A Tale of Two Dictators: Putin's Relationship to Stalin's LegacyRoundup
tags: imperialism, Soviet Union, Stalin, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, Russian history
Simon Sebag Montefiore’s books include Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar and Catherine the Great and Potemkin (both Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
When guests used to visit Vladimir Putin in his office in the Kremlin’s Senate Palace, he’d point at the bookshelves and ask them to choose a book from Joseph Stalin’s library. Half of Stalin’s books – usually marked up by the Soviet leader himself with red or green crayons – remain in Putin’s office. As one of his ministers told me, Putin would ask the visitor to open the book and they would look together at whatever marginalia Stalin had written: sometimes it was a grim laugh: “xa-xa-xa!”; sometimes a snort of disdain: “green steam!”; at others it was just a word: “teacher” was written on the biography of Ivan the Terrible.
Across the world today, people are asking if Putin is a new Stalin. Karl Marx joked that “history repeats itself twice, first as tragedy then as farce”. It doesn’t, but any ruler of the Russian state faces some of the same issues as earlier Romanov tsars and Communist general secretaries. Most Russian leaders have aspired to emulate the achievements of the two pre-eminent modern rulers, Peter the Great and Stalin, both revolutionary tsars, both brutal killers. One day, hopefully, Russia will be governed by someone who admires neither. Yet Putin is not Stalin. Stalin was a Marxist; Putin is a 21st-century tyrant, who, while co-opting elements of Romanov and Soviet imperialism, is a populist and nationalist, a practitioner of 21st-century identity politics who deploys both old-fashioned military heavy metal and the new hi-tech weaponry of social media.
Yet Stalin could not be more relevant. Stalin’s influence is imprinted everywhere in the state structure of Russia; he remains omnipresent. Putin’s repression at home increasingly resembles Stalinist tyranny – in its cult of fear, rallying of patriotic displays, crushing of protests, brazen lies and total control of media – although without the mass deportations and mass shootings. So far.
This is no surprise because the modern Russian state that Stalin forged in the early 1920s was never dismantled in the democratic turbulence of the 1990s. Despite its democratic façade, the Russian executive remained an autocracy in which presidents – similar to early tsars – chose their own successors as both Boris Yeltsin and Putin have done. The security organisation founded by Lenin, the Cheka, shaped and micromanaged by Stalin, and known by a succession of dreary acronyms – OGPU, NKVD, MGB, KGB, FSB – was divided by Yeltsin but never disassembled.
A former KGB lieutenant colonel, Putin is a proud Chekist. Then there is Ukraine, a country that was brutally repressed by Stalin and now attacked by Putin. The Russian president shares a part of Stalin’s determination to liquidate the nationality and independence of Ukraine at any cost. The differences between the two are as great as the similarities. But perhaps it is the similarities that count today.
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