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Stalin 2.0? Putin might follow the tyrant’s playbook but he’s no copycat

The shadow of Joseph Stalin hangs heavy over Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But is Putin actually more dangerous – if not statistically more murderous – than the former Soviet leader?

A woman holds a placard reading "Putin, hands off Ukraine" depicting a collage of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Photo:MICHAL CIZEK/AFP via Getty Images

All tyrants trade in fear and terror is their common currency. This is as true of Vladimir Putin as it was of Joseph Stalin, the brutal Soviet leader who would have despised the greed and corruption of his successor’s regime but would also have recognised the Russian president’s use of tactics straight out of his own paranoia-spiked playbook.

When former KGB agent Putin said last month that Russians would spit out traitors like “gnats” in a poisonous tirade that seemed to set the stage for more domestic repression, many observers compared the rhetoric to the language used during the show trials of Stalin’s Great Terror, when “enemies of the people” were described as “reptiles” or “mad dogs”.

Putin also called for a “self-purification of society” – a clear linguistic nod, experts say, to Stalin’s brutal purges of anyone perceived as a threat. The words were carefully chosen by a man who seems increasingly paranoid as the costs – human and financial – of his monumental military miscalculation in Ukraine climb relentlessly.

Thousands of soldiers have been killed on both sides and countless civilians have died under a hail of Russian bombs, bullets and missiles in cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol. On the outskirts of Kyiv, particularly in the newly liberated town of Bucha, Ukrainian soldiers have found evidence of appalling atrocities by occupying Russian forces – people executed in the streets, rapes, mass graves and more. 

But despite the ever-rising death toll – and bearing in mind deaths already caused during devastating Russian military interventions in Georgia, Syria, Chechnya and in eastern Ukraine for the past eight years – Putin is still not even close to Stalin in the cold, hard numbers game of state-sponsored murder. 

During Stalin’s rule, up to 20 million people died in labour camps, forced collectivisation, famine and executions. Stalin also turned his ire on Ukraine, murdering thousands when they resisted his collectivisation plans and also presiding over a man-made famine, the Holodomor, when around four million people died in the 1930s. 

A callous disregard for life is shared by both leaders. Both were paranoid, both relentless in dealing with those they viewed as threats and not above imagining the destruction of a whole people. Just as Stalin deported Crimean Tatars to Uzbekistan in 1944, there are reports that people fleeing the gutted graveyard that used to be Mariupol are being taken to Russia, forced to live in the land of those who turned their town into the “ashes of a dead land”. 

And yet Putin and Stalin would likely both balk at comparisons because ideologically, they have nothing in common. 

Stalin, who died in 1953,  was committed to the spread of international communism, while Putin has built what American-Russian journalist Masha Gessen described as a “mafia state and a totalitarian society”.

“Stalin is a Marxist who is committed to international communism and that is all he respects. Anybody who presides over a capitalist system that involves the exploitation of labour by capital and anyone who runs a corrupt and kleptocratic regime is an enemy of the working people and should be crushed,” said James Harris, a senior lecturer at the University of Leeds, and author of The Great Fear; Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s. 

“(Stalin and his Soviet counterparts) were anti-capitalist and for all that they were tremendously violent autocratic dictators, their ultimate aim was the liberation of the working people of the world. And Putin doesn’t have that at all. He’s an utterly corrupt, kleptocratic, megalomaniac dictator,” Harris said.

Stalin would have likely been appalled by Putin’s regime. He once said: “Mankind is divided into rich and poor, into property owners and exploited; and to abstract oneself from this fundamental division; and from the antagonism between poor and rich means abstracting oneself from fundamental facts.”

Putin probably doesn’t lose much sleep over Marxist creed. Rumoured to be one of the richest people in the world, his personal wealth is a carefully guarded secret although there is talk of palaces, Swiss bank accounts and a superyacht called Scheherazade.

If Stalin might despise Putin, the feeling is not mutual. A keen historian who has described the demise of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”, Putin has presided over something of a rehabilitation of Stalin and while condemning his  methods, he appears to admire Stalin’s success in turning Russia into a superpower. There is a family connection too – Putin’s paternal grandfather, Spiridon Putin, cooked for Stalin and was described as a valuable member of the dictator’s personal staff. 

Putin is also using Stalin’s playbook as he cracks down on anyone in Russia who dares to speak out against the war in Ukraine. He has been suppressing opposition for years, but now the domestic repression has been ramped up. 

Independent media outlets are being blocked or shut down and a new law now means that anyone spreading what the authorities consider to be “fake news” about what is happening in Ukraine – and that includes the fact that it is a war – could spend up to 15 years in jail. Many independent journalists have left the country while Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, has been declared an extremist organisation. 

More than 15,000 Russians who dared to take to the streets to protest against the war have been jailed and Putin is said to be purging top military staff and even officers from the FSB – the KGB’s successor — according to the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. There are also reports that Putin is replacing his entire personal staff of 1,000 people.

Any and every perceived risk is being smothered. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was detained last year after he returned to Russia having survived a poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin, has just been sentenced to another nine years in jail in a remote prison colony. After his trial, he called for global protests against the war, tweeting: “Putin is not Russia, We cannot wait any longer.” 

Other Putin foes have also been poisoned: former double agent Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia, were poisoned with novichok in Salisbury in 2018. They survived, although a woman who came into contact with the poison died. Britain said Russian intelligence officers were responsible. In 2006, Putin critic and former spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium in London. A UK inquiry found that Litvinenko was probably murdered on the personal orders of Putin. 

Nicolas Tenzer, an expert on Russia and editor at the Desk Russie journal, says the “liquidation” of Memorial – a rights group set up by Soviet-era dissidents that investigated Stalin’s crimes and was ordered to shut in December –  showed Putin’s regime was turning darker. 

“No one has the right to speak the truth or investigate the past … The very tiny spaces of freedom have now disappeared. And that’s a characteristic of Stalinist regimes. No one can be safe,” he said. 

For Tenzer, Putin’s ideology is a mix of Stalinism, nationalism, anti-semitic elements, and far-right ideas. But what distinguishes him and makes him so dangerous is his nihilism. “Putin doesn’t just want to revise the world liberal order, humanitarian law and general rule of law, but also to destroy everything. That was very obvious in Syria as it is in Ukraine. It is not a war to conquer. It is a war to destroy.”

Some observers say Putin is keen to position himself in the tradition of what he sees as great Russian leaders, from Ivan the Terrible, to Peter the Great. He wants to resurrect Russia’s superpower status and create a greater Slavic state. And he is pushing outwards, said Harris, including taking control next-door in Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko is his political puppet. These moves also answer his need for a powerful legacy – he wants to be the man who brought the Soviet lands back together, Harris said.

Tenzer believes Putin may – in the long run – turn out to be more dangerous even than Stalin.

“Of course, Stalin was a monster at home and abroad and the world’s worst criminal with Hitler and Mao Zedong, but I think even in the worst period of the Communist regime after World War II, there was a kind of rationality in terms of foreign policy. After Stalin’s era, there were some limits that obviously did not prevent war crimes either and bloody repression as we witnessed notably in Warsaw and Prague. The full-fledged destruction of the world order was not in the agenda of the Soviet leaders … But now Putin is able to just destroy the very basis of rule-based order or liberal order,” he said.

“Over the past 22 years, he has been able to do anything he wanted. There was no resistance. People now are talking about containment – it’s not the right word. Because if we contain Putin, the status quo would still be a win for Putin. And if Putin and Putin’s people – the soldiers, the military forces and intelligence forces – are not sanctioned for war crimes (in Ukraine) and Putin’s regime is normalised … that will be another win.”

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