I wanted to read a more recently published history for a modern, balanced review of Stalin. So here is Stalin’s Cult of Personality: its Origins and Progression (2015) by Julia Kenny. Stalin was born as Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili (1878-1953) in the then-Russian town of Gori, now Georgia. His father was a rough, alcoholic worker who savagely used his fists on young Josef. His mother, soon an impoverished peasant widow, took in washing to feed the children. Worst of all Josef caught smallpox in primary school.
The Georgian married his first wife Ekaterina Svanidze in 1906, but she died of typhus in 1907. [Their one son, Yakov, later died in Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1943]. In 1919 Stalin married his second wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva who died by suicide from mental illness in 1932. The son and daughter of the second marriage both survived Daddy Stalin.
Poster of Stalin, Lenin and 'Long live the Komsomol generation!'
Though the term “Cult of Personality” was a C19th term, it was re-popularised for Stalin’s regime. The term meant the veneration of one omnipotent, infallible leader, ingrained visually and culturally in society via propaganda! I have used the term many times in history lectures, particularly for power-hungry leaders like the Sun God, King Louis XIV of France.
It was clear that modern Russia already had a history of autocratic rule i.e citizens were used to supporting a strong leader. The 1832 Fundamental Laws made the "Emperor of all the Russias" an absolute monarch. Secured by the Imperial line of succession, the Tsar also became the guardian and defender of the Orthodox Church. Visually the power of the Tsar was reinforced in architecture eg the Kremlin or Winter Palace.
The very intelligent Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov/Lenin (1870–1924) enjoyed cult-like status, given that he was the legitimate leader of the Revolution and the founder of Marxist-Leninism. This status only intensified after Lenin died in Jan 1924. He was embalmed and placed in a Mausoleum that still stands. Small shrines were placed in factories and villages, designed according to guidelines issued by the party in Feb 1924.
Stalin had climbed up party ranks by working his way into Lenin’s inner circle. As Lenin’s right-hand man, he had indeed been appointed General Secretary of the Communist party in Apr 1922. Little did Stalin know that, in old age, Lenin had begun compiling a political record that expressed horror of Stalin’s vulgarity and violence. Lenin urged that Stalin be removed from his position as General Secretary.
Lev Davidovich Bronstein/Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), Stalin’s main political rival, couldn’t attend Lenin’s funeral in 1924. Stalin wanted to emerge as Lenin’s inheritor, so the Georgian pounced. Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party (1927), exiled to Kazakhstan (1928) and finally exiled from the Soviet Union. As head of the Fourth International, Trotsky could continue to oppose the Stalinist bureaucracy from exile. But on Stalin's orders, he was assassinated in Mexico.
Because of Lenin’s views, Stalin had to rewrite his own past. By portraying himself as the embodiment of Marxist-Leninism, Stalin could transfer the admiration and trust that Lenin had enjoyed as a leader figure, and could create his own cult. Stalin upheld the core principles of Marxist-Leninism: a] a centralised government and b] the ideology of a class-struggle on both a domestic and global scale. Stalin seemed in tune with the public sentiment.
Before 1932, most Soviet propaganda posters showed Lenin and Stalin together. Then Stalin propaganda was everywhere, programming citizens to believing that Stalin was working to achieve perfect socialism for the nation. There were Stalin icons in every home; marches and parades involved giant Stalin banners. Cinemas displayed Soviet documentaries, and Stalinist posters were common. His propaganda served well in masking Stalin’s darker side.
If Stalin had a brutal reputation, why did citizens trust his leadership? Citizens did NOT know that during the Great Terror of 1936-8, Stalin ordered hundreds of thousands of executions. As in the French Revolution, Russians were under constant threat of being monitored by the secret police NKVD and arrested. Stalin also had the power to have party officials arrested and replaced. And many people were interned in prisons. And the cruel famines in Ukraine were certainly Stalin-controlled.
Mainly they trusted Stalin because his regime generated success! Russian children were learning at good schools, and quality science education was actively promoted. Families were guaranteed top quality health care. Industrial development was rapid, unemployment was rare, and cultural and art facilities were well supported. How ironic that while the capitalist world was experiencing the Great Depression and grinding working-class poverty, Russia emerged as the second biggest modern industrial nation.
Stalin consolidated his power even more after WW2, with some very fine moments. He recognised that victory over the Nazis had been won by the tragic loss of 27 million Russian lives (and other Allies). And Stalin also played a vital role in the creation of the Jewish state in Israel. At the UN he had his Ambassador Andrei Gromyko give an fervent speech in 1947 on the catastrophe suffered by Europe’s Jews and their need to have a safe haven. Stalin had also organised the Eastern European Communist states to vote unanimously for the creation of Israel.
Even now it is difficult to know how genuinely popular Stalin was in his own country, because everyone who didn't agree with him became an Enemy of the People. Thus he remained leader of the Soviet Union until his 1953 death.
At the 1956 Party Congress the next party leader, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced Josef Stalin in a long speech and demolished his predecessor’s reputation. He proved that Stalin intended to use the Doctors' Trial to launch a massive party purge. Under Khrushchev, Soviet prosecutors further investigated the brutality of Stalin's later years.
I also recommend Simon Montefiore’s book Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2012) .