Invented Traditions and the Cult of Stalin

By Nikita Taranko Acosta – Geneva

Utopias are dreams of collective deliverance that in waking life are found to be nightmares(Gray 2008, p.24). In this essay I will try to work out on the concept of invented traditions prior to delving into the intricacies of the cult of Stalin. Later on, I will try to historically link that cult to the one Lenin’s figure enjoyed after his demise. Additionally, I plan to rehearse the significance of the godlike image of the tsar as a role-model —even before the revolution broke out in 1917— upon which the revolutionary leaders were cast. I will ultimately venture to illustrate how this collective hypnosis permeated the left-wing intelligentsia in the West for many decades and was even able to transcend the myth of Stalin and Communism, which crumbled to pieces as oodles of facts were released since the death of the tyrant and further unintended implosion, triggered by Gorbachev’s reforms, a swan song used as a last-ditch resort to renew a rotten trunk.

The phrase “invented tradition” came to public knowledge with a book by Eric Hobsbawm. He defined it as the practices of symbolism aimed at instilling in people’s minds a certain set of values that has its roots in the past. This is done through a pervasive presence of rituals and icons that contribute to mould an ideological climate liable to embracing adherence to a political project.

I do not believe in the stability and integrity of so called ‘objective’ world, the world of nature and history. Objective reality does not exist (…) what exists is the objectification of reality that is created by a certain direction of the spirit”.

(Nicolai Berdyaev, quoted in Huxley’s “Brave New World” 2007, p.10)

In other words, there is no need of a factual proximity to historical events, insofar as they can be reinterpreted or embellished to facilitate some mechanisms of identification, shared emotions, involvement in a common endeavour, a sense of unity or a simple idea of citizenship strengthened by the core notions of patriotism, nationalism, socialism and so forth.

The key factor here is the extension of the phenomenon besides the recurrence of those practices. Religion, folklore, the solemnity of public rituals and ceremonies, the heartwarming sensation stirred up by the display of some symbols: all helps building up a communal landscape. “Ritual inculcates the values of the dominant ideology (…) it acts on the emotions rather than the intellect” (Lane 1984, p. 208). State education is another effective tool to cast an emotional horizon on the new generations. Sometimes, as in the case of nationalism, the invented tradition needs to create an identity fostered by antagonism. In other words, there exists the necessity of strengthening the “us” as a shield against the onslaughts of a fictitious “them”, who become the enemy. In that way, people indoors outline their physical and moral borders to fend off aliens from outdoors, set up camp to face the invader or aggressor, either figurative or authentic, no matter if it is a real occurrence or far-fetched caricature.

Invented traditions, such as I see it, are a necessary rite of passage in every society, and there is nothing wrong in that, at least in principle. Everything human is artificial by definition; all traditions began in some period in the past for the first time. The question is to what purpose this or that tradition set forth a new path, not on what foundations it is built —although some are more faithfully historical than others—.

Focusing on the Soviet Revolution, some scholars, such as Frederick C. Corney, have noticed how the power of a narrative script, sponsored and advocated by the brand-new state, helped outlining the epic birth of an epochal upheaval. Following Halbwachs’ insights, memories are always contextualized within a framework defined by values and perceptions common to a specific social group. Therefore, focusing first on the structure of those groups, would enhance the chances to ponder the authenticity of their reminiscences. To accomplish this successfully, one should be also aware that evocations of the past may be contaminated by bias, selectiveness and lack of historical perspective. Indeed, the Bolsheviks were very fond of this practice. An eyewitness’ narrative, for instance, was a source of political legitimation while social gatherings to deliver accounts were promoted by the new government to reinforce the sense of a common enterprise with epic features. The power of the word was intensified by the power of visual landmarks: statues, plaques, museums, films, parades, etc. As Corney writes, “Bolshevik power, in terms of the success of the Bolshevik metanarrative of the past, meant an ability to make October part of the personal and collective experience of large parts of the population” (Corney 1998, p. 401).

Political cult begins with Lenin’s figure, especially after he died in 1924, and remained pervasive in Soviet culture until it was overlapped by that of Stalin, “extravagant”, in the words of Tumarkin (“Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia” 1997, p. 3). The religious vocabulary was the safe framework that defines both because popular culture was structured in those terms. Berdyaev depicts the Russian character as follows: “What in the West was a scientific theory which could be critical as a hypothesis or as a partial truth with no pretence of universal validity, (…) was put forward by the Russian intelligentsia as an ultimately valid affirmation bordering on religious revelation” (as quoted in Thrower 1983, p.1). As Rupert Colley explains:

Stalin instigated an era of deferential religious-like worship for the Great Leader of the Revolution in which Lenin’s image was seen everywhere and his memory held in reverential terms (…). But through his devotion to Lenin, Stalin was able to establish himself as the successor of Lenin’s great vision. To question Stalin was to doubt Lenin’s wisdom and thereby question the legitimacy of the revolution, an act of heresy not tolerated by the regime. (…)” (Colley, 2015, p. 7).

Religion and Tsarism were the mirrors taken by the Bolsheviks to delineate their own enthusiastic climate of worship: “The emotional power as well as the structural form of the Lenin cult derived, in part, from the peasant propensity to personify centralized political power and revere it in the person of the tsar” (Tumarkin, “Political Ritual and the Cult of Lenin” 1996, p.37). Overy shares that view: “The redeemer, rescuing Russia from the debauched Tsarism, had other roots in popular mythology: peasants expected the ‘White Tsar’ to rescue them from poverty (…). The culture of popular adulation survived the revolution, transferred to the new leaders” (Overy 2005, pp. 105-106). Before the revolution, Lunacharsky —future member of the revolutionary government— wrote about messianic millenarism by means of merging socialism and religion, namely Christianity. To that climate of political religion contributed Aleksandr Blok with his poem “The Twelve”, about a band of twelve Red Guards marching in Petrograd with Christ in the vanguard. (Gray 2008, p.61).

On the other hand, Stalin’s oath speech on the eve of Lenin’s funeral set the path of the new political religion. It was a self-serving initiative, because as a legatee of the late leader’s emblematic patrimony he was invigorating his own grip on power. “Stalin’s cult was rooted in the very practical issue of preserving Lenin’s revolution” (Overy 2005, p. 114). Stalin strove to be seen as the true father of the people, an all-seeing and ever-present guide. This was confirmed by his iconographic presence throughout the country: paintings, statues and quasi-religious imagery in many households. He became an “almighty leader who was virtually an earthly god” (Volkogonov 1999, p. 104). “Stalin, by introducing the cult of the dead Lenin, was reinforcing his own role as the deified successor” (Payne, “The Rise and Fall of Stalin” 1965, p. 353). The cult not only endorsed personal rule, but freedom from moral restraint. By hallowing the will of the leader, Stalin moved in a universe of truthfulness and omniscience that paved the way to unrestricted cruelty. The belief system underneath was in part responsible: “Optimism about changing people led to a ruthless consequentialism which discouraged moral constraints. When the end is as large as changing human nature, all necessary means may seem acceptable” (Glover 2001, p. 255). The hard core of Stalinism, was not political terror but social terror, the moral repression and the politics of fear, distrust and suspicion amid everybody. Aristotle, had already written about this as the best means to protect a tyranny: “to endeavour by every means possible to keep all the people strangers to each other” (Aristotle, “Politics” 2000, p. 232). But Stalin’s supreme power hid a fragile self-esteem, a figure full of vanity, insecurity and greed. After all, he was a lonely beast isolated in his den: “dictatorial people can never experience freedom or true friendship” (Plato 1993, p. 576). Stalin monopolized the exploitation of Lenin’s heritage because “the posthumous cult of the leader was useful to him as a weapon of power” (Volkogonov 1999, p. 95). But, as we will see, he was a giant in clay feet. “He was a self-creation. A man who invents his name, birthday, nationality, education and his entire past, in order to change history and play the role of leader, is likely to end up in a mental institution, unless he embraces, by will, luck and skill, the movement and the moment that can overturn the natural order of things. Stalin was such a man” (Montefiore 2003, p. 4).

The first distortion or overstatement can be found in the role played by the Bolshevik party in the Revolution. As Figes (1996, p. 493) reminds us, “The few surviving photographs of the October Days clearly show the small size of the insurgent force. They depict a handful of Red Guards and sailors standing around in half-deserted streets. None of the familiar images of a people’s revolution —crowds on the street, barricades and fighting— were in evidence. The whole insurrection, as Trotsky himself acknowledged, was carried out as a coup d’étât.” There was no groundbreaking shattering of the Tsarist regime by means of an uprising of the masses, so the heroic narrative of the Bolshevik party is just a legend. Nonetheless, this legend contributes to the epic account of a tale peopled by grandiose and lion-hearted fighters. “Bolshevism was a very Russian thing, though. Its belief in militant action, its insistence, contrary to the tenets of Hegel and Marx, that a revolution could “jump over” the contingencies of history, placed it firmly in the Russian messianic tradition (…). As a form of absolutist rule, the Bolshevik regime was distinctly Russian. It was a mirror-image of the tsarist state. Lenin (later Stalin) occupied the place of the Tsar-God” (Figes 1996, pp. 812-813).

The second manipulation concerning Stalin’s cult is his own role in the revolution. Contrary to what the official propaganda stated, he had none. “There is no evidence that he played any effective role in the uprising. He remained in the shadows, neither for the revolution nor against it, waiting for others to make decisions. No orders signed by him have survived; no speeches are recorded” (Payne, “The Rise and Fall of Stalin” 1965, p. 201). Even Stalin’s importance in the party in the years before the revolution was exaggerated: “his influence was still small, and the suggestion that he was already one of Lenin’s closest friends is absurd” (Moorehead 1958, p. 166).

The third skewing of history is the role played by Stalin in the Second World War. He was not the heroic liberator from Nazism. Stalin’s purges had left the army deprived of its most competent soldiers. More than fifteen thousand were shot in the thirties, thus beheading the military leadership and weakening the defensive and offensive capability of the army. His blunders about the Nazi invasion were a miscalculation of “such a vast, catastrophic proportions that it is hard to find anything comparable in history” (Volkogonov 1999, p. 114). The defence of Moscow was so incompetently prepared that the German army marched into Russia at an average speed of twenty miles a day. Furthermore, Stalin spent the war years in his villas in the country, in his bomb shelter and sometimes in his Kremlin office. He was no Napoleon indeed. In spite of that, in the years following the World War II, around ten thousand statues of Stalin were erected not only in the Soviet Union but in the countries liberated by the Red Army.

The party line that Russia owed victory in the Great Patriotic War to the military genius and heroic leadership of Stalin was set in stone. For forty years no one was allowed to ask who had been responsible for decapitating the Red Army in the pre-war purges; who had gained most from the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Russia or Germany; why no notice was taken of the warnings of a German attack and the Russian armed forces were forbidden to prepare for it.” (Bullock 1998, p. 994).

Even the de-Stalinization that Khrushchev started with his famous secret speech in 1956 had some red lines nobody dared to tread beyond.

There is a fourth contortion of truth. The outrageous endorsement of Stalin and the Soviet Union by the Western intelligentsia is one of those historical facts hard to believe, no matter the times we deal with the issue. Even after Stalin’s death “the USSR continued to be regarded as fundamentally progressive and indulgent; this misconception endured until the mid-1970s. What was it? From our vantage it looks like a contagion of selective incuriosity, a mind game begun in self-hypnosis and maintained by mass hysteria” (Amis 2003, p. 39). Since revolution broke out in 1917 there were always writers and thinkers in the West that turned a blind eye to the repression and praised the moral and political progress of the Soviet system. From H.G. Wells to Jean Paul Sartre, those intellectuals were at the forefront of public debate, taking the upper hand in any confrontation with dissenters, from George Orwell to Albert Camus. “For most people, even the doubters, belief in the Soviet Union was the fixed point in their system” (Glover 2001, p. 269). So everything can be skewed to fit the rigid belief system. And out of fear or self-deception, the ruthless consequentialism can lead to lying, tampering with the present or even the past. A delusional system is, then, a moral and political disaster.

In sum, the invented tradition on Stalin’s public figure is full of falsehoods from its very inception, and it led to a circumvention of basic moral rules. His tyranny killed twenty million people, a tragedy of historical proportions, a defeat to humankind and a nightmare from the past that still haunts our present. I would like to believe, however, that a lesson was learnt from this catastrophe: no matter how exquisitely or cunningly history is portrayed for the sake of legitimizing a myth, we should be always able to counteract its spell with inner critical thinking and demand for evidence.


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