How did Stalin establish
a cult of personality?

Origins of the Cult (1924–1929)

After Lenin passed away in 1924, Stalin’s aim was to appear as a man who worked incredibly hard to pursue Lenin’s ambitions and plans for the Soviet people. Hence, he portrayed himself as Lenin's disciple, a servant of the party and appeared to work hard to maintain Lenin’s legacy. Five days after Lenin’s death, Petrograd, which is modern day Saint Petersburg, was renamed Leningrad. In April 1924, the Foundations of Leninism, a collection of nine lectures Stalin delivered at Sverdlov University was published by the Soviet newspaper, Pravda. This was produced during the power struggle and allowed Stalin to present himself to the public as Lenin’s successor who would carry forward his legacy. Meanwhile, Stalin depicted himself alongside the spirit of Lenin in propaganda posters, portraying him as a loyal follower of Lenin, allowing him to win the trust of the Russian public as a familiar leader whose ambition was to uphold Leninism. The phrase ‘Stalin is the Lenin of Today’ became something that was commonly uttered. Stalin’s legacy and the cult of personality were clear even in the early years of his rule. In fact, in 1925, the city of Tsaritsyn, which is modern-day Volgograd, was renamed Stalingrad in his honour. 

By 1929, Stalin’s cult of personality was progressing at a good pace. For his 50th birthday, he received 350 official greetings, including some from organisations which did not exist in reality. Throughout this period, at official party conferences, the applause he received got longer and longer. 

In a 1929 propaganda poster, Stalin was drawn as a large figure in the foreground, with troops marching and aeroplanes flying behind him, and women marching in the lower half of the image. This displayed him as a great leader, in a country where both men and women were important. The troops and aeroplanes showed off the extent of the Soviet Union’s military prowess.

By 1931, there were portraits of important Soviet figures displayed at special events, such as celebrations of the October Revolution. These included huge portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin.

(Above) A poster similar to that of 'The reality of our program is living people, you and I'.

Progression of the Cult (1929–1935)

In a 1931 poster titled ‘The reality of our program is living people, you and I’, Stalin was depicted in a clear black and white colour, whilst the group of soldiers behind him were depicted in a faded grey colour. Stalin was depicted as the same size, in order to represent him as one of the people, sharing in the struggles of the masses, but the clearer colour portrays him as the leader. 

Paintings, poems, music, art and more were used to promote the cult of Stalin. A ‘Hymn to Stalin’ was created, praising him and thanking him for all the good in the world. Soviet posters depicted him among Karl Marx, Freidrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin as one of the world’s greatest communist thinkers. From 1935, the phrase “Thank you, Dear Comrade Stalin, for a Happy Childhood” was displayed above doorways at nurseries, orphanages and schools, whilst Children were expected to chant it as a slogan during festivals and gatherings. 

A Fully Established Cult of Personality (1935–

Throughout Stalin’s rule, Rallies were held celebrating the October Revolution. These rallies also showed Russians worshipping Stalin’s image, with the parades portraying him as a saviour (almost like a God) to the Russian people.

Meanwhile, the History of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks was published in 1938, with significant changes to the historical events that actually took place.

By 1939, the cult of personality around Stalin was fully established. His image was used to reassure the Soviet people that they had a strong leader to help them achieve the demands of the Five-Year Plans and achieve a positive outcome from the purges.

Finally, as war loomed, Stalin’s image became more of that of an all-powerful leader. Some of his quotes suggested an aggressive and repressive cult, for example, “Death is the solution to all problems. No man - no problem.” and “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”. He believed that in order to present the prestige of the USSR, he would have to resort to methods of repression.

How did the Soviet people respond to Stalin’s cult of personality?

Firstly, many Russians, including Stakhanovites, soldiers and young educated people, believed that they had reason to be grateful to Stalin because they were able to acquire power and status, despite many of them coming from humble beginnings. Stalin’s cult of personality appealed to the soldiers and intellectuals as it gave them a status which was not dependent on their class, and created hope for the people as Stalin’s success inspired them.

Secondly, nationalists and traditionalists saw Stalin as a traditional defender of the people.  Stalin played a role which was in fact not so different from that of the former Tsars. Millions of petitions and letters were sent to him and other Communist leaders asking for his help in their misfortune or the actions of local officials or bureaucrats. Stalin needed to appeal to the traditionalists who wanted more autocratic rule in the government. Stalin portrayed himself as someone who would rule in a dictatorial manner, whilst also maintaining support from the Russians who supported Lenin’s rule. This is especially important considering that during Lenin’s time in power, he was unable to adopt a more democratic rule due to social policies such as war communism which had to be carried out. Hence, Stalin could continue to illustrate himself as Lenin’s successor.

Thirdly, Stalin was seen as a charismatic leader. He was perceived as a god-like saviour who possessed superhuman abilities and wisdom. This was reflected in the icons and symbols of the vozhd that appeared in houses and during gatherings. These icons were similar to those of the saints in the Christian religious tradition. Stalin was able to significantly rally support from minority groups in society, strengthening his cult of personality. He was a symbolic god-like figure and was even able to indoctrinate even those that were deeply religious as he coerced them into replacing God with someone they could confide in. Ultimately, this enabled Stalin to receive absolute loyalty and project his message of the state’s collective needs over individualism.

How far did building up Stalin’s cult of personality rely on the use of massive propaganda?

The success of Stalin’s cult of personality relied on its massive propaganda to a small extent as the various types of propaganda, including posters that depicted Stalin as Lenin’s successor, books that exaggerated Stalin’s role in the foundation of Soviet Russia and rallies which celebrated the October Revolution, while depicting Stalin as a saviour. 

Although the use of massive propaganda was the foundation of Stalin’s cult of personality and outlined the standards for Stalin’s rule, Stalin’s use of terror was the theory put into real-life practice. His creation of a state of terror made the consequences for defying Stalin’s autocratic rule clear, and minimised opposition through the use of show trials, like those of Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Bukharin, the establishment of the Cheka, the formation of Gulag camps from forced labour, and the Great Purge, which saw most of Stalin’s opposition arrested and/or deported and/or arrested.

In conclusion, a cult of personality was created around Stalin from close to the beginning of his rule. It portrayed him as being a cooperative servant of Lenin, who following his death, served as his successor, carrying out his aims. As the leader of the USSR, he was portrayed as a loving father and saviour of his country. He was portrayed in a God-like manner, as he was seen as the driving force of the USSR.