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7 Things You Didn’t Know about Stalin’s Cult of Personality

7 Things You Didn’t Know about Stalin’s Cult of Personality

The term “cult of personality” has been applied to the regime-sponsored deification of many communist leaders, but is most often used to refer to the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The Bolshevik tyrant started consciously shaping his persona early on, and changed his last name from Dzhugashvili to the Russian word for steel, “Сталин ,” (Stalin) in the early 1910s. Stalin had one of the most well-known cults of personality, but here are 7 facts that you probably didn’t know about it:

  1. The cult produced innumerable titles for Stalin. Brilliant Genius of Humanity, Gardener of Human Happiness, Best Friend of Children, Great Architect of Communism, Generalissimo, The Supreme Commander, Our Best Collective Farm Worker, Our Shockworker, Our Best of Best, and Sublime Strategist of All Times and Nations—these are just a few of the dictator’s flowery epithets. Children were taught to say, “Thank You, Dear Comrade Stalin, for a Happy Childhood!”


  1. Stalin rewrote history. In Stalin’s version of Soviet history, he was Vladimir Lenin’s right-hand man during the October Revolution. In reality, Stalin’s archnemesis Leon Trotsky had actually occupied that position. Still seething over this slight even after Lenin’s death and Trotsky’s ouster, Stalin went so far as to conceal historical documents that were deemed “misleading or incomplete” and airbrush Trotsky and others out of photos with Lenin.


  1. The cult caused Stalin’s death. After dinner on February 28th, 1953, Stalin’s advisors left and he instructed his guards to go off duty and not to wake him. Usually Stalin called them by 10:00 a.m. the next morning, but on this morning no light was on, no sound came, and still the guards were too terrified to break Stalin’s orders and enter—lest they be sent to the Gulag for disobedience. At 10:00 p.m. that same day, the guards finally mustered the courage to enter, with the excuse that the mail had come, and found Stalin on the ground in a pool of his own urine. His broken watch revealed that he had fallen nearly four hours earlier. The guards were too frightened to call any doctors; Stalin had recently had many of the Kremlin’s most distinguished (and predominantly Jewish) medical personnel imprisoned or executed for the alleged “Doctor’s Plot” conspiracy. Security services dithered, and by the time all involved had overcome their fear of Stalin’s paranoiac vindictiveness and summoned doctors to treat him, much of the damage to his brain and nervous system had occurred.


  1. Stalin’s funeral killed people. While it’s well known that Stalin killed millions of people during his thirty years in power, it is estimated that 500 people lost their lives at his funeral. They were attempting to see Stalin’s body lying in state, but were trampled underfoot, jammed against traffic lights, or choked in the mass of weeping Soviet mourners. Some people escaped the stampede by climbing onto rooftops. Others tried to crawl underneath the cars and trucks that were lining the thoroughfares to slip away into side streets and were inadvertently crushed beneath them.


  1. Russians felt Stalin’s death like Americans felt Kennedy’s assassination. The official announcement went out at 4:00 AM on March 6th, 1953: “The heart of the comrade-in-arms and continuer of genius of Lenin’s cause, of the wise leader and teacher of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union, has ceased to beat.” For many Russians, it was like John F. Kennedy’s assassination ten years later: everyone who lived through it could remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard the news. People cried, from joy that Stalin was gone, from fear and uncertainty about how to operate without him, or from genuine sadness. How could life go on without their Leader?


  1. Initially, Stalin’s personality cult fell quickly. After lying in state for three days and nights, Stalin’s corpse was placed next to Lenin’s body in his mausoleum in Red Square. Later, though, Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev denounced the excesses of the old tyrant in his 1956 “Secret Speech” to the Congress of the Communist Party. In 1961, just eight years after he died, Stalin’s body was removed from the mausoleum and reburied by the Kremlin wall alongside lesser figures of the Bolshevik Revolution.


  1. Unfortunately, the cult is making a comeback. Stalin’s popularity is rising in recent Russian polls. His role in helping win World War II is being heavily emphasized while the purges, famines, Gulag, and waves of bloody terror that he personally directed are downplayed. As the post-Soviet state struggles to cope with the modern world and many of its leaders long for the grand, imperial days of Stalin’s USSR, the Sublime Strategist of All Times and Nations is once again becoming a powerful—and terrible—symbol both to the Russian people and the world.