From Stalin to Putin: Turning the Clocks Back?

March is a month for celebrations. Seventy years ago the USSR triumphed in Stalingrad, the bloodiest battle of the Second World War. Sixty years ago Stalin died, putting an end to twenty-seven years of terror, disappearances and arbitrary killings. A year ago, Vladimir Putin was elected for the third time as President of Russia, swapping place with former Head of State Dmitry Medvedev.

Twenty-two years ago Russia became a democracy, after centuries of authoritarianism, both under tsarist and communist rule. When Mikhail Gorbachev, last head of the USSR, announced the dismantling of the former regime on December 25th 1991, citizens hoped for a brighter future. Sadly, the reality of the current system has tarnished the many hopes and dreams that had developed since then. A shadow of authoritarianism is once more being cast over this great nation, making many Russians dread what the future will hold.

Image courtesy of the Presidential Press and Information Office, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of the Presidential Press and Information Office, © 2012, some rights reserved.

As Valdimir Putin starts his third term in office, after four years as Prime Minister, human rights and the rule of law are indeed increasingly eroded. What was already apparent became evident as Putin started his thirteenth year in power: democracy in Russia is no more than a farce. Strikingly, in 2011 Gorbachev even criticised Putin’s governing party, United Russia, for being ‘a bad copy of the Soviet Communist Party’. A comment altogether not surprising as Putin himself admitted, in 2011, that Medvedev and himself had, years ago, agreed to swap places once the latter finished his four years as President. Fraud, corruption and fear are key for the government to maintain itself in power.

While exaggerated, Gorbachev’s condemnation also highlights the increasing resemblance between some aspects of contemporary Russia and the former USSR, especially as it was under Stalin. Crucial is Putin’s dramatic consolidation of the state. Since first taking office in 2000, Putin implemented what he calls the ‘power vertical’, characterised by an overarching centralisation of the state. Some of the most severe consequences have been the 2005 electoral laws seeking to eliminate the opposition and facilitate Kremlin domination of the entire electoral system. As a result, legislative elections, in particular those held in 2011, have been favouring pro-Kremlin parties.

Even more shocking, in 2011, constitutional amendments gave future presidents six years in office instead of four. While they are still not allowed to serve more than two consecutive terms, Putin could be in office until 2024. Even later if Medvedev and Putin decide to swap power once more which, by now, would come as no surprise. Why such return to a centralised state and an all-powerful leader?

The USSR as it was under Stalin has come to symbolise a time when Russia was extremely powerful, both nationally and internationally. This in turns explains why a 2012 Levada Center survey found that almost 40% of Russians wants the Soviet political system back, while only 17% is satisfied with the current regime and 22% support Western democracy. At the same time, 51% of citizens yearn for the return to a Soviet-like system of state planning.

Although worrisome, these figures underline a deep feeling of frustration with the current state of affairs and a strong disillusion with Western ideas and beliefs – not least of which is liberalism. The growing disappointment is exacerbated by aging infrastructures, growing inequalities and a mediocre welfare state. Desire to regress to former years explains the return to Stalin-like policies as well as the cult devoted to the Soviet era, including the recycling of rusty and old fashioned ideas, which serve as the basis for new laws and management strategies.

Indeed, while denouncing the crimes committed by Stalin, Putin does not entirely disregard the former ruler’s actions, nor does he condemn all his policies. On the contrary, Putin is more and more inclined to refer to former Soviet regulations. For instance, he recently advanced the need for Russia to rejuvenate its sprawling defence industry. He stressed that the country needed to carry out the same powerful, all-embracing leap forward in modernization of the defence sector as the one carried out in the 1930s. A few weeks ago the President also called for the revival of a Soviet-era physical evaluation program that required all schoolchildren to pass fitness tests. The original goal was for the fittest to then join the ranks of the Red Army. This policy should be implemented by 2016.

Putin also shares with Stalin some core and fundamental beliefs regarding the State and how it must be organised. Like Stain, he aims at creating a centralised government based on a leading ruler, powerful security services and, importantly, a submissive population – no opposition to the ruling party was to be tolerated. In June 2012 the Duma, Russia’s parliament, passed a new bill raising fines for participating in unsanctioned protests to $9,000. This corresponds to the average annual Russian salary. According to Human Rights Watch such laws give official power to the State to squash its opponents.

Although repression is not a novelty, it is steadily increasing. In 2012, two of the three Pussy Riot singers were sent to penal colonies as a result of their anti-Putin performance in a church. Concurrently, Leonid Razvozzhayev, 39, was abducted in Kiev, where he was seeking political asylum, and brought back to Moscow. He was then kept without drinking, eating or using the bathroom for three days while his gaolers threatened to have his children killed if he refused to cooperate. These are only two examples amongst many others. Currently, most prominent opposition leaders who have orchestrated demonstrations face legal action. It does not bode well for the future of Russian democracy. Violations of human rights have become common practice.

It is undeniable that Russia has, at its core, a history of autocratic and authoritarian rulers. Stalin and Putin, alongside Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible and Nicolas Ist are at the top of the list. While Russia remains in transition, it is evident that it has not embraced liberalism. Neither has the opening of its economy to capitalism strengthened democracy in the country. Russia might have turned into a freer country, with citizens being allowed to travel and express themselves as they wish, but individuals who oppose the governing party are frequently beaten, imprisoned or even murdered. Putin is not turning the clocks back. Terror and centralization have not, by far, reached the peaks of the Stalin era. Yet, with the opposition muzzled and Putin’s influence deepening, one can wonder whether Russia is not regressing towards a dictatorship hidden under the banner of a liberal democracy.