This post has been inspired by this note by Language Hat on a slightly different subject.
In modern Russian usage, “the Great Helmsman” is taken by default to be a reference to Mao. The word most likely to denote Stalin is vozhd’, a leader-chief hybrid. (Of course he was also the Coryphaeus of All Sciences – and Humanities, especially the theory of language.) However, it’s true that Stalin was called a great helmsman as early as 1934 on the occasion of the Soviet ice-cutter F. Litke (previously called Earl Gray, Canada, and The Third International) successfully passing the Northern sea route. That was 15 years before the Communist takeover of China.
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, going back at least to John Chrysostom (possibly to Justin the Martyr), the Church is sometimes referred to as a ship and Christ as its helmsman. Later Roman Catholic interpretations have St. Peter steering but in the East, it’s always the Messiah Himself. The nautical symbolism in Christianity goes deep and far back in time – consider the origin of “nave” for example.
Stalin, as a former priest in training, may have been familiar with the Christian connotations of the Great Henchman title. According to Oleg Khlevniuk’s latest bio of the dictator, Ioseb Jugashvili was either expelled or forced to leave the seminary “with a commendatory certificate on the completion of four years,” which “would have enabled him to work in the area of religion or teach elementary school.”
Did the coiner of the sacrilegious epithet realize what he was doing? A considerable number of Russian intellectuals and revolutionaries came from the clerical estate, but that’s all I can say for now.
Curiously, in the same year 1934, a Sardinian-born aspiring intellectual called Edgardo Sulis published a book titled The Imitation of Mussolini, no less. According to R.J.B. Boswell:
The first claim to fame of Edgardo Sulis is that in 1934 he published a book with perhaps the most egregious title of all the star-struck accounts of the Duce – **Imitazione di Mussolini**. In its pages, this Thomas à Kempis of Fascism set out the basic tenets of what he labelled in somewhat hackneyed phrase ‘the new political religion’. In the articles of this totalitarian faith, love of country, of nation, of Duce and potentially of race fused in mysterious fashion.
Sulis published more books in support of fascism and rose to a senior propaganda position in the republic of Salò but little if anything is known about him after 1945.