The personality cults of Mao and Lenin


During our presentation, my partner and I reviewed the works describing the personality cults of Mao and Lenin. The two works we studied were “Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia”, by Nina Tumarkin and “Mao Cult: Rhetoric and Ritual in China’s Cultural Revolution” by Daniel Lesse. In Lenin Lives! the author discusses Lenin’s early life, his time in power, the process that was taken after his death, and how his cult came to be once he passed. In Mao Cult the author begins the text after Stalin’s death, right after Khrushchev’s secret speech denouncing cults of personality. The text then goes into describing how China wants to respond, Mao’s rise back to power after the Great Leap Forward, the cult of Mao, and Mao Zhedong Thought. Although Mao and eventually Lenin developed their own cults of personality the two cults came about and functioned in very different ways. The cult of Mao developed while he was still alive but was built on a sense of fear that the entire population of China participated in, much like Stalin’s cult. On the contrary Lenin’s cult as he became ill. It was overthrown once Stalin came into power due to Stalin becoming “larger than the party”. Once Stalin was no longer in power Lenin’s cult reemerged but then again faded with time. Although these two leaders both embodied a cult of personality and the people worshiped these individuals Mao enforced his using an army and was taking to an extreme by the people of China and their need to survive and please their leader. Lenin was more based on his ideals and they wanted to unify the people of Russia. When he was sick the people needed to be unified and continue the communist way of life and after the death of Stalin, they needed to be reunited and change the way of life they had become accustomed to under Stalin’s oppression.

The text “Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia”, by Nina Tumarkin was Published in 1983 and the Author was a professor at Wellesley, director of their Russian Area Studies Program, Harvard graduate, and was an advisor to Reagan. This book dives into Lenin in his early life and then into the way the Russian government turned into this massive figure, a god if you will, and was imposed on the people of Russia. The way that Lenin’s cult was implemented within Russia can be contrasted with the idea of the Orthodox church and naïve monarchism. By making Lenin into this saint it was easier for the people of Russia to be united after the peoples had been divided during the civil wars and after the oppression of Stalin and the transition of power to Khrushchev. The way the author described Lenin as a person and his life before his death was important because that was a big part of what made the cult what it was, he was a confident man but also enjoyed relaxation. The people of Russia had gone through so much hardship during the civil wars and Stalin that they needed a figure like this to be the symbol of communism and their country. The great amount of time and effort put into “immortalize” him with the embalming of the body just shows that they wanted to keep him “alive” in the hearts of the Russian people before Stalin came into power. Although Stalin overshadowed Lenin during his time Lenin was quickly brought back again to unify the people due to the status that had been set before the rule of Stalin. The argument can be made that maybe it was the people’s unedifying love for Stalin that made him so popular with the people but this was the work of the government. The way they handled his death as well as putting him in this god-like light made it so the people then could take their worship of Lenin to the levels that they did. The fact that people waited to see his corpse in minus 35-degree weather over the course of three days shows how well the government did to promote this cult, although they never used the word “cult”, but at the same time how the people took it upon themselves to take it to the levels that they did.

Next, discussing “Mao Cult: Rhetoric and Ritual in China’s Cultural Revolution” by Daniel Lesse, written in 2011, was the first academic work in English on this cult and it allowed for Lesse to expand upon and dive deeper into modern Chinese politics. This work takes a look at the way the Mao cult was formed from before and after the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s cult came into play due to his mistakes with the Cultural Revolution and how millions of Chinese citizens died because of him. In this aspect, he is very similar to Stalin in the way that he oppressed his people and then had the cult eventually elevate him above the party. There are many similarities between Mao and Stalin but Mao’s cult eventually became larger than Stalin’s due to the way it was implemented. Once Mao came back into power the way he implemented his cult was different than the way Lenin and Stalin had, which was the Little Red Book. The book allowed the people of China to constantly have a portal into the mind of Mao and by having this they could interpret his quotes into their everyday lives. Later the army enforced mandatory worship and discussion of Mao Thought. Once the army was involved this where the arguments can be made for two different ideas. Was it the people’s actual infatuation with Mao that created the cult of was it the fear of being killed that led the people to act the way they did to worship Mao. The more reasonable answer is that the people were scared of being killed so they went to the classes, discussed Mao thought, partook in the dances, and even worshiped the mango. With this as the foundation, the people seemingly took matters into their own hands to protect their lives and essentially worshipped all that Mao did. The Little Red Book was the driving force in “restoring order” within China but the fear of death by the PLA army took the cult of Mao to a level that was unseen before this time in China.

There are similarities between these two cults and the way that they reached the levels of success. Although the Mao cult was driven by fear it was still ultimately the people who took it to the lengths that they did. In a similar fashion, this also happed in Russia with the cult of Lenin. The people had been through such rough times with the Civil war and Stalin that they needed something to use to reunite themselves and in part, they took the cult of Lenin to the places that it went. But behind both of these cults, the government start the snowball effect that was each cult of personality. The two communist parties needed there to be unity within their given countries so having one figure that the people can relate to, study, worship, believe in their ideas, and discuss allows for the general masses to stay unified. This is exactly what Russia and China achieved with Mao and Lenin but In their own way and throughout different times in history.

In conclusion, each of these texts shows the way that cults of personality can be created when a country is in need of unity. The texts are a great insight into the way communist societies function after a crisis and how important having a leader, or leader figure is to keep the people and the country unified. As described above there are different ways to go about this, peaceful or violent, but at the end of the day, they both achieved their goals of having the people of their country all functioning the same way. The authors did a great job of depicting the process in which these two cults reached the heights that they did but it seemed slightly rushed. There were a couple of instances where there wasn’t ample data or evidence presented to support why certain situations occurred. For example why people waited to see Lenin in the freezing cold or the situation at the Knitting Mill in China. All in all the texts offered a unique look into the idea of the cult of personality and help expand upon the idea of communism as a whole.


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