Questioning Cults


Marc Cooper: Stalin Museum, 2015 (CC)

by Graeme Gill

Ruler Personality Cults from Empires to Nation-States and Beyond
Kirill Postoutenko, Darin Stephanov, eds.,
London: Routledge, 2021. 294 pp

This is a stimulating set of essays dedicated to analysis of leader cults ranging across history from Caligula to Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They stem from a workshop and are meant to be organized around five questions: What are the origins, drivers, and elements of personality cults? How do changes of codes, channels, and media affect ruler personality cults? How different are personality cults in different types of systems and what continuities and discontinuities are present across time? How “collaborative” are ruler personality cults? And how do personality cults die? These are all interesting and challenging questions, and many of the essays do attempt to interrogate one or more of them. Inevitably the essays’ coverage of these questions is partial. Apart from an introduction and conclusion, there are eleven substantive chapters.

Dmitri Zakharine examines the idea of a personality cult as a contested notion, arguing that it is usually seen as part of an “other.” Xavier Marquez identifies three “mechanisms of cult production,” direct production, loyalty signaling, and ritual amplification. Ali Anooshahr looks at the societal roots of the cult of the Mughal emperor in seventeenth-century India, while Darin Stephanov analyzes the popular image of Alexander I of Russia. The reaction in the colonies to the death of Queen Victoria is the subject of John Plunkett’s essay, and Eva Giloi looks at the creation of a sense of false equivalence between ruler and subjects in supplicants’ letters in imperial Germany. Alexey Tihkhomirov examines the paternal basis of ruler personality cults, while Kirill Postoutenko uses analysis of the Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Franklin Roosevelt cults to discuss the structure of personality cults in terms of deification, canonization, and random signaling. Finally, three essays focus on individual cults: Tamara Trost on the posthumous cult of Josip Broz Tito, Manuela Marin on the development of the cult of Nicolae Ceausescu, and Charlotte Joppien on the symbolism of the body as reflected in the cult of Erdogan.

This is a diverse set of essays, but they can be divided into three basic types: production of cults (Marquez, Anooshahr, Stephanov, Plunkett, and Giloi), structure of cults (Postoutenko), and content of cults (Tikhomirov, Trost, Marin, and Joppien). Many of the essays actually bridge these types, which are therefore not exclusive, and the Zakharine essay does not really fit into any of them. The essays focusing on the content of cults are all competent discussions of the particular cults on which they concentrate. Tikhomirov’s is the only one that attempts to generalize from one cult, with his argument that the “most basic structural element” of all cults is the image of the father of the nation or state (p. 123). He sees this stemming from ancient Rome and extending through to the present. His argument seems to be that this is a necessary structural feature of all ruler cults rather than simply being a reflection of borrowing over time. The other most interesting of these four essays is that by Joppien, who has studied how Erdogan has consciously sought to project a particular sort of message through the way he conducts himself; his bearing, demeanor, clothing, even some of his gestures are all seen as conscious attempts to create a particular sort of leadership image. This sort of performative interpretation of the cult and its principal opens up a potentially fruitful line of future inquiry.

The most original parts of the book are the other two types of essays, on the production and structure of cults. While how a cult is produced has been the subject of study in the past—for example, Jan Plamper’s study of the Stalin cult has a major focus on this (The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power [2011])—most such studies use the paradigm of the cult being created from above and received below. A major assumption of the current collection is that the cult constitutes a communicative system in which the participants are not active creators on high and passive receivers below. Rather those at whom the cult is directed, essentially the mass populace or sections thereof, actually participate in the active construction and shaping of the cult (Plamper is one earlier author who accepted this view). The different essays discuss this in different ways. Marquez’s loyalty signaling is something carried out by subordinates who seek to demonstrate their loyalty through ostentatious flattery of the leader, which may not only involve the repetition of slogans from above or the acting out of rituals organized from above but also include more spontaneous types of activity from below. Similarly, his idea of ritual amplification may involve agency on the part of ordinary people. Anooshahr focuses on regional officials, typified by one who left a memoir, and the way that they could act to create a sense of “discipleship,” which contributed to the creation of a cult, in his words, “from the bottom up” (p. 46). While Stephanov argues that Alexander participated in the creation of a cult, he also shows how the popular reaction to the emperor’s visit to local areas contributed to the shaping of the cultist image. Plunkett’s study of the colonial reaction to the death of Queen Victoria, including his explanation of the means whereby news of her demise reached the colonies, shows how through their reactions to the news those in the colonies reworked the images of the queen. Giloi’s analysis of supplicants’ letters to Kaiser Wilhelm II shows how, although they often took a standard form, the letter conceived of the relationship between supplicant and kaiser in a way that cast them as virtual equals. All of these studies show that the supposed receivers of the cult were not simply passive acceptors of the images being projected onto them but were active in reworking and modifying that image to suit their own needs and perceptions. This opens up a really interesting field of study, focusing on the interaction between images from above and below and the impact this could have on popular acceptance of the cult and its principal. These essays are also useful in indicating the sorts of sources that can be used in this endeavor.

Finally, the essay by Postoutenko provides a model of the way we can analyze the structural elements of a cult. Instead of looking at the actual claims made for the principal of the cult, he provides us with a framework for analyzing the functions different elements of the cult perform. The distinction between deification and canonization is particularly useful for how it highlights the relationship between the figure of the principal of the cult and written words and epithets. It is this sort of structural analysis of cults that promises to be a fruitful line of investigation in the future.

In sum, the essays in this volume are all stimulating in their own right and all break new ground in their treatment of their particular subjects. The essays do not really talk to each other, so that the attempt to provide a clear focus that seems to have been behind the workshop was not altogether successful. Nevertheless the book itself is a strong, rich, and timely contribution to our understanding of leader cults and how they work.

Piece originally published at H-Net Reviews under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Frontpage image: Maxence: Ancien Musée Staline, Batoumi, 2012 (CC)

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