The popularization of Area Studies in the USA during the Cold War was driven by international political
considerations, in particular the need to produce knowledge about so-called enemy countries – communist
states. As the political systems of the major representatives of the communist bloc - USSR, China, North
Korea – developed the phenomenon of personality cults, it consequently became an important subject
for Area Studies scholars, as well as its new concept. They approached this phenomenon through multidisciplinary
culturally and historically contextualized studies instead of applying macro-historical theories
based on the Western experience (Szanton, 2002: 5-11).
The term “personality cult” became popular after Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret speech” at the 20th
Party Congress in 1956, when he used it to explain the consolidation of Stalin’s personal dictatorship,
the ensuing abuses of power and the extraordinary adulation of Stalin (Rees, 2004:3). Since then the
term has had a highly negative connotation and is associated with the notorious human rights abuses
of Stalinism, as well as the regimes of Mao Zedong, Adolf Hitler and the Kim family in North Korea.
The term, personality cult, when applied to modern politics, usually refers to the practice of
non-democratic regimes to promote an idealized image of a leader with the aid of modern mass media
in order to generate personal worship in a society.
Although the practice of personality cults in modern states arguably started with the Russian
leader Stalin’s decision to place the corpse of Vladimir Lenin on public display after Lenin’s death in
1924 (Rutland, 2011:365), the spirit of the phenomenon is extremely ancient. “The deification of dead
emperors and then of living emperors was used to legitimize personal power in ancient Greece and Rome,
especially with the dynasty of Augustus” (Rees, 2004:7). However, technology improvements utilized in
mass media and police monitoring activities have made modern states more capable of creating and
sustaining a personality cult.
The popularity of the personality cult as a research topic in Sino, Soviet and Korean studies can
be explained by a specific approach undertaken by foreign scholars studying the policies and politics of
these states (these studies are also known as Kremlinology). The lack of reliable information and the highly
opaque decision making structures in these communist states have made it necessary for Kremlinologists
to read between the lines and employ such empirical data as the physical position of members of the
inner circles during parades, the wording in newspaper articles, the presence or absence of slogans and
phrases in documents, etc. That also explains why they focused on the visible actors – leaders – and
therewith shaped the research of personality cults. “In identifying cleavages and controversies within the
Soviet leadership, Kremlinologists have tended to emphasize personal alignments, overstate personal
power struggles and downgrade policy issues to mere instruments in the fight for supremacy” (Jönsson,
With the end of the Cold War a new understanding of the personality cult has begun to develop.
It has been argued that this concept should be put in a broader context of person-centered modern
symbolic politics, opening up vistas for comparisons with Western democracies. According to E.A. Rees
(2004:7) “embryonic cults exist even in relatively open, democratic political systems”. These are not
personality cults in the full form, but they resemble them in some respects. So the ghost of the personality
cult is not peculiar to non-democratic states, but the political and social conditions in non-democratic
states serve as a more comfortable hotbed in which it can grow.
The first section of the working paper will provide a theoretic framework for the analysis of
personality cults: from Weber’s theory of charismatic authority to theoretical developments specifically related to personality cults. The following sections will present case studies of subjects of the most famous
personality cults: Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, and also look into more recent developments, such as
the idolization of Vladimir Putin in modern Russia.