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Stalin’s cult of personality

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

How Did Stalin Use Propaganda To Create A Cult Of Personality In The USSR?


Stalin was one of many dictators to have created a cult of personality in his respective regime, in this case the Soviet Union. The “cult of personality” is a term used when a country’s leader (such as the one in question) effectively uses propaganda, through which manipulating mass media to promote an absolute and supreme image of himself. As General Secretary and leader of Russia’s communist party, he was able to rise up in the hearts and minds of his people and be looked at in the same light as God. A cult of personality may also be described as general hero worship.

There were four essential factors that gave birth to Stalin’s personality cult. Firstly, having full control of the media, such as any broadcasting networks and newspapers, he censored any ill-natured sentiments aimed at him. Stalin was very efficient in using propaganda. There was an abundance of posters and statues glorifying him with continuous praise. The principal of “word of mouth”, mothers taught their children that Stalin was ‘the wisest man of the age’. Finally, Stalin showed the reach of his power by editing photographs and rewriting history books so as to depict him as the hero of the Revolution. He also obliterated purged names such as Trotsky.

Stalin’s cult of personality was created largely through the use of propaganda. Propaganda aimed at providing a better grip on power. Moreover, it was implemented to establish his personal dictatorship, to bolster and expand the reach of soviet power, to remove enemies, to control the people, create a feeling of union as well as controlling any information regarding the events of the war and the front.

So how did Stalin use propaganda to create a cult of personality in the USSR?

Propaganda was spread through art, literature, films, news, education and youth groups.

Through this cult of personality Stalin was able to rule his personal dictatorship unopposed and unquestioned. If this “cult” was not enough in getting people to follow him, the fear (otherwise known as “the Terror”) he struck in them was. Throughout his rule any apparent opposition was dealt with through a series of purges, and anyone who opposed Stalin directly was killed.

Although in many eyes he was seen as a God, there were certain people who were brave enough to express their malcontent, including several writers, poets, painters and certain underground organizations. One would think that even after his death Stalin would still be thought of as a hero, judging by the mournful nature that overtook most of the Soviet Union after his death. However in 1956 at the 20th Party Congress, Khrushchev made a report in which he denounced Stalin’s regime and criticizes his cult of personality. This criticism was part of the process of destalinisation.


The primary sources used were Richard Overy’s The Dictators, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives.

The Dictators was written by Richard Overy, a world renowned historian who specialises in the chaotic events of the 20th century. Overy provides factual information on both Stalin and Hitler, however his initial objective is not to list two chronological biographies, but to illustrate a comprehensive summary and analysis of their dictatorships. He analyses crucial political aspects of the two regimes, as well as the emergence of a cult of personality around both dictators, as well as the role of the party and the use of terror. In this book, Overy identifies the key elements used in the creation of Stalin’s personality cult, by synthesising a vast range of secondary sources which he effectively uses to approach his argument from an unbiased angle. Furthermore, Overy spoke Russian which enabled him to analyse first hand sources such as the Soviet Union’s new archives which were released after its collapse in 1991.

Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives was written by Alan Bullock, also a world renowned historian and an elite in his field. Bullock presents the chronological procedure in which Stalin and Hitler were able to fight their way to the top of their political structures. Essentially, Bullock portrays how two men hailing from such lowly families were able to become leaders of two of the most powerful countries in the world, and depicts how the resulting upheavals in relation to the disintegration of the Russian and German empires paved the way for Left and Right radicalism. Nevertheless, although Bullock is factually efficient, more evidence has come to light since the book was written and may be considerred a little outdated.

Propaganda And The Cult

Stalin’s power-seeking attitude was depicted and interpreted as the saviour of the people and one who understood and redeemed their sorrow and suffering. Without this “fertile agricultural soil” of post-revolutionary Russia, the cult surrounding him would never have grown so vast. All cults of personality are for the larger part fiction. An exaggerated image of Stalin had to be created and was manufactured. This isn’t to say that without his cult he would be a nonentity. As shown during the period of his rise to power, Stalin possessed personal and political attributes separate from the cult. As Richard Overy argues, the problem Stalin faced was that he was not a monarch, or a gifted military commander. Stalin was aware that whatever will and power he projected by himself would not suffice, and that his claim to supreme and total power would be achieved by artificially simulating a sense of authority.

Furthermore, Overy speculates that the glorious being that Stalin presented, was nothing like the man himself. He states that Stalin consulted members of the Moscow State Theater for lessons concerning his dictatorial image. Advice given to him included, talking slowly, be a larger image than him and life itself, and using his pipe as an image enhancer.

Purpose Of Propaganda

The Soviet Government utilized all available resources and a wide range of means in the attempt to manipulate public opinion in its favour. Propaganda was carefully designed to influence views and public judgment. Through several strategies, the Soviet Government was able to strengthen the desired belief of the achievements of socialism and the greatness of itself. The gradual development of a cult of personality was proof in itself that propaganda was used to serve the needs of the Soviet leadership and not those of socialism. As western historians argue, any support for Stalin was the result of extreme use of propaganda. The use of propaganda was exceptionally favorable in masking the failures of the Five-Year Plans and promoting the successes of the government.

Lenin’s And Stalin’s Cult

During the period of the 1920s through the 1930s the Soviet Government created two cults of personality. One around Lenin and later on around Stalin.

Lenin was strongly against the idea of heroic worship as well as the embalming of the dead. Be this as it may, Stalin was gifted in taking advantage of the given circumstances. As soon as Lenin died, Stalin saw to it that he was worshiped as the hero of communism. Lenin appeared in newspapers and statues were built in his honor. His image and ideals were used to drive the population towards imitating his allegiance to communism. The most telling example of Lenin’s use for political purposes, was his embalming for display in the mausoleum in Red Square. Furthermore, Petrograd was renamed Leningrad in 1924. At the time of his death there was a wave of support from which the Soviet government was able to build on, as seen by the queues building up to see his embalmed body. This cult was very fruitful for Stalin who continuously projected himself as Lenin’s natural successor.

The second cult of personality that emerged was that of Stalin’s. In 1923, a town formerly known as Tsaritsyn was renamed Stalingrad. Following Lenin’s death, slogan phrases such as, “Stalin is the Lenin of today”, put in circulation by Barbusse, became widely popular within the rank and file members of the party. Stalin never let go of the bond he had created to tie himself and Lenin’s legacy, which he used to shelter himself from criticism. Stalin fed on the cult of personality he developed around Lenin which he eventually devoured by the end of the 1930s. The cult revolving around Stalin had become more evident and after the Second World War this cult had risen to ridiculous heights.

The Cultural Revolution

After 1924, the government had realised the the significance of popular culture and in the period of 1928-32 the government made a more coordinated attempt in using culture for its own benefit known as the Cultural Revolution. Stalin used popular culture not only to aid the promotion of his image but also to instill socialist values and his policies within people. Stalin used culture to bring forth his cult of personality, it was evident that popular culture was used as tool of the party rather serving the needs of socialism. The aims of the Cultural Revolution were to remove any sort of art forms directed to an exclusive, higher class audience, commonly know as the “Bourgeois culture”. To present a positive image of the success of the Soviet Union and also to support government policy. By the end of the 1930s it was used to unify the Russian people at the face of threat of war.

The Cultural Revolution aimed to purge all aspects of bourgeois culture. The government made use of young communists who were encouraged to attack bourgeois culture. Any bourgeois or classical type performances, such as theatre, concerts and the opera, were disrupted by whistling and shouting. In literature, an organisation known as the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) was formed whose purpose was to supervise all publications of books and make sure that they were written the “right way”. This is to say that they promoted the values of socialism through their writing. The RAPP favored the writings that stressed and highlighted the achievements of workers and farmers. This attitude was later labeled as the “the cult of the little man”. Stalin recognised the importance of writers calling them “the engineers of human souls”, and this body was to coordinate all writers in the attempt to bring forth socialist realism. The Cultural Revolution also aimed at promoting a perception of what socialist policy should be like. This led to the manifestation of a concept known as “visionary utopianism”, which was rather separate from realistic politics. These visionaries enforced ideas of future socialism in their works.

Music suffered as well from growing pressure. In 1935 after watching a performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, Stalin was in a state of shock. His criticism lay in the bedroom scene where trombones were used to underline what was happening. It was common knowledge after that if one wished to keep working in the area of the arts, it was in their best interests to stick with well-worn themes than experiment. A similar oraganisation to that of the RAPP was formed concerning the music industry. Stalin had formed this organisation instill soviet values within music, to promote his image (which was done by including Stalin’s name in the national anthem) and to filter out any traces of bourgeois as well as western elements. The Proletarian Musicians called western popular music “the song and dance of the period of the catastrophe of capitalism”, the foxtrot “the dance of slaves and the tango “the music of impotents”. The typical ideology and attitude of proletarian composers was, distinction of vocal over instrumental music, simple formatting, clear harmony and a basic hatred of Western ideology and importance of communism. Stalin condemned all forms of music, be it gypsy jazz or classical. For Stalin liberal forms of music was the melodious equivalent of sabotage. In 1929, Stalin banned any private sheet music publication, as well as banning gypsy music on the radio. To further the purges on music, in 1928 the writer Maxim Gorky related jazz to themes of homosexuality, drugs and bourgeois eroticism. On the other hand however, proletarian musicians were not able to create desirable substitutes. They were poor composers with little talent and their music was stale with a march-like rhythm. In 1932, the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians was abolished and Stalin suggested an emotional upheaval. As a result, all forms of music were re-introduced.

Art was manipulated just as well in the attempt to project the ideal vision of life under the Five-year Plans. The idea behind Socialist Realism concluded in the abolition of abstract art as posters. Stalin issued paintings and sculptures of peasants and industrial workers cooperating for the benefit of socialism and being rewarded for their efforts and work. Stalin continued to absorb Lenin’s cult by building vast statues next to those of Lenin. During the 1930s people had fallen out of favor of Stalin influenced by the fear of his form of discipline through the purges. In order to re-assert himself as the light in their eyes, paintings and photographs were re-edited so as to portray Stalin as Lenin’s closest companion. Stalin also used this method of re-editing art to eliminate opposition and personal rivals. Trotsky for example was cut out from pictures sitting beside Lenin and replaced with Stalin. This editorial behaviour was apparent even in group photos, as one of fifteen people could have been reduced to seven. By the end of the 1930s the arts were used to reinforce socialist values and Stalin’s cult. All forms of art were used to highlight his qualities and praise his very existence. Stalin was portrayed as the hero of the civil war and the savior of the revolution. Protecting the party from Leftist and Rightist attacks. Artists painted Stalin as the “big hero” or Vozhd (the boss).

Different Forms Of Propaganda

Other forms of propaganda included manipulating mass media coverage, establishing youth organisations and brainwashing children from an early age through education so as to raise them with socialist values instilled within them.


The government’s influence ranged as far as the mass media including newspapers and the radio. Pravda and Izvestiya were newspapers with a minute quantity of real information as well as a limited collection of expressed views and opinions. Pravda was the main daily newspaper of the USSR and the Communist Party’s official newspaper. Izvestiya was a national owned and popular daily newspaper. These papers were most likely to report on economic achievements, quoting statistics to underline the domains of success as well as publishing demands for harder labour. The press had fallen into the hands of the government only to be used for censorship and for propaganda purposes.

The usage of mass media for propaganda became more dominant in 1941 when war was unleashed between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. At the time, this war was known as the “Patriotic” War. A lot of emphasis lies in the word “patriotic”. This was deliberately published by newspapers under Stalin’s orders so as to create a feeling of unity, comrades fighting against the enemy. During this period of war years, Stalin used these resources to spread the idea and to remind the people that, “Stalin will lead Russia to victory” and that by following his orders they could overcome all hardships as well guaranteeing a prosperous future. In the spirit of defending the motherland and supporting fellow comrades at the front, Pravda stated in an editorial ,

“ ‘Art in the Service of the Red Army’: Let playwrights, composers, poets, novelists and artists glorify the heroic effect of the Red Army and the entire Soviet people, because, in these days of the Patriotic War, their work for the Red Army will help bring nearer our victory over the enemy.

Let them inspire the people and out Red Army to continue the unrelenting struggle against the enemy, so that our warriors should go into battle with a menacing and cheerful song, son that from every picture, from every frame in a film, from every page in a newspaper the artist, the poet, the writer should fire a well-aimed shot at the enemy.”

Furthermore, Stalin used the mass media to control information being sent in and out. This is to say that he performed daily inspections of newspaper articles so as to erase any ill-natured sentiments directed towards him. During war-time years, he ordered everyone to hand in their own radios in exchange for government issue. This was a precaution taken by Stalin, to guarantee their ignorance and his well-being. He could not afford the population receiving information from foreign sources like the BBC or any German broadcasting networks. As stated previously, he masked the failures of the Five-Year Plans, and having full control of the media, he only reported of the successes, if any. As a result, general perception of socialism was reinforced as well as his status as a strategically smart commander and a valiant leader.

Instead of following the profit-maximising attitude of providing what the viewer wants, in the Soviet Union the media existed in accordance to the dominant ideology of the Communist Party. The notion of Social Realism extended into the mass media providing unwavering support for the current political line. Suppressing contrasting political opinions, as well as portraying the worst possible lifestyle under capitalism. Varied opinions concerning the USSR, as well as social inadequacies in the soviet union were strictly forbidden topics. Through the mass media, Stalin created a black-and-white world. Anything communist or soviet related was favorable, a positive aspect of life, and anything capitalistic imperialistic or American related was bad.

Youth Organisations and Education.

Stalin recognised the importance of shaping the minds of the young from an early age, he therefore used education and the youth movements as a tool of propaganda. The means used to this end were certain youth organisations established and controlled under the Communist Party and the education system. The two main youth organisations were the Pioneers, for individuals under the age of 14 and Komsomol for the age range from 14 to 28. Komsomol played a significant role during the period of the Cultural Revolution. Komsomol members were ordered to attack all elements of bourgeois culture and class enemies. Komsomol’s success is demonstrated by its figures. In 1929 there were 2.3 million members reaching the height of 10.2 million members in 1940.

Komsomol provided young communists a purpose. The Cultural Revolution was seen as a more effective step towards the creation of the socialist utopia that many of these young communists lived up to. One aspect of society that was influenced by the intrusion of Komsomol was that of education. As a result of the attacks on bourgeois culture, many teachers were removed from their teaching positions as well as the collapse of educational institutions. Komsomol’s actions were getting out of hand, so the government was forced to restore order. Discipline and a stricter curriculum were established under The Educational Law of 1935.

Stalin noticed that the Cultural Revolution had led to the disruption and degradation of the educational system. From 1935, a series of measures were set forth designed to impose stability. Only government approved textbooks were allowed and formal examinations were reintroduced. In order to burn his excellence into their minds, Stalin introduced the teaching of communist ideology. Stalin rewrote chapters in some textbooks himself, rewriting history to portray himself as the hero of the Revolution, and linking himself with historical icons like Peter the Great.


Stalin’s search for power was absolute. His methods to achieve it were ruthless. There is a clear-cut connection between method and result in his policies and behaviour. Stalin was both merciless in his pursuit for power and efficient in his use of it. Stalin was successful in creating a cult of personality, shaping what the people thought of him and eventually attaining a god-like status. He created a totalitarian state, more effectively than that of his contemporaries- Hitler and Mussolini. Stalin promoted his personal qualities through total control of internal developments and exploiting all available opportunities, such as the naivety of the population as well as tapping into Lenin’s popularity. He reached the top by instantly eliminating any apparent rivals and oppositions through purges. He changed the people’s cultural, social and political ideologies with those of his own.

In conclusion, it can be said that despite extensive use of propaganda to achieve a cult of personality, he was not entirely successful in asserting himself as an everlasting heroic figure. By introducing the Cultural Revolution and the Great Terror, Stalin granted himself an absolute level of control as the sole provider of knowledge, and as the supreme example of what people should aspire to be. Nevertheless not all sectors of the population were willing to accept Stalin leading them blindly down the path of his choosing. Certain sectors of the rural population expressed their hostility to the regime. They harbored a lasting hatred for the government after having endured the horrors of the collectivisation process, whose failure was neatly masked by Stalin’s propaganda. Although Stalin’s god-like power was thought to be flawless and far-reaching, that did not stop sub-cultures and revolutionist groups from sprouting. The drop of government-controlled music restrictions issued at the end of the 1930s was proof of the fact that Stalin’s power was not absolute and could not control all aspects of society. Although for the most part of the population he was seen as the brightest light, certain members of the population were not drawn in by his sweet-talk and illusive actions. Underground street gangs and the gulag showed their resistance by developing their own jokes and songs. A more telling example of Stalin’s failure to consolidate the image he created was after his death by Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956, in which he denounces Stalin and openly criticises the failures and hypocrisies of his past regime.



Bullock, Alan, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, Harper Collins 1991

Lane, David, Soviet Society Under Perestroïka, Routledge 1992

Lee J. Stephen, European Dictatorships 1918-1945, Routledge 2008

Montefiore Sebag Simon, Stalin The Court of the Red Tsar, Phoenix 2004 Edmunds,

Neil, Soviet music and society under Lenin and Stalin: the baton and sickle, Routledge Curzon 2004

Overy, Richard. The Dictators, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia. Penguin Books 2005

Phillips, Steve, Stalinist Russia, Heinemann Educational Publishers 2000,

Schulz Peter, Manipulation and ideologies in the twentieth century, Louis de Saussure 2005

Short Kenneth R.M, Film & radio propaganda in World War II, K.R.M Short 1983

Yurchak Alexei , Everything was forever, until it was no more: the last Soviet generation 2006


Poster Source: http://www.davno.ru/soviet-posters.com

Posters of Stalin’s propaganda

Overy, Richard. The Dictators, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia. Penguin Books 2005, 109

Overy, Richard. 109

Overy, Richard. 111

Bullock, Alan. Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. Harper Collins 1991, 169

Schulz Peter, Manipulation and ideologies in the twentieth century, Louis de Saussure, 266

Phillips, Steve, Stalinist Russia, Heinemann Educational Publishers 2000, 123

Yurchak Alexei , Everything was forever, until it was no more: the last Soviet generation, Princeton University Press 2006, 74

Overy, Richard. 115

Phillips, Steve.55

Phillips, Steve 56

Montefiore Sebag Simon, Stalin The Court of the Red Tsar, Phoenix 2004, 99

Edmunds, Neil, Soviet music and society under Lenin and Stalin: the baton and sickle, RoutledgeCurzon 2004, 24

Phillips, Steve 60

Phillips, Steve 61

Phillips, Steve, 58

Short Kenneth R.M, Film & radio propaganda in World War II, K.R.M Short 1983, 94

Lane, David, Soviet Society Under Perestroïka, Routledge 1992, 319

Lane, David, 320

Phillips, Steve, 125

Lee J. Stephen, European Dictatorships 1918-1945, Routledge 2008, 83

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