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Is personality cult possible today?


Moscow. (RIA Novosti political commentator Yury Filippov.) On February 25, 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev read his famous "closed" report, condemning Stalin's personality cult, at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

In subsequent Soviet and Russian history this event became a symbolic partition line between the past and the future.

Many nations have such dates and documents, for instance, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of the Rights and Liberties of Man and Citizen. Khrushchev's report, which leaked into the West and the Communist bloc countries, had a similar impact on the minds. By that time the world had become more integrated, while the Communist perspective had not yet lost its appeal for a vast number of people in different countries.

Whether Khrushchev wanted it or not, but having slightly opened the veil of secrecy over the truth about millions of Stalin's victims, he had sown the seeds of future changes in his own country, and dealt a huge blow at the international Communist movement.

It is with good reason that many experts consider Khrushchev to be the forerunner of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Although the new Soviet leader had promised to build Communism in the U.S.S.R. by 1980, he did more than anyone else for Communism never to appear anywhere.

It would be a crude mistake to assess Khrushchev in the context of today, to see modern connotations in his criticism of Stalin. In theory, it is possible to assume that the protest of the new Soviet leader against massive purges on political grounds was rooted in his understanding of human rights, and his criticism of Stalin was his striving for the freedom of speech. But in reality, it was the same Khrushchev who in 1956 crushed the uprising in Hungary with tanks, which was the first political response of Eastern Europe to his report at the 20th Congress.

Khrushchev's inconsistency has had a dual effect on the destiny of the U.S.S.R. and its citizens. The then Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov said that after this report the Soviet Union never again had as many friends as it used to have before.

This was a major charge against Khrushchev when he was removed from all government and party posts in 1964. But he was not thrown behind bars, nor killed, as would have been the case had he not resolutely exposed Stalinist political morals.

The question, which is of interest today, is whether the personality cult is always accompanied by reprisals. In Russia the cult of outstanding statesmen is rooted in the 20th century history with its three revolutions, two world wars, industrial modernization, and many other major events, which subjected the nation to ultimate strain. Stalin was just one of many - both in Russia and abroad. Apart from him, the late revolutionaries and Communists Marx, Engels, and Lenin, the successor of their cause and the founder of the Soviet state were also revered as the "leaders of progressive mankind." There were "living Gods" of a smaller rank - party and government leaders Vyacheslav Molotov, Kliment Voroshilov, Lazar Kaganovich, to name but a few. They were always present in the lives of ordinary people - big cities and small villages, plants and collective farms bore their names. Not infrequently, the idea came from below because these people had outstanding

achievements to their credit, and they were sincerely appreciated.

But what was happening in the rest of the world at that time? Residents of both Germanies could still remember the massive psychosis, which had made them clap their hands to Hitler and other Nazi top brass. Mussolini lingered before Italian eyes. In some West European countries the faded versions of the personality cults survived World War II. The Portuguese glorified Antonio Salazar, Spaniards sang praises to Bahamonde Franco. The giant figure of Mao Tsetung hovered over China after the decades of civil war and resistance to foreign intervention. The Japanese, who adopted a democratic Constitution, did not give up deification of their Emperor. Although they became formal in many respects, monarchies are still there in many parts of the world with their opulent rituals - in the United Kingdom and other European countries.

Examples are many, and the general picture is clear enough: the personality cult or at least some of its manifestations were widespread in the 20th century all over the world - from Europe to Asia. The United States was the only country that managed to avoid it, but even there an exception was made for the outstanding Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who saved the nation from the Great Depression, was one of the victors of World War II, and was elected President for 12 years running.

Apparently, at some stage in history the personality cult emerges in different countries. When the demand for it disappears, it fades into the past, but some of its manifestations may linger on for a long time to come. It is not at all a hard and fast rule that the personality cult is necessarily accompanied by bloody political reprisals, as it happened in the U.S.S.R. under Stalin.

Is the personality cult possible in the 21st century? This question is particularly vital for post-Soviet nations where it had led to the worst consequences in the past. So far history is optimistic. The first democratic revolution in this century took place in Georgia, Stalin's homeland. The second one occurred in Ukraine, where Khrushchev was born. Both republics are headed by completely different political figures. When the press shows President Saakashvili hugging young girls, and President Yushchenko diving into an ice-hole, it becomes clear that these countries will not suffer from the personality cult.

The situation in Asian republics is different. The personality cult there is encouraged by local traditions. Turkmenistan offers the brightest example. There is a gilded statue of President Niyazov in the central square of Ashgabad. He is called Turkmenbashi, or father of all Turkmens. Although Kazakh President Nazarbayev is the most European among his Central Asian colleagues, the local traditions require a certain deification of the head of state. The important point here is the extent to which the mandatory esteem of the national leader is combined with the principles of democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech. But even Central Asian regimes have gone much further on that road than even the U.S.S.R. after destalinization.

As for Russia, where Stalinist repressions led to the biggest casualties, way back in 1993 it patterned its political system after the American presidential republic with a President, elected by the whole nation, a multi-Party parliament, and an independent court. However, because of the Russian mind-set, the majority of the population has never viewed Presidents Yeltsin and Putin as simple mortals. But people in Russia realize by now that presidents come and go, and therefore creating a cult of their personalities is simply not worth it.

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