1939: Cult of Personality

Cult of Personality

Subject essay: James von Geldern

The Cult of Personality, as Khrushchev would call it many years later, was in full swing by the end of the 1930s. Stalin's control of the Communist Party and the Soviet state were incontestable, and at his behest historians rewrote party history to make him a central figure. Although this implied no distortion of the truth for recent history, it demanded gross distortion of historical fact for the years of the Bolshevik underground, the Revolution, and the Civil War. The Short Course of the History of the Communist Party, an ostensibly objective work written by a collective of historians, was published in October 1938, and was soon a basic text of Stalinism that sold forty million copies throughout the world. Others beyond the long arm of Soviet law tipped their hats to Stalin, including Time Magazine, which made him its Man of the Year for 1939.

The vitriol of the cult of personality was inspired by a pleiade of leading revolutionaries whose own careers had once eclipsed Stalin. Lev Trotsky had been long exiled from the Soviet Union; and he seemed lucky in 1936 when his former comrades and rivals Grigorii Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev had been tried and shot. In March 1938 it was the turn of Nikolai Bukharin and others, who were tried and shot for participation in the so-called Anti-Soviet Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites. The often bizarre accusations, reflecting the revisionist agenda of Stalinist history, were terribly unjust; but it must be noted that none of the victims had ever spoken out when earlier trials had devoured similarly innocent people.

The idealized figure of Stalin represented in mass culture also spoke to a perceived need for vigorous leadership in Soviet society. Thus Stalin often appeared in a magnetic aura of charisma that went far beyond his political role, leaving many of the Soviet citizens lucky enough to meet him mesmerized. The charisma could also be transferred to other exemplary Soviet citizens, whose accomplishments were held up to others and, with the institution of the Stalin Prizes in December 1939, richly rewarded. The passion for rewriting history so prevalent in 1939 even inspired the rehabilitation of historical figures who had once exerted decisive leadership analogous to Stalin (Peter the Great, for instance), but whose politics had once barred them from the Soviet pantheon.