The Mustache the Masses Loved… Or Did They?

Aleksandr Laktionov: Portrait of Stalin (1949) Source: Werner Horvath: What is Socialist Realism?. 1997.

Joseph Stalin became the center of the Communist Party as the 1930’s passed.  Stalin had the short history of the Bolshevik party and the revolution re-written by a group of “objective” historians, to portray a history of the Communist Party and the Soviet State which was deeply rooted in the work and leadership of the one and only Joseph Stalin.  It was published in October 1938.  This new history of the rise of the Soviet Union, which made Stalin a central figure, became the basic text of Stalinism.  It sold over forty million copies in Russia and throughout the world.  Even Time Magazine made Joseph Stalin its Man of the Year for 1939.

Stalinism was the aura of the grandeur of Stalin and all that he did.   He was depicted as flawless, a man of the people, and yet stronger, wiser, better.  Stalin’s depiction was one of charisma, beyond even his political role.  The mass media was fed a perception of dire need for vigorous leadership in Soviet society.  Stalin was shown as that leader and more.

Stalin’s portrayal in the media left an impression of power, wisdom, and incredible leadership.  He was compared to great Russian leaders of history to include Peter the Great, even though these leaders ideologies did not align with the communist agenda.

Everyone Votes for the Supreme Soviet (193Smilie: 8). Award-Winner Petr Semenovich Orlov, famous bricklayer and instructor of Stakhanovite work methods. Orlov describes his meeting with Comrade Stalin.

This video displays an interview with an acclaimed brick layer named Petr Semenovich Orlov, a vanguard of the Communist Party, who has just been rewarded for his great work by receiving the honor of meeting Stalin.  In his interview he seems extremely enthused and pleased by his meeting.  Orlov describes Stalin and explains what a great and inspirational person Stalin is and how this meeting has inspired him to work even harder.  It is likely that this interview was coached, and even possible that Orlov never met Stalin at all but was made to give this interview to improve Stalin’s reputation.  Regardless, this interview is just one example of the type of media which was used to increase the charisma, and cult of personality of Stalin.  These types of media were used to paint a portrait of Stalin to the public as a kind, and benevolent leader, not just a strong and bold one.

This cult of personality which depicted Stalin as the Savior of Russia was mostly shared among the Soviets.  Stalin’s control of the media prevented any other news or opinions on his character or actions from being shown.  A climate of fear kept those who held other opinions in check.  People began to self-censor from fear of what may happen to them if they didn’t.  This only aided in the creation of the illusion of undisputed support for Stalin.  This perceived support for Stalin further enhanced the cult of Stalinism for the Soviet populace.  The fear of the public was justified and made clear during the Stalinist show trials of 1937 and 1938, where in Stalin purged many members of the Communist party whom were dissenters or viewed as Stalin’s opposition.

Leon Trotsky: Trotsky on Stalin (1937). From his Mexican exile, Trotsky provides his version of the history of the Comintern, reserving particular disdain for both Stalin and the Second International.

While in exile in Mexico, Trotsky was put on trial by the Stalinist Regime.  This audio is from Trotsky’s statement in reaction to the trial.  He defends himself and his family, but also accuses Stalin of betrayal to the ideals which he claims to have built the Soviet government on, and claims that instead of communism, Stalin has built a regime of “Stalinism” using fear and his secret police force to enforce the reign of his new government over those who would oppose him.

Stalin built a regime around his own inflated image, and maintain it through fear and control.


Seventeen Moments in Soviet History:


Freeze, Gregory L. Russia A History. Oxford University Press, Oxford New York, 2009.

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9 Responses to The Mustache the Masses Loved… Or Did They?

  1. I find it scary to learn about various cults of personality, and I think Stalin’s is perhaps the best example. The idea of manipulating the people through the use of the media (something that was initially intended to give the people the TRUTH) is incomprehensible, but happens more than we like to think. Even today in Russia, the approval rating of Putin is so high, yet the rest of the world understands that many of his policies should not be tolerated.

  2. This was a great post and excellent use of primary sources. This really shows the extent of Stalin’s emphasis on forcing his image onto the world. This post really shows how Soviet communism was turning into Stalinism, as Stalin controlled how the media portrayed him. Stalin’s use of the media to manipulate how the people saw him is an uncomfortable thought because one would think of the media as providing different viewpoints, and not one ruled by the leader. All in all, great post!

  3. Thanks so much for including the recording of Trotsky — what an amazing clip. Even though Stalin vanquished him in the 20s, and Trotsky was in exile when this was recorded, it’s clear from the central role he assumed in the purges that he remained Stalin’s “Enemy No. 1.” Also, Trotsky connects your post really nicely to several other posts on the Purges, including this one:
    P.S. Nice mustaches in the header!

  4. Interesting topic, I like that you picked Stalin and went with the description of his total dominance in the party. I think Stalin was indeed a charismatic leader, and probably necessary to invoke the necessity for collectivism and communist rule. Stalin certainly ruled with fear, but the people allowed this and therefore empowered the Soviet regime.

  5. Be sure to watch out for how Stalin’s place in Soviet history changes over time and the indicators of these changes (specifically, pay attention to where his body is located in the subsequent years after his death and what these locations might reveal about how fondly he is remembered).

  6. Stalin is just an all-around creepy guy. Honestly, because of Stalin’s unhealthy needs for power, I feel like he is the reason that the Soviet Union was not able to get remotely close to true communism. One can only dream of where the Soviet Union would be today if Trotsky had been put in power and not Stalin.

  7. I really liked this post. It gave a good understanding of how the love-hate relationship was in Russia with Stalin. We can fantasize about what would have happened if someone else was in power, but seeing how history unfolded in Stalin’s life was interesting and a bit ironic.

  8. Its crazy to think about how much control Stalin had over the people of Russia and how it influenced the thought process of the people. So many believed the lies they were told and how great Stalin really was for the country. This post reminded me of how North Korea is and it is crazy to think that this type of situation is still possible in our current technologically advanced society.

    gracehemmingson says:

    This period of Stalinism strikes me as one of the most important because the rewriting of history and building of Stalin’s image that occurred in this era was formational for later generations. Great post!

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