21 March 2024

Comparing Putin to Stalin misunderstands Russia


Political traditions often long outlive the context that created them. In Britain, every year the King gives his speech to parliament, in ancient Rome, the Senate solemnly assembled to select emperors picked by the Praetorian Guard, and last week in Russia, there were presidential elections. 

The result was not a surprise to anyone. According to the official count Vladimir Putin won with 87% of the vote, beating his nearest rival, the communist candidate Nikolay Kharitonov, who could only manage 4%. This was not a free or fair election and very few seriously see it as one. All presidential elections in Russia since 2004 have involved some degree of vote rigging, though the preliminary evidence suggests that this year it was more aggressive than in any previous election. Among other factors, electronic voting has made the fixing of results less of a logistical challenge than it once was.

Regardless of the mechanics, this all means that Putin is on course to being Russia’s longest serving ruler since Catherine the Great, outdoing Stalin if he lasts his full six-year term. 

Understandably, condemnation of this electoral sham came flooding in from numerous western politicians. Among these was our Defence Secretary, Grant Shapps, who compared Putin to a ‘modern-day Stalin’ in the Telegraph.

It is a common human trait to want to believe that all bad things are in some sense the same, but in this case the comparison obscures far more than it reveals. What is worse is that, if believed, it creates a highly misleading impression of just the sort of threat Putin poses and how it can be countered. 

To be fair to Shapps, Putin and Stalin do have some things in common: they are both autocrats, they both started wars of aggression in which the Russian army badly underperformed expectations, they are both fairly short (Stalin was 5’5″, Putin is 5’7″). But beyond this the similarities start to dry up, and the dissimilarities between the two men give a far better insight into how modern Russia works. 

When it comes to the means by which the two men maintained their grip on power, it is hard to think of two dictatorships which are less alike. 

Stalin built his dictatorship through control of the Communist Party which already held a monopoly on power. The party was interwoven into all aspects of daily life, the army and every layer of government. Even though by the mid-1930s Stalin had become totally dominant over it, the notion of collective party decision making was essential in legitimising Stalin’s dictatorship while also providing a strong ideological framework for the state’s actions. 

Putin’s Russia is not a party state. United Russia, which was created to provide legislative support for Putin in the Duma, is widely seen as a corrupt and hollowed out shell with little coherent ideology. Its role is to enthusiastically support whatever policies emerge from the Kremlin in exchange for kickback opportunities. Despite their slavish obedience, Putin is careful not to allow his name to become too closely associated with United Russia, and he runs for election as an independent candidate. It is also not a one-party state, with a network of only slightly less compliant ‘systemic opposition’ parties which generally bend over backwards to look as un-threatening as possible. Relying on this network of client parties allows Putin to launder his reputation with Russians across the political spectrum, rather than try to enforce the strict ideological conformity demanded by Stalin. 

This reflects a broader difference between the two regimes. Stalin’s USSR was the archetypal totalitarian state. One of, if not the primary purpose of the state was to politicise the population to transform every citizen into a highly ideological Marxist Leninist dedicated to Stalin. 

Putin’s autocracy has largely been built around the opposite principle: the political demobilisation of the public. 

There has been no serious attempt to create a cult of personality around Putin. Stalin famously had numerous cities renamed in his honour while you have to go to the semi-independent client kingdom of Chechnya to find a street named after Putin. 

Putin’s state has far more limited expectations of the Russian people than Stalin’s did. Throughout most of his time in power, the deal Putin offered to Russians from oligarchs to the average muzhik was essentially, ‘you stay away from politics and politics will stay away from you’. This deal has been undermined somewhat by the war but even today, two years in, the regime is extremely reluctant to take decisions – like raising income tax beyond its current rate of 13% or ordering a second round of mobilisation which sweeps up men beyond the rural poor – which will seriously negatively affect the material conditions of urban Russians.

Stalin had no such reservations when it came to heaping new burdens on the Soviet people. Indeed, the industrialisation of the 1930s was predicated on declining living standards in much of urban Russia and outright starvation in rural areas. 

Furthermore, though Putin’s major opponents have a habit of dying in ‘mysterious’ circumstances, we have seen nothing remotely approaching the sort of mass, arbitrary killings which Stalin used to maintain control. This isn’t much to Putin’s credit, being less of a psychopath than Stalin is a bar it’s hard not to clear, but it is worth noting that at least within Russia, Putin’s violence involves targeted gangsterism and not mass murder.

Differences can be found not only in the means by which these two men kept hold of power but also in their aims. Stalin was a man of titanic ambition who sought to totally transform a largely agrarian economy into a industrial in the space of a decade with effects that continue to distort the Russian economy, geography and settlement patterns to this day.

Putin on the other hand has been uninterested in changing the economic foundations of the modern Russian state. In the early 2000s, he introduced some market reforms such as legalising the sale of agricultural land with some positive results, but this reformist inclination had largely petered out by his second stint in the Presidency from 2012. Though the war in Ukraine has created a greater role for the state and led to the transfer of some foreign owned companies to well connected Russian businessmen, the effects of Putin on the Russian economy have been tiny in comparison to the huge dislocation caused by Stalin. 

You might say that I’m just being pedantic about historical details, and that ultimately who cares if a familiar figure from Russian history is used to make a point. That may be true were Shapps’ words not reflective of a deeper misunderstanding of the modern Russian state in the West which often bleeds into thinking on the topic. Whether it’s claims that Ukraine’s war is hopeless because Russia will be able to mobilise fresh recruits on the scale it did during World War Two, or predictions that Putin will engage in a ‘Stalinist’ purge of incompetent generals, the assumption that Putin is basically a bit like Stalin has led to profound misunderstandings of the threat we face and how to tackle it.

Stalin was able to mobilise the population of the Soviet Union in ways which are unthinkable for Putin, and was in possession of a highly exportable ideology which was able to win fanatical converts among Western elites. Putin lacks these assets but possesses others. His ideological vacuity allows him to gain sympathy in the West from both the hard left and right. Putin’s Russia presents a serious, but not an insurmountable threat. It is eminently beatable, or at least containable, but to do so we must see it for what it is and not fall back on lazy cliches. 

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Daniel Freeman lived in Russia for four years and is now Managing Editor at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.