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Is Russia headed for a return to Stalinism?

Putin can’t reconstruct the regime that Stalin built — or save Russia from chaos

- May 15, 2022

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression continues in Ukraine and his regime tightens the screws on the opposition at home, the claim that Russia is returning to Stalinism is found in the media almost daily — both in Europe and in the United States.

A recent article by Anne Applebaum pointed to the similarities between Putin’s war on Ukraine and Joseph Stalin’s assault on the Ukrainian peasantry in the terrible winter of 1932-1933, when “brigades of Communist Party activists went house to house in the Ukrainian countryside, looking for food. … After they left, Ukrainian peasants, deprived of food, ate rats, frogs, and boiled grass. … Some 4 million died of starvation.”

Evidence of atrocities committed by Russian troops as they retreated from areas like Bucha and as they laid siege to Ukrainian cities like Mariupol invite stark parallels between the present and Russia’s most notorious totalitarian period from 1927-1953. In Europe and the United States, the idea that Putin is “Sovietizing” Russia has only gained currency as Putin cracks down harder on internal dissent.

Of course, what is happening in Russia today looks a lot like the worst period of Stalinism. But unless we employ this term more precisely, we may fail to understand the true nature of the regime that Putin has built.

The case for Putinism as Stalinism

The argument that Putin is taking Russia back to Stalinism is simple. His use of the pomp of office to puff up his image looks more and more like the set-piece military demonstrations that Stalin employed to demonstrate his power. Like Stalin, Putin has surrounded himself with “yes men” and sycophants. His public dressing down of spy chief Sergey Naryshkin in a carefully orchestrated event on the eve of the war seemed calculated to underscore his immense power.

Putin has also poisoned or imprisoned opponents and turned Russia’s main source of foreign exchange — the petroleum industry — into a tool of state policy. Also like Stalin, Putin has convinced much of the public that “the world is always against Russia,” as a new survey reports. To scholars, that sounds a lot like Stalin’s fears of “capitalist encirclement.”

Russians think they’re engaged in a heroic struggle with the West

The case against Putinism as Stalinism

But these parallels may be deceptive. For one thing, Stalin kept himself in seclusion from the Russian public. Putin, in contrast, is always on TV, whether exposing his biceps on horseback or appearing in front of a palatial background in dark suit and tie.

For another, while Putin has built a coalition of sycophants who depend on him personally and live off the state, as Catherine Belton reveals in her landmark study, Stalin had the Communist Party as his main base of control. So if Putinism is not Stalinism redux, what is it?

What’s next for Putinism?

Around the turn of the century, political scientists observed that a new kind of system with a democratic facade and an authoritarian core was taking hold in former totalitarian countries. First in the field, Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way used the term “competitive authoritarianism” to describe these hybrids. To an emerging generation of leaders like Putin, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, elections and the paraphernalia of democracy both afforded legitimation for their rule and identified friends and enemies for patronage or punishment.

How popular is Putin, really?

But competitive authoritarianism has deep costs. If you permit electoral rallies, they can easily turn into “electoral revolutions,” as Valerie J. Bunce and Sharon L. Wolchik pointed out in a seminal book on the “color revolutions.” The accomplices and oligarchs that competitive authoritarians have substituted for the Stalinist party hierarchy are inefficient at best and corrupt at worst, and some are beginning to peel away as their economic empires are threatened by sanctions.

This was the system that Putin constructed with his old comrades from the intelligence services and with a network of oligarchs who scooped up the remnants of the Soviet state. The problem was that having discarded the machinery of the party-state, there was no going back. The only place that Putin could go was outward: attempting to reconstruct the Soviet Empire, but without the party that had held it together. In doing so, he violated the cardinal precept of Stalin’s foreign policy: “Never start a war that you are not certain to win.”

The Ukrainian invasion has exposed the rot at the heart of the Putinist system. It has pushed thousands of Russia’s most talented intelligentsia to leave, and it has forced Western nations to come together in something resembling the Atlantic Alliance of the 1950s and 1960s.

We are still in the midst of this dynamic, but one thing is certain: Even if he remains in power, Putin lacks both the machinery and the ability to reconstruct anything resembling the system that Stalin built.

For all TMC’s analysis of the Russian war on Ukraine, check our new topic guide: Russia and its neighbors

The distinction matters

Why is the distinction between Putinism and Stalinism important? First, the absence of a Communist Party infrastructure has left Putin dependent on the security services and on his unreliable network of oligarchs. This leaves him potentially much weaker internally than Stalin was — even during the terrible days of World War II.

Second, in Russia today, there is no longer a guiding myth — however specious — to justify sacrifices in the name of reaching a socialist utopia. Third, and most important for the democratic countries of the West, the failures of Putin’s war machine in Ukraine and the stresses on the Russian economy have weakened his claim to be the man who saved Russia from chaos, the claim that Aleksandar Matovski demonstrates in his new book, “Popular Dictatorships.” This does not mean that Russia is headed toward democracy, but it does mean that the future of Putinism as a governing system is different from that of his long-ruling predecessor and is less secure than it was two months ago.

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Sidney Tarrow is Emeritus Professor of Government at Cornell University. He is the author of “War, States, and Contention” (Cornell University Press, 2015) and “Movements and Parties” (Cambridge University Press 2021).