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Surprisingly, this is the first English-language scholarly monograph on the Stalin cult. One reason for this extraordinary dearth is the perhaps equally surprising difficulty of finding good source material on which to base a study. Unlike the Mussolini or Hitler cults, which felt no need to apologize for themselves, Stalin's cult never sat comfortably with the collectivity-focused tenets of Marxism(-Leninism); there is no ‘Stalin Cult’ section in either party or state archive to which the researcher might turn, for it was never quite official, and, after Khrushchev's 1956 ‘secret speech’, it had become an embarrassment. How can one study something which became omnipresent yet remained amorphous?

Plamper rises to the challenge and certainly did not scrimp on his research. He read all of Pravda for this period, meticulously counting the various pictorial and textual representations of Stalin. This enormously time-consuming ‘leg work’ means that Plamper is among the few Soviet historians who can with real authority speak of changes in representation, of the tone of Pravda over time, or who can highlight key ideological narratives developed across the years. His efforts now offers some fascinating insights, such as when Pravda no longer felt the need to caption portraits of Stalin (1935), assuming the population would by now of course know him by sight (p. 42), or that Stalin was pictured only once with his own child, Svetlana, because such biological ties were not in keeping with his representation as ‘father of the peoples’ (pp. 44–5). By the later, postwar period, Stalin's presence is paradoxically characterized by his absence pictorially. He had become so omnipresent that it was now redundant to portray him; in pictures he was instead visible in the expressions of Soviet citizens who had met him (p. 114), or appeared only indirectly as a portrait or bust in a scene's background.

Close reading of Pravda is deftly complemented with archival research, allowing us into the decision-making processes (as well as arguments, disputes and back-stabbings between artists) which lay behind the public façade of a singular, ‘natural’ Stalin canon (chapters 4–5). This archival research allows Plamper to sidestep Weber's now long-in-tooth theory of a nebulous personal ‘charisma’ constituting the central mystery of leadership cults, opting instead for what he calls a ‘sacrality’ generated by the conscious creation of ‘cult products’, including images. This provides a welcome and nuanced pathway to understanding the cult which maintains a healthy distance from the recent revival of intellectually hollow arguments that non-liberal twentieth-century polities are explicable only as ‘political religions’, based upon cultish, irrational faith. The book moves well beyond limited ideas of Russian exceptionalism or of a generic ‘totalitarianism’, and positions the Stalin cult within a broader, European tradition which began with the first ‘modern personality cult’ of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte in France. This was a new kind of cult, Plamper argues, because it was based not upon the support of some elite section of society, nor upon divine right; it was, as a product of Enlightenment and of the French Revolution, based upon popular sovereignty (pp. xvii, 2).

Plamper focuses primarily on the ‘cult product’ of portraiture, and oil painting in particular. This, he says, was the ‘master medium’, which dictated the contours of the cult which other media would mimic. Oddly, he immediately corrects this by noting that after the release in 1937 of the film Lenin in October, which was the first film to feature Stalin portrayed by an actor, ‘from then on cinema became the master medium’ (p. xv). Why, then, does Plamper's focus remain centred on portraiture after this turning point throughout his study? Indeed, the fifth chapter delves even deeper into the institutions and personalities involved in making portraits specifically; the detail of this chapter is impressive, yet one cannot shake the feeling that it can only be a (potentially small) part of the cult.

The book contains many images. One would like to say it is ‘lavishly illustrated’, but, barring twenty-one colour plates on middling-quality paper, these are only in black-and-white. Given their central importance to the analysis, ideally these would have all been in colour and on high-quality paper, but one should not let this detract from the quality of Plamper's analysis. Chapter 3 in particular features sustained and stimulating discussion of the content, composition and artistic meanings – both hidden and apparent – in Stalin imagery, which is a highly stimulating addition to a historian's consideration of the cult.

The final chapter turns to audience perception of the cult by examining visitor books from key exhibitions, and scribbled questions posed to ‘celebrities’ such as A. D. Diky, who played Stalin in several major films. However, Plamper writes off the possibility of actually analysing popular opinion either via these source materials or more generally, averring that we can only hope to understand ‘what purposes [the collection of opinion was] supposed to serve’ (p. 204). This is a limiting approach: we end up trapped in an echo-chamber fashioned by the Soviet authorities, ignoring the qualitative conclusions we might draw from collections of popular opinion just because we cannot make quantitative generalizations thereafter. Even if popular opinion is intentionally left outside the remit of this volume, it is perplexing that Plamper still attempts to close the door to future research on what is surely the very heart of the cult phenomenon – its perception by the populace – by declaring such analysis to be impossible (pp. 204, 226). This relates directly to the book's subtitle: ‘A Study in the Alchemy of Power’. Alchemy, Plamper tells us, takes ‘a careful choice of discrete elements’, combines them and, from their reaction, gains ‘a sum total that is more than and different from the original elements’ (p. xx). Yet he believes that the additional material thereby created is ‘a surplus of the unknowable’ (p. 226); it remains a mystery we cannot study. Rather strangely, therefore, despite demystifying much of the process of cult creation in this generally excellent study, Plamper retreats at the last behind a metaphor which does little more than claim the cult was, in the end, a kind of magic.

Nevertheless, The Stalin Cult is a significant publication and although it could not hope to address every part of so neglected a subject, Plamper picks specific foci and treats them with great skill and arresting insight. This is a landmark study and will surely open up many further avenues of research into the Stalin cult.