By Paul Goble
Leader cults have been an integral part of the Russian political system from the time the tsar was overthrown up to today, but they have evolved over that period reflecting the very different situations and personalities of the individual leaders from Aleksandr Kerensky to Joseph Stalin to Vladimir Putin.
Many assume that the Bolsheviks or at least Stalin came up with the cult of personality, Aleksey Miller, an historian at St. Petersburg’s European University says; but that is not the case. In fact, between March and the summer of 1917 with unbelievable energy was formed the cult of personality of [Aleksandr] Kerensky.”
That cult arose and formed a critical element of “the political culture” of Russia after the overthrow of the tsar because “in place of the monarchy, a vacuum arose,” one that could not be filled by any of the usual forms of legitimation Max Weber classically defined (znak.com/2017-10-10/istorik_miller_shans_vyrvatsya_s_periferii_rossiya_utratila_v_1917_godu_i_navsegda).
Miller’s observation made during a speech earlier this month in Tyumen concerning the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolutions of 1917 thus provide a key to understanding why Kerensky’s successors promoted personality cults. They did so because they lacked alternative legitimating principles for a population used to a single monarch-style leader.
On the occasion of Vladimir Putin’s 65th birthday, Moscow commentator Igor Yakovenko offers a comparison of the three great leader cults that were promoted by those in office. (He does not address the very different leader cult of Lenin which was pushed not by the Bolshevik leader himself but by his followers for their own reasons.)
In Yezhednevny zhurnal, Yakovenko points out that “the cult of Brezhnev was a remake of the cult of Stalin and like the majority of remakes gave rise to parody.” It was “completely ‘puffed up,’ artificial, and purely an affair of the apparatus,” but even members of the apparat told jokes about the party leader (ej.ru/?a=note&id=31674).
Some Stalinists, he continues, “loved to repeat the words of Sholokhov: ‘Yes, there was a cult, but there was also a personality.” And some joked “even during Brezhnev’s lifetime that he was promoting “’a cult without a personality.’”
The cult of Putin, in contrast, is entirely a creation of the media and show business. That sets it apart from the cult of Stalin which was “the nucleus of propaganda and a central point of a quasi-religious ideology” and that of Brezhnev which was imposed by the regime’s propagandists without any response really expected.
“Putin is a strictly media product,” Yakovenko says; “he came out of the television. His cult was created and supported by [nominally independent] media activity which had exclusively commercial goals and had nothing in common with ideology. But the powers stimulated it with the help of their control of TV” and thus “gave it a green light.”
The first case of this use of popular culture to promote “’a show cult’” in Russia occurred in 1996 when culture figures overwhelmingly supported Boris Yeltsin’s re-election. But that case involved the pursuit of a specific “concrete” goal: his re-election. And because that is so, no cult of Yeltsin aroses
Putin, however, “decided to restore the empire, to reverse ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, and his power became a life-long case. Without a cult, such tasks are not solved, and thus arose the show cult of Putin. A cult without personality, a cult without ideology, simply a cult alone standing in the midst of a cleansed political field.”