“...Then everyone is surprised that 70% of the population — some Stalinist aliens. We should ‘meet the people’ more”

Historian Alexander Reznik on the cult of leaders, Trotsky and modern Stalinism

A recent survey by Levada-Centre on the role of Stalin in history has once again sparked a heated debate in the society on this topic. According to the survey, 70% of the population of Russia have a positive attitude to the “father of peoples”, this has been the highest rate since 1980. What do these figures show? How was a cult of personality and cult leaders created during the Soviet period? What was this era and why does it still attract many of our contemporaries? These and other questions were answered by historian Alexander Reznik in the interview with Realnoe Vremya.

“Lenin and Trotsky never consciously supported the creation of their own cults”

How was the cult of personality created in Soviet times? What tools were used for this? Could you tell us about it on the example of Trotsky?

I would suggest using the term “cult of personality” more carefully. Western colleagues, especially in Germany, criticized us when we talked about the cult of our characters. They said that the cult of personality is a totalitarian cult, it is the cult of Hitler, Stalin. We agree that there was nothing comparable before. There is also another point: it is very often not the cult of personality, but the cult of Lenin or Trotsky as leaders. The cult of leaders is the term that captures not the abstract deification of the ruler, but the processes of political struggle around the images of leaders.

With Trotsky, there’s an interesting situation. Because when the Bolsheviks came to power, he was one of the members of the Council of People's Commissars. The head of the government was Lenin. And they both, unlike Kerensky and many of the leaders of the Provisional government, at first were building their policies (consciously and unconsciously) on the contrast with the bygone era of the February revolution. To put it simply, they didn't push their personalities to the forefront. A leap in the creation of the cult of Lenin's personality was a murder attempt on him on August 30, 1918. A year passed since the Bolsheviks came to power, there is the full-scale civil war, the situation of the Red Guards is not very good, and then Lenin is shot... It is clearly a crisis situation, but at the local level, especially in Petrograd, it produces the strongest effect. The direct response was the official red terror campaign, which claimed many thousands of lives. But the main thing —the cult is born in the eyes, in the creation of which Trotsky played a huge role, speaking about Lenin in the spirit of a typical chieftain's narrative about the leader as an exceptional person and the symbol of the revolution.

With Trotsky's participation, the process of Lenin's sacralisation is launched, and what is most interesting, in the same days Trotsky returns to the front, he is already Chief Commissioner in the army, and with his participation the Red Guards seize Kazan, a strategically important point. After that, for months there is a very successful counterattack of the Red Guards. Various newspapers begin to sing the praises of Trotsky and Lenin, and often of Trotsky — more, because even his presence at the front was interpreted as a proof that it is also the leader of the army.

Another point that struck me was that, at least in January, Trotsky wrote to the editors of his newspaper, which is published in his famous train, that they “should pay less attention to his personality”. Immediately after this mention Trotsky became less mentioned. No more articles about him appeared. Moreover, Trotsky received a variety of greetings, resolutions, personal letters from various people who honoured him in different ways, and at first the Trotsky’newspaper publishes these resolutions, but after his request they simply cut out the final toast to the leader himself, in fact, censoring the cult.

For me, this is a typical example of the fact that Lenin and Trotsky never consciously supported the creation of their own cults. Another thing is that they not always prevented this…

Trotsky believed that Stalin — personalized evil, of course, he applied the concept of “totalitarianism” to the Soviet regime, although not in our modern sense. But at the same time, he constantly emphasized that it was all about faceless bureaucracy, which is the beneficiary of all these processes. Now we know that this is only part of the truth

“Trotsky was not ready to admit that Stalin was anything more than outstanding mediocrity”

Did Trotsky have the ambitions to become the main after Lenin's resignation?

Trotsky was not suitable for the role of the autocratic ruler. He was a supporter of the division of labour, bureaucracy in the spirit of Max Weber, with professionalism and subordination. These are the qualities that do not really help to build a network of political friends and especially a network of political clients with Trotsky at the head, like it was partly done by Stalin in the ‘20s. Trotsky did not do this purposefully. Moreover, he repelled many people with such personal qualities. That is why I never supported the idea that Trotsky sought personal power, that he wanted to replace Lenin. For Trotsky himself, this was unthinkable in many ways.


Here it is important to take into account this aspect: Trotsky as a writer, as a biographer and autobiographer. Trotsky was a phenomenally productive man. And, like many social Democrats of the time, he considered writing his profession. During party congresses when filled questionnaires, both Lenin and Trotsky wrote in the column ‘employment’ — ‘writer’. Trotsky literally worked as a journalist of the revolution. He lived on the principle of “not a day without a line”. But the most important thing, and what made him very different from Lenin, was that Trotsky invested a great deal in the artistic side of the texts. He illustrated abstract political processes and parties with living figures. For him, it was very important to show through the figure of Kerensky or someone else some features of the living nature of the political process. In his works, there were no dry positivist schemes. He thought otherwise.

He used to write biographies all the time. We all know his autobiography My Life. When he wrote it, he needed money. No one knows whether he would have written it in other conditions. But he wrote quickly and easily. He had a lot of blanks. He didn't like the diary very much, but he kept it for some years. When he found himself in exile, his main problem was the need to maintain his own existence and the existence of his political movement, because he was the main sponsor of his movement. Many publishers turned to him to write for them. So there were created the projects of biographies of Lenin and Stalin. Both books were unfinished.

It was especially difficult for Trotsky to write the biography of Stalin. He usually very deeply understood some processes, but in the case of Stalin he was not ready to admit that it is something more than outstanding mediocrity. Here he remained on the classical Marxist position that the social groups that stand behind a person are more important than the personality itself. Trotsky could not foresee it, no one then knew to what extent Stalin played a personal role in unleashing terror. Trotsky believed that Stalin — personalized evil, of course, he applied the concept of “totalitarianism” to the Soviet regime, although not in our modern sense. But at the same time, he constantly emphasized that it was all about faceless bureaucracy, which is the beneficiary of all these processes. Now we know that this is only part of the truth. Stalin's bureaucracy itself has also suffered greatly. Because terror was uncontrollable and only Stalin could correct it and, eventually, stop.

How did the image of Trotsky gradually merge with the image of Judas, the traitor of the Motherland and the revolution?

In the creation of a demonized image of Trotsky, completely alien to the values and ideals of the revolution, Stalinism played a huge role. In the USSR in the ‘30s years, Trotsky was the most the main villain even on backdrop of Hitler. Although he did not play a significant political role, Stalin still decides to eliminate him. This is partly revenge, but also the idea that in symbolic terms Trotsky is still dangerous, it is impossible to allow criticism of the Stalinist regime from the left positions from someone who had to do with the original revolution.

Also, we should not forget that the Civil war and the White camp made no less contribution to the creation of this demonic image. Since Trotsky was not particularly known outside of social democracy until the 1918 revolution, the myths that began to be produced in the anti-Bolshevik camp were Homerically ridiculous. It's some kind of a crook, a clever swindler, who on the crest of mob rule came to power and kept there only because of human stupidity and naked violence. It was often stressed that Trotsky's power was of a semi-tsarist nature, he was portrayed as a new and false king, an Antichrist. They stressed that he was a Jew, and therefore — alien to the Russian people. That is, his image was originally associated with xenophobia. For example, Trotsky was a complete stranger to writers such as Bunin or Kuprin. They did not understand how such political projects could be implemented in Russia. They were offended that a man of whom they had heard nothing was suddenly so famous.

All camps fought for the support of the peasantry. Because on whose side the peasantry stood stand, that side would win. In the eyes of the peasantry it was strange that non-Russian (someone under the name of Bronstein) played such an important role. There were historical anecdotes, and Trotsky himself repeated one in his autobiography that some did not believe that Trotsky was a Jew, believed that he was “our, Russian”. Babel also had this in the “Konarmia”, where one of the heroes of the “Red Army called Trotsky “the desperate son of the Tambov Governor”.

The creators of the series did not set the task to give an objective portrait of the Trotsky. This is an entertaining movie and caricature image. In a sense, this is an attempt to go beyond the Stalinist and white guard narratives, to reconcile liberals and conservatives in their dislike of socialism and revolution

“Trotsky series reproduced stereotypical and xenophobic ideas about his hero”

What happens after the murder of Trotsky in 1940? How did Russia and Russian emigration react to this event?

There comes silence for several decades, his name is banned in the Soviet Union, the memory of him is destroyed. The Second World War overshadowed the events of the revolution and the civil war, even in the eyes of immigrants, Western contemporaries. For example, when I was composing an anthology about Trotsky, I looked at what Viktor Nekrasov, Brodsky and other Soviet writers and poets who had emigrated wrote about him. They didn't write anything. Trotsky is somewhere on the periphery of their attention. Only since the ‘60s there was a left turn in the moods of Western intellectuals, and Trotsky again becomes popular. Especially in Latin America and Europe. Trotskyists play a prominent role in politics, many intellectuals write about it with sympathy.

What about now todays?

What we have now is the post-Soviet state of memory of Trotsky. It has not changed much since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is a very eclectic presentation, the challenge to which in a sense was made only by the television Trotsky series, which reproduced many stereotypical and also xenophobic ideas about his character.

I would say that we have a problem with de-Stalinization. It seems that the state does not approve of Stalinism. But the government, as in the case of the centenary of the revolution, is trying to avoid a unambiguous assessment

“Power evades an unambiguous assessment of Stalinism”

What would you say about the recent sensational survey of Levada-Center that showed that 70% of the population allegedly would not be against modern Stalinism?

I am not a sociologist, it is difficult for me to express my attitude in terms of the technique of creating this survey. But I support those who criticize the methodology and the main conclusions that are made on the basis of these surveys. I believe that it is categorically incorrect to talk about modern Stalinism. Stalinism is a historical form of a particular political regime, which could only appear in those specific historical conditions. In fact, the adherents of the ideologems of the Soviet man often forget that the de-Stalinization of Khrushchev, launched from the top in 1956, quickly and painlessly was implemented. But the careful re-Stalinization under Brezhnev was rather a populist move, rather than a conscious ideological position of the authorities. Just the power admitted that some people associate any achievement with the figure of Stalin.

Then we had perestroika and the first years of democratic Russia, when de-Stalinization in society was deep enough. Somewhere in the late 90's we see a new surge. Someone in the spirit of outright conspiracy theories links it to conspiracy in the government, which is encouraged. I believe that this, of course, is not so. It was a market process, when book publishers and other media figures responded to the demand from below as a reaction to the trauma suffered by the majority of the population in the 1990s.

The fact that they choose the image of a rigid patriarchal ruler does not mean that they would be ready to live under Stalinism. About someone we can say that he is an ideological Stalinist. But do we have a lot of ideological people on any issues? This is often forgotten. We have an absolutely apolitical population. We have almost no political parties. We people are rarely able to protect their own public gardens in the yard. But suddenly they appeared as active Stalinists. That always surprises me. I would say that it is possible to argue about the results of these surveys.

Another thing is that it is very dangerous to build such a narrative when we have only a strong actor in the face of the state and such obviously manipulated, led by passive creatures in the form of 70% of the population. Because the only rational answer to this is that we need a good state that will simply carry out a “good” de-Stalinization from above. But this is, first, a utopia, because such actions can meet strong resistance on the principle of protest voting of the opposition. On the other hand, no activity from the top will not replace grassroots mobilizing people, once society begins to be politicized. There will be left and right parties, they will deal with specific issues that exist now, and all these talks about Stalin will simply lose their relevance.

I would say that the very idea of having some unkillable Soviet man, Homo sovetikus, is not based on any of the sociological and any scientific theories I am familiar with. It's just an irrational belief that allows some intellectuals to maintain their own identity. When it is very difficult to be in constant opposition to the majority, this is a veiled and slightly perverted response to the growth of populism.

That is, such requests for Stalin, a strong leader — one of the manifestations of the populist request?

Yes, but I would say that we have a problem with de-Stalinization. It seems that the state does not approve of Stalinism (there is no conscious support, monuments are not put, on the contrary, they put monuments to victims). But the government, as in the case of the centenary of the revolution, is trying to avoid a clear assessment. Because the main thing for them — to maintain consensus in the society, to respond to the requests of the majority, the requests of the dissatisfied minority is always easier to sacrifice.

But the problem is that all public discussions about Stalinism and de-Stalinization are mainly conducted within the framework of the liberal-conservative agenda. While it is obvious among those people who think something positive about Stalin, there are people of different views. In my opinion, the most active left-wing political forces in the country are not Stalinists, on the contrary. Be it Trotskyists, Communists, anarchists, left socialists, they do not support Stalin.

All public discussions about Stalinism and de-Stalinization are mainly conducted within the framework of the liberal-conservative agenda. While it is obvious among those people who think something positive about Stalin, there are people of different views

Another thing is that when people start talking about this absolutely black and white perceptions of the era of the 1920s and 30s, all of this is painted one colour and explained only through the prism of terror, totalitarianism, and Stalin personally. This is how to explain today's Russia by the Kremlin, its policy, forgetting that there are always people who have different views. The absolute majority of the population even in the years of Stalinism tried to evade all this forced mobilization in ritual policy. Criminal actions of the authorities are one thing. Social processes are another matter. It is often omitted.

It seems to me that we have not even developed a language for discussions on such issues. I have always believed that some shift in historical memory is possible primarily due not to scientists, but to artists, when they create a new reading of those events, shifting the conversation from the dead point. We need to look for a new language of discussion on these issues. Because now it all comes down to pseudointellectualism the cabal, and then are surprised that 70% of the population have some of Stalin's aliens. We should “meet the people” more. It is not clear how to do this, because most of the media here reproduce this atomization.

By Natalia Fyodorova