Anniversary Post: Soviet Union’s Cult of Personality

Joseph Stalin - Cult of PersonalityOn this day in 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech to party insiders, “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences.” It was basically an attack on former Premier Joseph Stalin. You can’t read about it without being told that it was all part of Khrushchev’s efforts to consolidate his power against the remaining Stalin loyalists. And while that was certainly the case, the implication is always that the Soviet leaders had ulterior motives but somehow here in America we are pure as the driven snow.

I guess it is just when I grew up and the fact that it was in a conservative household that I find so sad our tendency to trivialize the government of the Soviet Union. It isn’t that I have a all that much respect for it. But it was complicated. My father liked to point out that although they had elections in the Soviet Union, they had only one political party. While that was largely true, there were various factions of the party. And I really can’t say that there was less diversity within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union than there has been between the Democratic and Republican Parties.

It is certainly the case that what Khrushchev said in “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences” was widely shared. They knew they had a major problem on their hands when Stalin was in power. He was exactly the kind of autocrat that the communists hated in the fascist leaders. The truth was that Stalin greatly admired Hitler until the Nazi leader stabbed him in the back. (This was a major mistake; the Nazis probably would have survived World War II if they had managed to keep the Soviet Union out of it.)

Whose Cult of Personality Is Worse?

The Soviet Union changed over time. And it eventually allowed a man as liberal as Mikhail Gorbachev to rule it. Can you imagine the United States ever electing a leader that would admit to our major errors? As it is, even Bernie Sanders, a man who is hardly a radical, has been vilified by a whole industry of opinion leaders who supposedly represent the left of politics.

Also on this day in 1991, the Warsaw Pact was disbanded. Yet NATO continues on. To counter what? Wasn’t the fall of communism the time when the west should have most firmly embraced the United Nations? But instead of using the event to make a better world, the United States used it to consolidate its power. We don’t have a cult of personality here; we have a cult of “exceptionalism.” And it is dangerous. Donald Trump could become our next president. And there are a lot of people in this country who are thrilled at the idea of a cult of personality. Even when it requires the personality of Vladimir Putin.

10 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Soviet Union’s Cult of Personality

  1. I never knew that’s where the phrase came from. I assumed Living Color coined it! I’m sure they knew where it came from.

    I was never sure if Germany invaded Russia to basically turn it into a colonial possession (dumb idea) or to secure a source of oil (doomed idea but much more rational.)

    • I think the phrase is older than that. But I don’t know. Certainly it was a great century for the cult of personality.

  2. Funny. Just last night I was asking myself if it is even possible for an average schmoe like me to ever have any sort of objective picture of USSR history. How do you see through decades of anti-soviet propaganda and all the concious and unconcious bias both in myself and everyone who might have written about it? The mandatory semester of anti-communism I got in high school is the very least of it. Then there’s the picture of themselves the soviets were trying to paint for the rest of the world — loads of deliberate propaganda on that side too.

    As for Cult of Personality, anyone ever heard of Ronnie Reagan or George W? Certainly Mr. Hopey-Changey, JFK, and George Washington too. Not so sure about FDR.

    • When I was 16, I read Two Worlds of Childhood. That was my first introduction to the idea that the Soviet Union was more like us than I had thought. But I think the key is not understanding the USSR but understanding America.

      • I always thought that Russia and the US had a lot in common. Since the fall of the USSR, though, it seems as if the US has been trying to openly transform itself into the very boogeyman that was used to keep the working classes in line during the Cold War era. We have massive surveillance, officially sanctioned torture and gulags (and assassinations), invasion and overthrow of foreign governments, militarized and unaccountable police forces, and we’re not too far from internal passports (hundred-mile borders and secret no-fly lists). Oh, and rigged Potemkin elections, let’s not forget that one.

        • And we live in a massive bureaucracy where you have to go through paperwork/phone hell to solve any problem (usually dealing with for-profit companies, although some government agencies like the VA are just as terrible.) The bridges are falling down, the water mains are breaking. We even have our own Pravda (although to be fair, Fox News is more dishonest than Pravda.)

          At least the post office still works!

          • Yes the post office works, though not as well as it did before it was privatized. Just try and find a USPS mail box outside one of the branches — there used to be one on every other street corner. Email be damned, it’s just stupid to eliminate social infrastructure instead of supplementing it.

            Corey Robin has something useful to say about using up your life just dealing with the machine: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2013/12/socialism-converting-hysterical-misery-into-ordinary-unhappiness/

            • That article was magnificent. Dingbats have claimed “Medicare for all” wouldn’t save that much money, since insurance companies aren’t the bad guys.

              They’re completely wrong and partially right. Health insurance companies are pure evil. However, once we get rid of them, we’ll still have overpaid doctors, psychotic pharmaceutical manufacturers, and a slew of subcontractors who have been making a killing charging outrageous amounts for things like wooden canes.

              But freeing us from dealing with the machine would have its own economic benefit. How much time we waste on this nonsense! That’s energy which sucks away our will to put more effort into our jobs, to come up with new ideas. Unlike the long-disproved fallacy that tax cuts pay for themselves, making American life less of an incessant hassle is an experiment that might actually work.

              I live in a pretty union-friendly state, so we still do have PO boxes all over the place. Here’s a fun story about them:

              A friend of mine bought a gift card for her friend who’s in chemo. It was a restaurant gift card. The person in chemo has no appetite right now, so the gift card was a cheer-you-up thing, saying “I believe you’ll get better, and we’ll go to your favorite restaurant to celebrate.”

              But then my friend accidentally put the envelope with the gift card into a PO box with other mail. My friend was crushed. The envelope had no address or last name, it was doomed for the dead letter office.

              So my friend came upon a PO truck. And the mailman said, “let’s go to the box and see if it hasn’t been picked up yet.” Sure enough, it was still in the box.

              The Post Office has some of the best people around. They’re pretty damn great!

              • Yeah, the Postal Service is one of those everyday things that doesn’t get enough appreciation, along with public libraries, water treatment and garbage disposal. Those are the real jewels of civilization.

                As the article suggests, economics is the least of the reasons why single-payer or NHS would be vastly superior to anything like Obamacare.

        • A big part of it is that most Americans never really understood what it was that was supposed to be so horrible about the Soviet Union. It really was about tribalism. So it isn’t at all surprising that many people seem to want exactly what we were supposedly fighting. I remember that Bush I had made some public statement about how great it was that this little girl had turned her parents into the police for selling cocaine. That idea that you owe more to the government and its policy goals than to your own parents was a big problem with communism. But here was a conservative celebrating it here in America.

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