How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The harsher and more repressive the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin becomes, the more successful the reign of Joseph Stalin appears to ordinary Russians. In the five years leading up to 2021, the number of Russians who agreed that “Stalin was a great leader” doubled from 28 to 56 percent, according to polls carried out by the independent Levada Center; over the same period, the number of those who disagreed with that statement fell from 23 to 14 percent. Since 2015, Stalin has been lionized on national holidays, and discussion of his repression has largely been stifled. Such is the interest in the Soviet dictator that it sometimes seems as if he is competing with Putin. More likely, however, he is simply serving as a helping hand from the distant past, reassuring his modern-day acolyte that he is on the right path.
It is not just that Stalin’s iron rule has become a model for today’s Kremlin. Increasingly, Putin himself has come to resemble Stalin in his final years, when the Soviet leader was at his most paranoid and severe. At the end of World War II, Stalin had been in power for more than 20 years, and from that time until his death in 1953, he took his regime to new autocratic extremes: heightened intolerance of other people’s opinions; constant suspicion of his close associates; ostentatious, truly shameless brutality; and deluded, obsessive ideas. Like Stalin in his late period, Putin has also spent more than 20 years in power (including his interlude as prime minister from 2008 to 2012), and in his current presidential term, which began in 2018, he has also shown many of the same qualities. During this time, he has amended the Russian constitution to reset the clock on his presidential terms, orchestrated the poisoning and arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and started a war with devastating consequences for the entire world.
Now, in 2022, Russia has turned into a full-fledged, personal autocracy. In his embrace of imperial and nationalist ideology, his ruthless crackdown on civil society and any form of dissent, and his call to arms of almost the entire country, Putin has reabsorbed nearly all the classical elements of Stalinist totalitarianism, from the cult of personality to the cult of heroic death.
The similarities between late Putin and late Stalin begin with their style and model of leadership. For Putin, as it was for Stalin, the decision-making process comes down to just one person. Associates and advisers have almost no ability to influence the tyrant or to propose alternative actions. Not only does that bear little resemblance to the way policy is made in democratic systems or even in semiauthoritarian regimes; it is also a far cry from the collective leadership of other periods of Soviet history, such as the Leonid Brezhnev era. In some ways, Putin has even surpassed his idol in personalizing his rule. Stalin, for example, was fond of talking in the first-person plural: “We will shoot you.” Putin also likes to talk in the name of the country or the elites, but in October, when asked whether he regretted anything about the “special operation” in Ukraine, he acknowledged that the war was his own personal project. “My actions were the right ones at the right time,” he replied.
Putin has also learned from the Soviet dictator how to deal with his own regime. At the end of his life, Stalin was increasingly suspicious of his inner circle. He frequently unleashed his rage at close associates such as Vyacheslav Molotov, his foreign minister and longtime deputy. In the fall of 1945, returning to Moscow after an absence, Stalin berated the men who had once seemed to be his most loyal lieutenants—Lavrenty Beria, the chief of the secret police, Georgy Malenkov, the influential Politburo member, Anastas Mikoyan, his trade minister, and Molotov—for allowing Pravda to publish excerpts of a speech by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Molotov took responsibility for the publication, only to come under fire yet again for loosening the censorship rules for foreign correspondents. In a telegram to Beria, Malenkov, and Mikoyan, Stalin complained that “Molotov does not appear to value the interests of the state or the prestige of our government.” After this episode, the Soviet Union’s second most prominent figure was no longer viewed as a successor to the dictator. Nor was Molotov alone in his disgrace: during this period, other members of Stalin’s inner circle also found themselves falling out of favor for one reason or another—or often, for no reason at all.
Short of death, there was nothing and no one that could stop Stalin.
Like Stalin in his late years, Putin has gained complete control over Russia’s elites, leaving them paralyzed with fear and secretly hating their ruler. Under Stalin, the extent of this hatred was never more evident than in the run-up and immediate aftermath of his death, when Nikita Khrushchev, Beria, and Malenkov, fighting to succeed him, competed to liberalize the regime as fast as they could. Today’s elites fear Putin, but they fear one another even more, just as their predecessors did under Stalin. Like the Soviet potentate, Putin prefers to stay bunkered away in his many residences, where he has isolated himself on both a political and a human level. Take Putin’s residence in Sochi, where he spends more and more time. It is reminiscent of the much more modest but just as carefully guarded dacha in Abkhazia to which Stalin retreated in October 1945 after he suffered either a stroke or a heart attack. It is noteworthy that the two dictators’ retreats are not much more than 30 miles away from each other, in the comfortable subtropical zone of the Black Sea coast of the Caucasus.
Also like Stalin, Putin has not taken any drastic steps against members of his inner circle. But his irritation at their words and actions evokes Stalin’s. Recall, for example, the infamous, televised meeting Putin held with his top national security advisers on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Sitting alone at a desk in a large columned hall, with his advisers relegated to a far corner of the room, Putin gave his foreign intelligence chief, Sergei Naryshkin, a dressing down after he failed to do his homework and confused Russia’s recognition of the separatist republics of eastern Ukraine with their becoming part of Russia. (That part of the plan would come later.)
At the same meeting, Putin had a muddled and irate conversation with Dmitry Kozak, a longtime associate who had been responsible for negotiations with Ukraine on implementing the Minsk agreements. Following the meeting, Kozak disappeared entirely from public view. In September, several people close to the Kremlin revealed to Reuters that before the special operation, Kozak had apparently negotiated a promise from Ukraine that it would not join NATO, which would have allayed one of the key concerns driving Russia’s invasion. But Putin was not interested: he was already set on war.
Using military force to solve problems—something that seems almost anachronistic in the twenty-first century—is another tactic that Putin inherited from Stalin. Consider the Winter War of 1939. Just before the outbreak of World War II, Stalin failed to extract from Finland the territorial concessions he wanted, so he launched an invasion. As with Putin in Ukraine, Stalin wanted to seize parts of territory that he thought would be strategically important as a buffer zone in the event of an attack on his own country. And as with Putin’s “defensive” actions in Ukraine, Stalin sought a pretext and simulated a provocation on the border, allowing Moscow’s forces to “legitimately” start a war.
In both cases, the dictators talked about a buildup of enemy troops that did not in fact exist. And both drastically underestimated the determination of the people whose country they were invading to resist: just as Stalin expected the Finnish proletariat to practically shower their working-class comrades with bouquets of flowers, Putin assumed Ukrainians would greet Russian soldiers as liberators. Both autocrats were proved woefully wrong. Even Putin’s use of pro-Russian separatists was a Stalinist innovation. When Putin made a pact with the artificially created governments of Donetsk and Luhansk, he was following in the footsteps of Stalin, who established an alternative Finnish leadership controlled by the Kremlin and then entered into an agreement with the puppet regime.
Putin’s claim that the Ukrainian government was a mere front for warmongering Western powers was also an echo of Stalin’s spin about the Winter War. In his memoirs, Juho Kusti Paasikivi, the Finnish envoy in Moscow who later became Finland’s president, wrote that “in the opinion of the Russians, this war was apparently a war waged by England and France against Soviet Russia.” During the Winter War, the fake Finnish government Stalin had set up asked the Soviet Union for support in implementing what it called the “age-old aspiration of the Finnish people to unite the people of Karelia [living on Soviet territory] into a unified and independent Finnish state.” In Putin’s war in Ukraine, the “reunification of fraternal peoples” has become a mantra. Justifying the need to annex Ukrainian territory, Putin repeated nearly word for word Molotov’s note to the Polish ambassador in September 1939, which stated that “the Soviet government cannot remain indifferent while kindred Ukrainians and Belarusians living on the territory of Poland are left to the mercy of fate, without any protection.”
But there is another of Stalin’s wars that Putin’s adventure in Ukraine may resemble to some extent: the Korean War. After all, it was Stalin who approved the start of North Korea’s attack on the south on June 25, 1950. And according to some historians, much like Putin in Ukraine, Stalin assumed that South Korea would be conquered in a matter of weeks. And much as it did with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year, the United Nations condemned the North Korean attack. (In the latter case, U.S. troops entered the conflict under the UN flag.) As a proxy war between the Soviet Union and the United States, the Korean War involved fighter jets from both powers taking to the skies, although Soviet pilots were ordered not to enter South Korea’s airspace. When it became clear that the war was going to drag on, Stalin was in no hurry to end it and instructed the North Korean government to prolong the peace talks. Only when Stalin died did it become possible to end the conflict, as was the case with so many of his other personal initiatives. Short of death, there was nothing and no one that could stop Stalin in his twilight years—much like Putin today.
But Putin’s affinity for the Soviet leader goes beyond Stalin’s ruthless methods to include his actual worldview. Like Stalin, Putin thinks of the world as divided into spheres of influence and assumes he can mark the territories he thinks belong to him with sweeping strokes on a map. Putin likewise believes that Russia can flourish in political isolation and under a policy of economic autarky. He also shares Stalin’s imperial nationalism. It is worth recalling that for all his Soviet orthodoxy, Stalin was prepared to jettison Marxism-Leninism when it suited him and skillfully play the nationalist card, appealing to the feelings of the dominant ethnic group. This was especially true during World War II. In his first address to the Soviet people at the outbreak of the war, Stalin began not with “Comrades!” but with “Brothers and sisters!” At the end of the war, he made his famous May 24, 1945, toast not to the Soviets but to the Russian people: “Thank the Russian nation for the trust!” In these and other cases, Stalin appealed above all to Russian history and Russian pride. Such a strategy is a cornerstone of late Putinism, or what used to be called “great-power chauvinism.”
Even more apparent is Putin’s recourse to Stalin’s legitimating narrative about Russia’s victory in World War II. Almost immediately, Stalin sought to transform a tragedy in which some 20 million Russians were killed into a story of triumphant heroism. At the same time, the dictator quickly reined in any generals whose popularity among the masses might make them a threat: many were arrested and killed; even Georgy Zhukov, the central military commander and architect of the Soviet victory, was sidelined. Stalin was concerned about the growing popularity of the military commanders and tried his best to make the details of the war be quickly forgotten. Putin has built his own legitimacy around the idea that he is now the heir to the Great Patriotic War—as World War II is officially known in Russia, in an echo of the Patriotic War of 1812 against Napoleon.
Simultaneously, Putin has hijacked the Immortal Regiment, an annual civic remembrance in which huge numbers of Russians march with photographs of relatives who took part in World War II, and turned it into an official mass parade led by himself. He has also turned the Soviet cult of victory into a cult of war. Having prepared the way with this rewriting of history, Putin declared the invasion of Ukraine as a war against “Nazism” and the West and nothing less than a continuation of the unfinished Great Patriotic War. This is a falsification of history on a huge scale and the manipulation of the collective consciousness of an entire country.
Talk of Ivan the Terrible’s brutal reign has returned under Putin.
For Putin, history has become a key instrument for sustaining his own rule and controlling the country—just as it had for Stalin. Above all are the examples of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, providing the twin pillars of cruelty and imperialism. Stalin sought to connect his regime to Ivan the Terrible by commissioning the film director Sergei Eisenstein to create a movie about the historic ruler and his fearsome regime in two parts. (The response of one literary figure at the time, Leonid Sobolev, says it all: “We must learn to love the oprichnina,” Ivan’s infamous guards.) Small wonder, then, that talk of Ivan’s brutal reign has returned under Putin. During a rally marking the annexation of the four Ukrainian regions, Ivan Okhlobystin, a Russian actor and Putin loyalist, took to the stage and shouted “Goida!”—the battle cry that was the watchword of Ivan the Terrible’s oprichniki. And just as Stalin resurrected a new Russia nationalism in the World War II years, Putin has compared his war in Ukraine to Peter the Great’s campaign against the Swedish empire.
As with Stalin in the early years of the Cold War, Putin has cut off relations with the West and has begun to portray everything foreign as incompatible with Russian ideology and values. The people Stalin called “rootless cosmopolitans,” who were hounded from their jobs and persecuted, have been succeeded in Putin’s Russia by those labeled “foreign agents,” exiles in their own country. Under Stalin, ties with foreigners could land a person in jail. In October 2022, Putin’s Russia began to apply a new law—entirely Stalinist in its spirit and vague formulation—“on confidential cooperation with a foreign state.” Putin completed his rehabilitation of Stalin in December 2021, just in time for the war, when he allowed his own oprichniki—in this case, prosecutors and other members of the so-called justice system—to destroy Memorial, a research organization that had existed precisely to keep alive the memory of Stalin-era repression. Among other things, Memorial was one of the few independent organizations in Russia that was able to preserve Russia’s actual history rather than its Stalinist version.
By using such tactics, Putin has paved the way—both symbolically and in practical terms—for war and for elements of totalitarianism in his own political system. In fact, the process has been unfolding for years: he has indoctrinated Russians with his version of history, attacking their consciousness with his articles and speeches; and his work has been amplified by pro-Stalinist historical propaganda, including from the pro-Kremlin Russian Historical Society and the Russian Military Historical Society. Thus, by early 2022, Putin could find ready popular support for his onslaught against history and for his war, as well as the descent into Stalinist paranoia it has required, in which people denounce their neighbors, and teachers and students denounce one another.
In the absence of democracy, Putin has failed to create a mechanism for the transfer of power since, like Stalin, he has no intention of giving up that power. As a result, Russian history is trapped in a vicious circle. But it is unclear whether Russia can expect a repeat of the events of March 1953, when Stalin lay dying and his closest associates competed to undo his legacy.
As with the Soviet Union under Stalin, one gets the impression that Russia today has no alternative to Putin. This means that there is no alternate path to anything he says or does: it seems that it is useless to oppose him. Russia’s elites must act according to this logic. Like elites under Stalin, they will simply have to wait for the tyrant to meet his end, hoping that he will somehow disappear before he has time to fire or imprison them. This is why Putin’s constituents take such an interest in his health. In Stalin’s era, the health status of the dictator was less known, but those associates and apparatchiks who were close to him in his final years understood that he was unwell. This became apparent to the public at the 19th Congress of the Communist Party in October 1952, at which Stalin seemed aged and frail. He tested his comrades in arms by suggesting that he should replace himself with a younger leader, and at the same time, he actually introduced relatively young careerists into the governing bodies; this, of course, greatly stressed the old guard.
Putin could follow a similar path, and in part he already has, especially at the regional level, where he has given governorships to ardent young loyalists. But although he is approaching the age of Stalin at his death, Putin appears healthier and seems to have more time than Stalin did in the early 1950s. Nonetheless, there is a crucial lesson here for Putin: hatred for and fear of Stalin during his last years were so strong that, when he suffered his final stroke, in the hours when he possibly could still be saved, his closest associates did not come to his aid: and in his agony, he died practically alone. Putin looks stronger than ever today. But at the same time, it is unclear who might save him if ever he lost that strength. Like Stalin in his later years.