vanity, but also by his desire to stabilize the situation, we find Kerensky “taking Napoleon as a model." He inspects the troops “with a hand tucked into the front of his jacket”; meanwhile “on the desk in his office in the war ministry stood a bust of the Emperor of the French." The results from this performance don’t take long: poetry paying homage to Kerensky as the new Napoleon flourish.123 In the lead-up to the summer offensive, that was supposed to reverse the fortunes of the Russian army, the cult dedicated to Kerensky (in certain circles) reaches its high point:
Everywhere he was proclaimed a hero, the soldiers lifted him on their shoulders, showered him with flowers, throwing them at his feet. A British nurse had the opportunity to witness it, surprised at the scene of army men “kissing him, his car and the ground he walked on. Many fell to their knees and prayed, others cried."124
As you can see, it doesn’t make much sense to blame Stalin’s narcissism, as Khrushchev does, for the exalted state that the cult of personality reaches in the USSR after a certain amount of time. In fact, when Kaganovich suggests substituting the term Marxism-Leninism for Marxism-Leninism- Stalinism, the leader to whom that tribute is directed responds: “you want to compare a dick to a guard tower."125 At least when compared to Kerensky, Stalin appears more modest. It’s confirmed by the attitude he takes in concluding a war that’s actually been won, not in his imagination like in the case of the Menshevik leader, the lover of Napoleonic poses. Immediately after the victory parade, a group of marshals reach out to Molotov and Malenkov: they propose to them the commemoration of the victory achieved in the Great Patriotic War by offering the title of “Hero of the Soviet  Union” to Stalin, who nonetheless rejects the offer.126 The Soviet leader also sought to escape rhetorical excesses on the occasion of the Potsdam Conference: “Both Churchill and Truman took their time walking among Berlin’s ruins; Stalin showed no such interest. Without drawing attention, he arrived by train, and even ordered Zhukov to cancel any welcoming ceremony with a military band and an honor guard."127 Four years later, on the eve of his seventieth birthday, a conversation took place in the Kremlin that’s worth sharing:
He [Stalin] called in Malenkov and warned him: “Don’t even think about honoring me again with a ‘star’." “But comrade Stalin, on an anniversary like this? The people would not understand.” “It’s not up to the people. I don’t want to argue. No personal initiative!
Understand me?” “Of course, comrade Stalin, but the politburo members think…” Stalin interrupted Malenkov and declared the discussion closed.
Naturally, one can say that in the circumstances referred to here political calculation plays a more or less important role (and it would be extremely odd if it didn’t); it’s a fact, however, that personal vanity didn’t win out. And even less so when decisions of vital political character are at stake: over the course of the Second World War, Stalin invites his colleagues to express themselves frankly, he actively argues and even fights with Molotov, who for his part, despite being careful so as not to put the hierarchy in doubt, remains unchanged in his opinion. Judging by the testimony of admiral Nikolai Kuznetsov, the supreme leader “particularly appreciated those comrades who thought for themselves and didn’t hesitate in frankly expressing their point of view.”128

Interested as he is in pointing to Stalin as the only one responsible for the catastrophes that struck the USSR, far from eliminating the cult of personality, Khrushchev only transforms it into a negative cult. The vision based upon in principio erat Stalin [in the beginning there was Stalin] remains unshaken. Further, in confronting the most tragic chapter of the Soviet Union’s history (the terror and the bloody purges that were widespread and didn’t even spare the communist party itself), the Secret Report has no doubt: it’s a horror to be exclusively blamed on a person with a thirst for power and possessed by bloody paranoia.

117. Bukharin (1984), p. 73.

118. Hoopes, Brinkley (1997), p. 2.

119. Schlesinger Jr. (1959-1965), vol. 2, pp. 3-15.

120. Nevins, Commager (1960), p. 455.

121. Johnson (1991), p. 256.

122. Hofstadter (1982), vol. 3, pp. 392-93.

123. Figes (2000), pp. 499-500.

124. Figes (2000), pp. 503-504.

125. Marcucci (1997), pp. 156-57.

126. Wolkogonow (1989), p. 707.

127. Roberts (2006), p. 272.


The Bolsheviks: From Ideological Conflict to Civil War

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