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A cult of personality arises when a country's leader uses mass media to create an idealized and heroic public image, often through unquestioning flattery and praise. Cults of personality are often found in dictatorships and Stalinist governments.

A cult of personality is similar to general hero worship, except that it is created specifically for political leaders. However, the term may be applied by analogy to refer to adulation of religious or non-political leaders.

Background

Throughout history, monarchs were almost always held in enormous reverence. Through the principle of the divine right of kings, rulers were said to hold office by the will of God. Imperial China (see Mandate of Heaven), ancient Egypt, Japanmarker, the Inca, the Aztecs, Tibet, Thailandmarker, and the Roman Empire (see imperial cult) are especially noted for redefining monarchs as god-kings.

The spread of democratic ideas in Europe and North America in the 18th and 19th centuries made it increasingly difficult for monarchs to preserve this aura. However, the subsequent development of photography, sound recording, film and mass production, as well as public education and techniques used in commercial advertising, enabled political leaders to project a positive image like never before. It was from these circumstances in the 20th century that the best-known personality cults arose.

Purpose

Generally, personality cults are most common in regimes with totalitarian systems of government, that seek to radically alter or transform society according to (supposedly) revolutionary new ideas. Often, a single leader becomes associated with this revolutionary transformation, and comes to be treated as a benevolent "guide" for the nation, without whom the transformation to a better future cannot occur. This has been generally the justification for personality cults that arose in totalitarian societies of the 20th century, such as those of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

Not all dictatorships foster personality cults, and some leaders may actively seek to minimize their own public adulation. For example, in the regime of Pol Pot in Cambodiamarker, the image of Pol Pot himself was rarely seen. On the other hand, in North Koreamarker there exists a very successful cult of personality, which includes actual semi-worship of both the father (Kim Il-sung) and son (Kim Jong-il).

Examples from totalitarian regimes



The criticism of personality cults often focuses on the regimes of Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Josip Broz Tito, Nicolae Ceauşescu, Ferdinand Marcos, Saparmurat Niyazov, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il-Sung, Ayatollah Khomeini, Soekarno, and Kim Jong-Il.

During the peak of their regimes, these leaders were presented as god-like and infallible. Their portraits were hung in homes and public buildings, with artists and poets legally required to produce only works that glorified the leader. Other leaders with such cults include Siad Barre of Somaliamarker. The term cult of personality comes from Karl Marx's critique of the "cult of the individual"—expressed in a letter to German political worker, Wilhelm Bloss. In that, Marx states thus:

Nikita Khrushchev recalled Marx's criticism in his 1956 "Secret Speech" denouncing Stalin to the 20th Party Congress:

Some authors (e.g. Alexander Zinovyev) have argued that Leonid Brezhnev's rule was also characterized by a cult of personality, though unlike Lenin and Stalin, Brezhnev did not initiate large-scale persecutions in the country. One of the aspects of Leonid Brezhnev's cult of personality was Brezhnev's obsession with titles, rewards and decorations, leading to his inflated decoration with medals, orders and so on. This was often ridiculed by the ordinary people and led to the creation of many political jokes.

Journalist Bradley Martin documented the personality cults of North Koreamarker's father-son leadership, "Eternal (formerly Great) Leader" Kim Il-sung and "Great (formerly Dear) Leader" Kim Jong-il. While visiting North Korea in 1979 he noted that nearly all music, art, and sculpture that he observed glorified "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung, whose personality cult was then being extended to his son, "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il. Kim Il-sung rejected the notion that he had created a cult around himself and accused those who suggested so of "factionalism." A US religious freedom investigation confirmed Martin's observation that North Korean schoolchildren learn to thank Kim Il-sung for all blessings as part of the cult, and are being taught that Kim Il-sung "created the world".

Saparmurat Niyazov, who was President of Turkmenistanmarker from 1990 to 2006, is another oft-cited cultivator of a cult of personality. Niyazov simultaneously cut funding to and partially disassembled the education system in the name of 'reform,' while injecting ideological indoctrination into it by requiring all schools to take his own book, the Ruhnama, as its primary text, and like Kim Il-sung, there's even a creation myth surrounding him. During Niyazov's rule there was no freedom of the press nor was there freedom of speech. This further meant that opposition to Niyazov was strictly forbidden and "major opposition figures have been imprisoned, institutionalized, deported, or have fled the country, and their family members are routinely harassed by the authorities." Additionally, a silhouette of Niyazov was used as a logo on television broadcasts and statues and pictures of him were 'erected everywhere.'. For these, and other reasons, the US Government has gone on to claim that by the time he died, "Niyazov’s personality cult...had reached the dimensions of a state-imposed religion.".

University of Chicagomarker professor Lisa Wedeen's book Ambiguities of Domination documents the cult of personality which surrounded Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. Numerous examples of his glorification are made throughout the book, such as displays of love and adoration for the "leader" put on at the opening ceremonies of the 1987 Mediterranean Games in Lattakiamarker, Syriamarker.

Examples from other forms of government

The American historian Nina Tumarkin, who specialized on the cult of Lenin, writes of the cult of George Washington in the USmarker as "the most elaborate cult of a revolutionary leader prior to Lenin's, and the most similar. The mythical Washington of paeans, odes, and Parson Weems' famous (and largely fictitious) biography became an exemplar for citizens of the new American nation."

Juan Perón, elected three times as President of Argentina, and his second wife, Eva Duarte de Perón, were immensely popular among many of the Argentine people, and to this day they are still considered icons by the Peronist Party. The Peróns' followers praised their efforts to eliminate poverty and to dignify labor, while their detractors considered them demagogues and dictators. To achieve their political goals, the Peronists had to unite around the head of state. As a result, a personality cult developed around both Perón and his wife.

Iraqmarker under Saddam Hussein was another well known example of a cult of personality. Saddam had portraits of himself made all over the country, some showing him as Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonmarker and Saladin, reinforcing his personality cult in one of the most secular Arab countries.

Another example is that of Romaniamarker's political power structure in the 1980s, which was a cult of personality surrounding Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena Ceauşescu.

Nicolae Ceauşescu rose to power in 1965, but by 1971 the regime had reasserted its Stalinist legacy in socioeconomic and cultural matters. Ceauşescu was increasingly portrayed by the Romanian media as a creative communist theoretician and political leader whose "thought" was the source of all national accomplishments. His tenure as president was known as the "golden era of Ceauşescu."

In the 1980s, the personality cult was extended to other members of the Ceauşescu family, including his wife, Elena, who held a position of prominence in political life far exceeding protocol requirements. By the mid-1980s, Elena Ceauşescu's national prominence had grown to the point that her birthday was celebrated as a national holiday, as was her husband's.

Robert Mugabe, the founder of modern Zimbabwemarker and its prime minister and later its executive head of state since 1980, has clung desperately to power, utilizing his cult of personality as a potent weapon and tolerating no criticism. His devoted followers still accept, unquestioningly, everything he says, while critics are demonized as agents of British imperialism. Meanwhile, the country has devolved into desperate poverty and rampant inflation.

Since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, he and his government have exhibited many traits commonly attributed to a cult of personality rule. The Cubanmarker government frequently puts upbillboards and posters with propaganda slogans. Castro features prominently in much of this, his own persona being intertwined with the Cuban flag and identity, and the revolution itself.

References

  1. Assorted References: cult of personality. (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/146119/cult-of-personality [1]
  2. See e.g. http://oldgazette.ru/kopravda/21021978/01-1.html. The list of Brezhnev's decorations is available in Russian Wikipedia: http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%A1%D0%BF%D0%B8%D1%81%D0%BE%D0%BA_%D0%BD%D0%B0%D0%B3%D1%80%D0%B0%D0%B4_%D0%91%D1%80%D0%B5%D0%B6%D0%BD%D0%B5%D0%B2%D0%B0
  3. Bradley K. Martin. Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. ISBN 0-312-32322-0
  4. The younger Kim's pictures were then ubiquitous and his abilities were described as superhuman.
  5. Government of the United States of America. March 2002. Report on Turkmenistan. Available on-line at http://www.ciaonet.org/
  6. International Crisis Group. July 2003. Central Asia: Islam and the State. ICG Asia Report No. 59. Available on-line at http://www.crisisgroup.org/
  7. Shikhmuradov, Boris. May 2002. Security and Conflict in Central Asia and the Caspian Region. International Security Program, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University. Available on-line at http://www.ciaonet.org/
  8. International Crisis Group. July 2003. Central Asia: Islam and the State. ICG Asia Report No. 59. Available on-line at http://www.crisisgroup.org/
  9. Soucek, Svat. 2000. A History of Inner Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  10. Government of the United States of America. March 2002. Report on Turkmenistan. Available on-line at http://www.ciaonet.org/
  11. Eurasianet. 2007. The Personality Cult Lives On, Residents Take It In Stride. Available on-line at http://www.eurasianet.org/
  12. BBC. December 2006. Obituary: Saparmurat Niyazov.Available on-line at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/6199021.stm
  13. United States Commission on International Freedom. 2007. Turkmenistan: Ending the Personality Cult. Available on-line at http://www.uscirf.gov/mediaroom/press/2007/january/20070103Turkmenistan.html
  14. Lenin Lives! - The Cult of Lenin in Soviet Russia, by Nina Tumarkin. Harvard Univarsity Press, 1997, p. 2.
  15. Politics and Education in Argentina, 1946-1962, by Mónica Esti Rein; trans by Martha Grenzeback. Published by M. E. Sharpe, Armonk, NY/London, 1998, p. 79-80.


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