Stalin’s reign of terror foreshadows Putin’s hold on Russia

For Julia Ioffe, the Moscow-born, Russian-speaking political analyst, it was a “sneak peak” into the Soviet Union of the 1930s.

In the Kremlin’s gilded halls sat Vladimir Putin, enthroned in solitary pomp behind a large desk in February. In the far distance, in a forelock-tugging semicircle, members of his Security Council danced attendance and stumbled over their words.

This strange spectacle was supposedly a consultation on whether to recognise the independence of “republics” carved from Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists. In reality, it was a ritual of power designed to impress on the Russian citizenry Putin’s iron self-belief and grip on the state.

Like the Victory Day celebrations on 9 May each year, when 14 000 soldiers march past the leadership, military aircraft screaming overhead and nuclear missiles paraded like giant virility symbols, it was a distinctly Russian affair. Three days after the February Security Council meeting, 150 000 troops crossed into Ukraine

Whatever their private thoughts, none of the council members — including powerful intelligence chiefs and ministers — dared breathe a word of dissent. 

 “The whole time I thought: this was how a Politburo meeting in 1939 must have looked,” said Ioffe. Each of Stalin’s cabinet ministers “was the third replacement since 1937 and knew what had happened to his predecessors …”

Likewise, Putin’s security council “was locked in a closed solar system with Putin at the centre … If you fall, you don’t go back to civilian life — you go to jail. You lose everything.”

The institution of the infallible leader who scares his subordinates witless has deep historical roots in Russia, and helps explain the miscalculations and executive hubris that lie behind the quagmire of Ukraine. 

The independent Moscow Times, now transplanted to Amsterdam but blocked by Russia’s censors, quoted a former intelligence officer as saying: “You don’t bring bad news to the Tsar’s table.”

Putin has quietly rehabilitated Stalin, deploring the “excessive demonisation” of the mass murderer as his birthday is celebrated and monuments to him have sprung up. 

As a youthful semi-convert to democracy, he foresaw the risk of democratic backslide in Russia. In an interview in 1996, he warned: “It may be sad … but I think in our country a return to a certain period of totalitarian rule is possible. The danger is not to be found in … the police or even the army. It is a danger … in the mentality of our people.” 

Russia-watchers now speak of his “hybrid totalitarian” and “neototalitarian” rule. “Hybrid” implies that elements of democracy survive, often as window-dressing. Putin won the last election, no argument. But in a political system rigged and monopolised by the Kremlin, Ioffe argues, it was very far from being a democratic exercise.

In the 16 years before the “special operation” in Ukraine, Russia dropped from 5.02 to 3.24 out of 10 in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, while sliding to outright authoritarianism. It ranks 124th of 167 governments in the world; Ukraine, which Putin claims to be “denazifying”, stands at 86.

Hitler once said that war makes it possible to force through policies inconceivable in peacetime. The Ukrainian invasion has accelerated totalitarian drift in Russia in ways unlikely to be reversed.

Putin’s goal is to forge an information Iron Curtain, where Russians receive their news from the state and state-sanctioned sources.

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been banned as “extremist”. Independent TV and radio stations such as Echo of Moscow and Dozhd, and critical websites, such as that of chess master Garry Kasparov, have been muzzled. The last vestiges of the independent press, including the investigative journal Novaya Gazeta, have been threatened into silence or blocked by the authorities. 

A new law provides for 15-year jail terms for “fake news” about the military — that is, which contradict the official version of events. BBC Russia, CNN, Deutsche Welle and other international services have stopped broadcasting. Russian NGOs and media organisations receiving offshore funds must register as “foreign agents”.

Upwards of 15 000 anti-war protesters have been arrested, and journalists who covered the protests charged. 

For Hannah Arendt, the author of the classic study Origins of Totalitarianism, the defining feature of totalitarian systems is that they seal off the masses from the human mainstream and construct a parallel reality.

Central to the process are the conspiracy theory and the ideological bogey: for Stalin, a procession of counterrevolutionary plotters, from Trotsky to Old Bolsheviks and Red Army commanders; for Hitler, Jewish-communist manipulators bent on world domination. 

In Nazi Germany, racism and anti-Semitism became “as real and untouchable an element in [the lives of the masses] as the rules of arithmetic”, Arendt writes. 

In Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century, Daniel Treisman and Sergei Guriev argue that modern dictators have shifted from the “physical liquidation” favoured by Stalin, Hitler and Mao to the doctoring of information.

The dismantling of independent news sources in Russia has left a vacuum into which the state pumps incessant propaganda and drives incessant mobilisation. 

On public television, daily talk shows justifying the war reportedly start early and run non-stop. Education has been a particular focus; officials have briefed teachers on their duty to promote patriotism and support the war effort.

Writes Russian analyst Andrei Kolesnikov: “It’s no longer enough to keep a demobilised silence; people must trumpet their support for the regime, whether by arranging children in kindergartens into the shape of the letter Z (the symbol of the ‘special operation’), holding lessons in schools on combating ‘fake news’ about Russia’s actions, or encouraging students and teachers to denounce each other for any expression of opposition to the war.”

Putin’s ideological hobgoblin is the godless, morally corrupt, Russian-hating, liberal-democratic West. And in the paranoid fiction Russians are force-fed, Ukraine is an ersatz state and vast staging area for Western aggression and Russophobic designs.

In reality there has been no credible Western military threat to Russia — which boasts the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear warheads — since the Cold War.

There are other signs of totalitarian creep. One, highlighted by the security council pantomime, is Putin’s increasingly messianic self-concept as Russia’s saviour.

He has spoken of his “historic mission” and duty to protect the country’s (socially conservative) traditions. Last year he passed a law potentially giving him two further presidential terms — until 2036, when he would be the longest-serving Russian leader since the tsars.

Like Stalin and Hitler, and unlike the dynasties of the past, he appears indifferent to the issue of succession. If one includes Dimitri Medvedev’s presidential masquerade, when Putin moved sideways to prime minister, he has already served five terms. Future presidents will be limited to two. 

Arendt remarks that totalitarian leaders are typically more radical than their cohorts, adding: “Never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest.”

Scorning bourgeois pragmatism, the Ukrainian mission is all about “the world as idea”. It has, ironically, consolidated and enlarged Putin’s bête noire, Nato, which since the demise of the Soviet Union had lacked a clear purpose. The World Bank predicts Russia’s medium-sized economy will shrink by 11% this year. 

In similar fashion, Stalin purged the Red Army officer corps as world war approached. Hitler drove more than a thousand Jewish scientists, including 12 Nobel prizewinners, into the arms of his soon-to-be enemies.

Bolstering totalitarian shift in Russia is the mass exodus of intellectuals and young people, described by one commentator as “the conscience of Russia”, since the war began.

Putin has welcomed this as an opportunity to “clean” the nation, calling the émigrés “traitors” and “scum”.

What actuates him, believes Russian political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann, is a “hatred and disgust for tomorrow”, the feeling that Western influences are driving particularly Russian youth in directions deeply alien to him and his heroic conception of the Soviet past. 

“This is clearly audible in Putin’s speeches,” she writes. “What is hard to grasp is that someone would go to such ends … to drown out these apparently unbearable feelings.”

For her, this “terrible isolation” has tragically become “the work of four hands” — the West, defending itself from “an aggressive regime that is attacking and killing people”, is also building the wall from the outside.

What is clear is that the totalitarian ethos, apparently snuffed out in 1990s, is resurgent in Russia. 

“Every day our freedom seems to shrink as quickly as it expanded 30 years ago,” remarks Irina Sherbakova, founding member of Memorial, the movement that kept alive the memory of Stalin’s crimes until closed in April for breaking the foreign agents law.

Increasingly, Putin calls to mind WH Auden’s Epitaph on a Tyrant, written in 1939:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after

And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;

He knew human folly like the back of his hand,

And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;

When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,

And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

Drew Forrest is a former deputy editor and political editor of the Mail & Guardian. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the M&G

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Drew Forrest
Drew Forrest is a former deputy editor of the M&G

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