Personality, Cult of

views updated May 23 2018

Personality, Cult of


Cult of personality is a pejorative term implying the concentration of all power in a single charismatic leader within a totalitarian state and the near deification of that leader in state propaganda. Totalitarian regimes use the state-controlled mass media to cultivate a larger-than-life public image of the leader through unquestioning flattery and praise. Leaders are lauded for their extraordinary courage, knowledge, wisdom, or any other superhuman quality necessary for legitimating the totalitarian regime. The cult of personality serves to sustain such a regime in power, discourage open criticism, and justify whatever political twists and turns it may decide to take. Among the more infamous and pervasive cults of personality in the twentieth century were those surrounding Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Francisco Franco, Chiang Kaishek, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung, Juan and Evita Peron, Pol Pot, Augusto Pinochet, Kim Jong Il, and Saddam Hussein. The term is occasionallyif idiosyncraticallyapplied to national leaders who did not seek similar godlike adulation during their lifetime or term in office but have been later glorified by the government or in the national mass media. Examples might include George Washington, Napoléon Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln, Vladimir Lenin, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Charles de Gaulle, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and others.

A cult of personality differs from Thomas Carlyles hero worship in the sense that it is intentionally built around the national leader and is often used to justify authoritarian rule. In one of the more idiosyncratic usages, it is sometimes applied by analogy to refer to the public veneration of famous leaders of social movements such as Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, and others. In fact, the term itself derives from Karl Marxs critique of the superstitious worship of authority that had developed around his own personality, acclaimed merits, and contribution to the work of the First Socialist International in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Historically, numerous rulers have promoted their own cults of personality. Absolute monarchies were the prevalent form of government for much of recorded history, and most traditional monarchs were held in public awe and adoration. For example, pharaonic Egypt, Imperial China, and the Roman Empire accorded their crowned sovereigns the status of revered god-kings. The doctrine of the divine right of kings claimed that absolutist monarchs such as Henry VIII, Louis XIV, or Catherine the Great sat on their thrones by the will of God. The democratic revolutions of the eighteneenth and nineteenth centuries made it increasingly difficult for traditional autocrats to retain their divine aura. However, the development of the modern mass media, state-run public education, and government propaganda has enabled some more recent national leaders to manipulate popular opinion and project an almost equally extolled public image. Cults of personality developed around some of the most notorious totalitarian dictators of the twentieth century such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, who at the peak of their personalistic power were lionized as infallible, godlike creatures. Their portraits were hung in every private home or public building, while the countrys artists and poets were expected to produce works of art idolizing the hero-leader.

Many lesser known autocrats have engaged in similar self-glorification, subordinating nearly all aspects of national life to their fickle vanity, megalomania, and conceit. In post-Soviet Turkmenistan, for instance, the late president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov encouraged his own cult of personality, dotting the local landscapes with public monuments to himself and even renaming the months of the year to pay homage to himself and his family. After declaring Turkmenistans independence in October 1991, the former chairman of the Sovietera Council of Ministers and first secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party quickly established himself as the center and source of all political authority in the new country. Niyazov became the first president of independent Turkmenistan and won the uncontested 1992 election, which was the only presidential election held during his rule. He assumed the title of Turkmenbashi (head of all the Turkmen), and the countrys obedient legislature proclaimed him president for life. He even authored a bookthe Ruhnama, or Book of the Spiritthat became a compulsory part of the curricula at all levels of the national educational system.

The term cult of personality became a buzzword after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev bitterly denounced Stalins near deification before a closed session of the Twentieth Party Congress on February 25, 1956:

The cult of personality acquired such monstrous dimensions mainly because Stalin himself, using all conceivable methods, supported the glorification of his own person. One of the most characteristic examples of Stalins self-glorification and of his lack of even elementary modesty is the edition of his Short Biography, which was published in 1948. This book is an expression of the most unrestrained flattery, an example of making a man into a god, of transforming him into an infallible sage, the greatest leader, sublime strategist of all times and nations. Ultimately, no more words could be found with which to praise Stalin up to the heavens. We need not give here examples of the loathsome adulation filling this book. All we need to add is that they all were approved and edited by Stalin personally and some of them were added in his own handwriting to the draft text of the book. (Khrushchev 1989)

In a country long known for its traditional worship of religious saints and czars, the public exaltation of Soviet leaders was deliberately pursued as necessary for building national unity and consensus. The result was Stalins cult of personalitythe total loyalty and dedication of all Soviet citizens to the all-powerful leader, whose demigod personality exemplified the heroism and glory of building socialism in one country. Khrushchevs Secret Speech was a major break by the post-Stalin leadership with the oppressive dominance of Stalinism. Big Brother, a fictional character in George Orwells famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, is widely believed to be a satire of Stalins cult of personality (even though it is equally likely to have been based on Britains ubiquitous Lord Kitchener).

SEE ALSO Authoritarianism; Autocracy; Divine Right; Hitler, Adolf; Khrushchev, Nikita; Mao Zedong; Peronism; Social Movements; Stalin, Joseph; Stalinism; Totalitarianism


Bown, Matthew C. 1991. The Cult of Personality: The Apotheosis of Stalin, 194556. In Art under Stalin. New York: Holmes and Meier.

Chandler, David P. 1999. Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Hollander, Paul. 2002. The Cult of Personality in Communist States. In Discontents: Postmodern and Postcommunist. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Khrushchev, Nikita S. 1989. O KyЛьTe ЛИЧHOCTИ Иero IIOCЛeДCTBИЯX[On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences]. И3BeCTИЯ Ц ΠCC [The News of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union] 3 (March).

Overy, Richard J. 1997. The Cult of Personality: Stalin and the Legacy of War. In Russias War: Blood upon the Snow. New York: TV Books.

Ryan, Louise. 2001. The Cult of Personality: Reassessing Leadership and Suffrage Movements in Britain and Ireland. In Leadership and Social Movements, ed. Colin Barker, Alan Johnson, and Michael Lavalette, 196212. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.

Rossen Vassilev

Cult of Personality

views updated May 21 2018


At the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev denounced Josef Stalin's "Cult of Personality" in the so-called "Secret Speech." He declared, "It is impermissible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman possessing supernatural characteristics akin to those of a god." In addition to enumerating Stalin's repression of the Communist Party during the purges, Khrushchev recounted how in films, literature, his Short Biography, and the Short Course of the History of the Communist Party, Stalin displaced Vladimir Lenin, the Party, and the people and claimed responsibility for all of the successes of the Revolution, the civil war, and World War II. Khrushchev's speech praised Lenin as a modest "genius," and demanded that "history, literature and the fine arts properly reflect Lenin's role and the great deeds of our Communist Party and of the Soviet people." Khrushchev's formulation reveals the paradox of the "cult of personality." While denigrating the cult of Stalin, Khrushchev reinvigorated the cult of Lenin.

Analysts have traced the leader cult back to the earliest days of the Soviet Union, when a personality cult spontaneously grew up around Lenin. The cult grew among Bolsheviks because of Lenin's stature as Party leader and among the population due to Russian traditions of the personification of political power in the tsar (Tucker, 1973, pp. 5960). Lenin himself was appalled by the tendency to turn him into a mythic hero and fought against it. After the leader's death in 1924, however, veneration of Lenin became an integral part of the Communist Party's quest for legitimacy. Party leaders drew on both political and religious traditions in their decision to place a mausoleum containing the embalmed body of Lenin at the geographic and political center of Soviet power in Moscow's Red Square. Once Lenin was enshrined as a sacred figure, his potential successors scrambled to position themselves as his true heirs.

After Stalin consolidated his power and embarked on the drive for socialist construction, he began to build his own cult of personality. Stalin's efforts were facilitated by the previously existing leader cult, and he trumpeted his special relationship with Lenin. Early evidence of the Stalin cult can be found in the press coverage of his fiftieth birthday in 1929, which extolled "the beloved leader, the truest pupil and comrade-in-arms of Vladimir Ilich Lenin" (Brooks, 2000, p. 61). In the early 1930s, Stalin shaped his image as leader by establishing himself as the ultimate expert in fields other than politics. He became "the premier living Marxist philosopher" and an authoritative historian of the Party (Tucker, 1992, pp. 150151). Stalin shamelessly rewrote Party history to make himself Lenin's chief assistant and adviser in 1917. Soviet public culture of the 1930s and 1940s attributed all of the achievements of the Soviet state to Stalin directly and lauded his military genius in crafting victory in World War II. Stalin's brutal repressions went hand in hand with a near-deification of his person. The outpouring of grief at his death in 1953 revealed the power of Stalin's image as wise father and leader of the people.

Once he had consolidated power, Nikita Khrushchev focused on destroying Stalin's cult. Many consider Khrushchev's 1956 attack on the Stalin cult to be his finest political moment. Although Khrushchev criticized Stalin, he reaffirmed the institution of the leader cult by invoking Lenin and promoting his own achievements. Khrushchev's condemnation of the Stalin cult was also limited by his desire to preserve the legitimacy of the socialist construction that Stalin had under-taken. After Khrushchev's fall, Leonid Brezhnev criticized Khrushchev's personal style of leadership but ceased the assault on Stalin's cult of personality. He then employed the institution of the leader cult to enhance his own legitimacy.

Like Stalin's cult, Brezhnev's cult emphasized "the link with Lenin, [his] role in the achievement of successes and his relationship with the people" (Gill). The Brezhnev-era party also perpetuated the Lenin cult and emphasized its own links to Lenin by organizing a lavish commemoration of the centennial of Lenin's birth in 1970. The association of Soviet achievements with Brezhnev paled in comparison to the Stalin cult and praise of Brezhnev's accomplishments often linked them to the Communist Party as well. Both Khrushchev and Brezhnev sought to raise the status of the Communist Party in relation to its leader. Yet Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev all conceived of the role of the people as consistently subordinate to leader and Party.

It was not until Gorbachev instituted the policy of glasnost, or openness, in the mid-1980s that the institution of the cult of personality came under sustained attack. The Soviet press revealed Stalin's crimes and then began to scrutinize the actions of all of the Soviet leaders, eventually including Lenin. The press under Gorbachev effectively demolished the institution of the Soviet leader cult by revealing the grotesque falsifications required to perpetuate it and the violent repression of the population hidden behind its facade. These attacks on the cult of personality undermined the legitimacy of the Soviet Union and contributed to its downfall.

In the post-Soviet period, analysts have begun to see signs of a cult of personality growing around Vladimir Putin. Other observers, however, are skeptical of how successful such a leader cult could be in the absence of a Party structure to promote it and given the broad access to information that contemporary Russians enjoy. The cult of personality played a critical role in the development of the Soviet state and in its dissolution. The discrediting of the cult of the leader as an institution in the late Soviet period makes its post-Soviet future uncertain at best.

See also: khrushchev, nikita sergeyevich; lenin's tomb; lenin, vladimir ilich; putin, vladimir vladimirovich; stalin, josef vissarionovich


Brooks, Jeffrey. (2000). Thank You, Comrade Stalin! Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gill, Graeme. (1980). "The Soviet Leader Cult: Reflections on the Structure of Leadership in the Soviet Union." British Journal of Political Science 10(2):167186.

"How Likely Is a Putin Cult of Personality?" (2001). [Panel Discussion] Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press 53(21):46.

Khrushchev, Nikita. (1956). "On the Cult of Personality and Its Harmful Consequences" Congressional Proceedings and Debates of the 84th Congress, 2nd Session (May 22June 11), C11, Part 7 (June 4), pp. 9,3899,403.

Tucker, Robert C. (1973). Stalin as Revolutionary, 18791929. New York: Norton.

Tucker, Robert C. (1992). Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 19281941. New York: Norton.

Tumarkin, Nina. (1983). Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Russia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Karen Petrone