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Why Vladimir Putin is beholden to Stalin’s legacy

The Russian president has embraced the Soviet cult of fear and control. His invasion of Ukraine is a colossal gamble to secure his place in history.

By Simon Sebag Montefiore

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.

[See also: How big is occupied Ukraine? Use this interactive map to find out]

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.

Stalin has overshadowed Putin’s life in many ways. In 1952, when Stalin had a year to live, Putin was born in Leningrad in a multi-ethnic Soviet Union sculpted by Stalin, whose achievements dominated Putin’s world. At an unbearable human cost, Stalin had mercilessly forged the USSR into an industrialised force, defeated Hitler, stormed Berlin, conquered eastern Europe and made Russia a nuclear superpower. The 1945 victory became the lodestar that justifies Putin’s autocracy today. Putin has praised Stalin’s achievements, pointing out that “from 1924 to 1953, the country that Stalin ruled changed from an agrarian to an industrial society”. Of the Second World War he said “nobody can now throw stones at those who organised and stood at the head of this victory”. He sees Stalin as a flawed titan born, like Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon, for revolution: “Stalin was a product of his time,” Putin told the sycophantic Hollywood director Oliver Stone. “English history has Cromwell… Napoleon’s almost a god in France. History is full of such characters.”

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Stalin and Putin share the belief that autocracy, backed by coercion, is the best way to manage Russia. “Russians need a tsar,” the Marxist Stalin reflected. Putin agrees, embracing the panoply of tsarist magnificence and mysticism. Both were obsessed with history. Whenever Putin meets historians, he asks “how will history judge me?”. History is constantly present for both. When the former US ambassador to the Soviet Union, W Averell Harriman, congratulated Stalin on taking Berlin, he replied, “Yes, but Alexander I took Paris.”

[See also: Putin’s war is in disarray]

But the differences are striking too. Stalin was a Georgian, born with the surname Dzhugashvili. Putin, born in Leningrad, emphasised in the early days of the invasion of Ukraine “I’m a Russian”. Stalin was a fanatical internationalist Marxist; Putin believes in the exceptionalist “Russian world” starting with the Orthodox conversion of Vladimir the Great in 988. He despises Marxist ideology, believing the Leninist revolution shattered Russian imperium. Eschewing Communism, he promotes Kremlin-KGB-capitalism. Stalin, who had no interest in money and only possessed a couple of uniforms (though he enjoyed the use of comfortable mansions) would be disgusted by the vulgarity of the yachts and planes of ­Russia’s ultra-rich.

Stalin lived for 20 years as a secret revolutionary, in and out of prisons and Siberia in senescent tsardom; Putin rose as a minor KGB operative in the monumental stagnance of Soviet bureaucracy. Stalin believed that socialism could only be delivered “through a social system of bloodletting” – in other words, murder and terror. Stalin killed as many as 20 million innocent people; 18 million entered his gulag camps; many never returned.

Putin uses surgical if spectacular assassinations, often favouring exotic poisons. But Stalin’s achievements, he has said, “were achieved at an unacceptable price. Repressions happened. Millions of citizens suffered.” Yet Stalin was central: “Excessively demonising Stalin,” Putin told Stone in 2017, “is a means to attack the Soviet Union and Russia.”

Although Communism is gone, Stalin’s secret police force is intact and remains central to Putin’s reign. Stalin deliberately co-opted Russian criminal culture into the Cheka, personifying this gangster-Bolshevik nexus himself. He won Lenin’s favour by organising bank robberies with a gang of mafiosi and psychopaths in order to fund the Party. When a fastidious Marxist complained to Lenin about Stalin’s thuggery, he replied, “He’s exactly the type we need.” Putin has a special link: his grandfather Spiridon Putin was a chef who started at the Astoria Hotel in St Petersburg, where he cooked for Rasputin, but then joined the OGPU/ NKVD “service staff” who worked at state dachas, serving Lenin and Stalin himself. As a young law student, Putin joined the KGB in 1975. During Leonid Brezhnev’s sclerotic reign (1964 to 1982), the KGB under the talented Yuri ­Andropov was the only organisation that retained its prestige as an order of “Soviet knighthood”. In 1991 Putin was working as a KGB lieutenant colonel in Dresden, east Germany when the Soviet Union collapsed. He drove home despondent.

When Putin came to power as prime minister in December 1999, he trusted Chekists above all others, joking that “the group of FSB officers you sent to work undercover in the government has achieved the first stage of its assignment”. His long-time friend and former director of the FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, who now serves as Putin’s security council secretary, explained that the KGB officers “aren’t in it for the money… they’re the new nobility”. But it is a nobility with a gangster ethos: as Putin said when he attacked the Chechens, “We’ll whack them even in the outhouse.” Those who betrayed the noble order – such as Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal – would be liquidated just as Stalin assassinated Trotsky and many others. Stalin’s visitors’ book reveals he spent many hours every day with his secret police chieftains. Putin rules through a cabal of Chekists – the Siloviki power-men.

[See also: How Vladimir Putin views the world]

Along with the KGB, the Stalinist institution that formed Putin’s world was the ­Soviet Union. Many Bolsheviks were Georgians, Armenians, Jews, Letts, Ukrainians and Poles because Romanov tsars had embraced ­Russian nationalism and excluded the minorities who made up more than half their own population: Lenin called Russia “the prison of nations”. The overthrow of the Russian monarchy in 1917 was followed by civil war, and after 1918, Ukraine was the battlefield, enjoying a short, chaotic and blood-spattered independence. Lenin lost Poland, Finland and the Baltics but reconquered the most essential territory: Ukraine.

Lenin and Stalin, his commissar for nationalities, debated how to structure their new state to “liberate” the Ukrainians and other nations, while actually reassembling the empire in the cause of Marxism to be ruled by the Kremlin. Stalin wanted to place Ukraine within a Russian federation; Lenin, denouncing “Russian chauvinism”, designed a union in which all the socialist republics, most prominently Ukraine, were equals that could secede. In fact they could never leave.

Stalin regarded Lenin’s structure as a façade to control Ukraine but to Putin it was “separating, severing what’s historically Russian land”. After Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin came to power. He paid lip service to the union and, as Putin put it, “ruled in his own way” – a totalitarian dictatorship – but Stalin was determined that Ukraine must stay Soviet at any cost. Any national aspirations must be smashed.

In 1929, when Stalin launched his collectivisation campaign to industrialise the Soviet Union, Ukrainian peasants and intelligentsia resisted. Stalin cracked down brutally, deporting and executing millions of Ukrainians. From 1931 to 1933 famine struck Ukraine; when his comrades reported the growing starvation Stalin called it a “fairy tale”. Fearing that, as he wrote to his lieutenant Lazar Kaganovich, “we may lose Ukraine”, he blamed Ukrainian nationalists for encouraging peasant resistance. Stalin requisitioned grain from the starving Ukrainians in a genocidal manmade famine, known as the Holodomor: nearly four million Ukrainians – one in eight – perished. Millions starved outside Ukraine too in North Caucasus and Kazakhstan. Stalin told Winston Churchill that ten million people died altogether. Ukraine, similar to the rest of the USSR, then endured the terror that killed and deported many more.

During Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union from 1941, small Ukrainian fascist militias – one of them under the nationalist politician Stepan Bandera – helped the Nazis launch the Holocaust against Ukrainian Jews, before falling out with the Germans and continuing to resist Soviet reconquest for five years after 1945. Many Ukrainians also helped shelter Jews. But it is these “Nazi-Banderites” that now rule the fantasy hellscape in Putin’s warped vision.

Stalin deported the Chechens and other nationalities suspected of treason, joking he would have deported the entire Ukrainian nation if there were not so many of them. In 1946-47 another million Ukrainians died in a second famine, also ignored by Stalin. Ukraine between 1918 and 1945 was one of the most hellish places on earth, the crucible of the worst of the 20th century. It was part of what the historian Tim Snyder simply called “Bloodlands” – the area of central and eastern Europe scourged by both Hitler and Stalin.

At the end of his life, Stalin decided to award Crimea to Ukraine to celebrate the 1654 Pereyaslav Agreement – when the Ukrainian Cossack Hetman, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, agreed to a Romanov protectorate. Such Bolshevik meddling infuriates Putin.

“The demise of the Soviet Union,” Putin said, “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”: in 1991, it enabled Ukraine to claim independence. Unlike Stalin – an expert in nationhood who recognised the existence of the Ukrainian nation but was determined to repress it – Putin claims Ukrainians are part of the Russian world and Russians and Ukrainians are “one people”. But both dictators would agree that Ukraine is essential to Russian statehood. In the tradition of Peter the Great, both Stalin and Putin consider military victory the mark of a great tsar. Putin made his presidency by an ever steeper gradient of gambles – crushing Chechens, striking Georgians, bombing Syrians. In 2014, when Ukraine leaned towards Nato and the EU, Putin annexed Crimea and launched a war in its Russian-speaking eastern provinces that consolidated the very Ukrainian nation he feared.

Stalin’s victims: builders of the White Sea-Baltic Canal, 1933. It is estimated up to 240,000 gulag inmates died working on construction of the canal. Photo by Laski Diffusion/Getty Images

On 21 February, three days before the invasion, Putin humiliated his bewildered courtiers at a televised security council that resembled one of Stalin’s plenums. Putin’s director of the foreign intelligence service, Sergei Naryshkin, clearly did not know an invasion was planned. Putin, ever the Chekist, revelled in the surprise of his own secret decision-making.

Ironically, Putin’s launch of a traditional invasion of Ukraine today is a more strategically reckless act than those Stalin committed. The Georgian was a prolific killer but in diplomacy and war, he was cautious: his 1939 invasion of Finland was agreed with Hitler as part of a carve-up of eastern Europe, his 1945 takeover of eastern Europe was agreed with the US and UK. He never acted on a solo whim like Putin has in Ukraine. But like Putin in Ukraine, Stalin grossly underestimated the brave patriotic ingenuity of his enemy: the Finns killed more than 100,000 Russians. And similar to Putin, Stalin cared little for conscripts’ lives; Russian armies first blundered then adapted with grinding slowness but ultimately triumphed with overwhelming force and clumsy lethality. The Finns were crushed.

In the nuclear age, Stalin was careful. In 1948, he tested US resolve in the Berlin blockade but, faced with a defiant airlift, he retreated; in 1950, he launched the Korean War – but carefully kept his distance, using North Koreans and Chinese as proxies. Monstrously murderous as he was, I believe that in 2022, even Stalin would not have invaded Volodymyr Zelensky’s Ukraine.

Putin is now set on hegemony over the Soviet and Romanov empires. At a dinner at his Kuntsevo dacha at the end of the Second World War, Stalin called for a map and approvingly reviewed his conquests, pointing with his pipe: “Let’s see what we’ve got then,” he told his henchmen. “In the north, everything’s all right; Finland wronged us so we moved the frontier back; Baltic states which were Russian territory in old times are ours again; all the Belorussians are ours now; Ukrainians too; and the Moldavians are back with us too. So to the west everything’s all right.” If he wins in Ukraine, Putin might have a similar conversation with Patrushev and his defence minister Sergei Shoigu.

[See also: Putin’s miscalculation in Ukraine could lead to his downfall]

Both dictators were spoiled by victory; neither was mad but the conviction of infallibility is a dangerous pathology. At 69, Putin is the same age as Stalin when he blockaded Berlin. It is hard to imagine anyone could be more isolated than the old Stalin, who for years kept his circle to around ten henchmen, for whom he hosted soused dinners at Kuntsevo as he planned an anti-Jewish purge to liquidate any final threats.

Yet, bizarrely, in an era when information is freely available on the internet, Putin is just as isolated. After 20 successful years of dictatorship, sequestered at his Novo-Ogaryovo mansion, terrified of Covid, distanced from once-trusted barons and deluded by a warped fetishistic nationalistic fixation on Ukraine, Putin has fatally misread the passionate patriotism and courageous resistance of the Ukrainians.

Yet at home, modern young Russians, long accustomed to international travel and social media, are less tolerant of irredentist imperialism: bravely they are protesting; thousands have been arrested; even the elite – ex-ministers, professors, music artists, daughters of oligarchs, even FSB agents – have denounced the war. Tens of thousands of Russians have rushed into exile. It may be that many – missing Soviet power and prestige – support him, wearing the “Z” marking of the Russian troops, and denouncing traitors. But it looks as if Putin has now switched from authoritarian rule to totalitarian oppression. Stalinist trials, camps, executions may well follow: after all, Stalin is in the bloodstream of the Russian body politic – and Putin himself.

Putin’s decision is rational – within his own distorted world-view – but it’s a colossal gamble to secure his legacy, change the course of history and restore a Russian empire in this new hi-tech interconnected world. As this atrocious war and Western sanctions corrode Russian society, Stalinist terror will become essential to Putin’s hold on power. If Putin loses he may be deposed by his own courtiers – tsars and general secretaries are usually destroyed by palace coups not protests – but he could also survive, as Saddam Hussein did after two defeats. If Putin wins, he joins Peter the Great and ­Stalin in the histories. “Victors,” said Stalin, “are never tried.”

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s books include “Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar” and “Catherine the Great and Potemkin” (both Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror