Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
Between 1936 and 1938, the people of the Soviet Union were tortured by the Great Terror, the arrest and execution of almost seven hundred thousand innocent people on invented charges. One of the cardinal facts about the Terror is this: it started and stopped on Stalin’s instructions. But Stalin did not minutely organize it, predict its form, or anticipate its barely controllable dynamics.
As a forceful interpreter of Marx, Stalin demanded that the world’s first socialist society be built in a decade. To this end, he ordered that the rural way of life, built on centuries of custom, be eliminated by agricultural collectivization. New farming collectives were imposed at the barrel of a gun. Wealth was sucked out of the countryside and used to build a new cityscape of industrial development. This was a planned economy in theory, but it unleashed chaos. People were on the move on a civilization-bending scale. Millions of them had long spells outside the view of the authorities, seeking new jobs and making new lives. A dictator can’t control chaos.
Looked at from one angle, Stalin had unlimited power. But from another, he was a weak dictator. Does the model tell us something about today’s Russia?
Plainly, Putin has exercised great power, articulating a post-Yeltsin vision at home and abroad, introducing flagship policies, dividing up the spoils, minimizing opposition, and greatly strengthening some business and state organizations at the expense of others. He has made the political weather. But the state over which he presides is famously a weak state. The secret police are powerful, but the traffic police are another matter; the armed forces are increasingly strong, but central control over remote territories is sometimes tenuous. Corruption has hollowed out many agencies of the state, giving office holders, from mayors to housing officers, the opportunity not to strengthen the state and push forward its policies, but instead to enrich themselves with ‘rents’ from business and ordinary people alike.
Whatever your personal view of Putin, you cannot make a serious case that he has much in common with Stalin, and not just because of the contrasting ideological and ethical systems over which the two men presided. Even a man of such immense power as Stalin could not control the chaos his policies unleashed. But he certainly controlled his administrative machine, even if its local leaders routinely misled him about economic targets.
And he most definitely controlled the Kremlin. Even the most seasoned of Kremlin watchers, speculating about Putin’s very existence while he was out of the public eye for more than a week, have never made a clear case about the extent to which his rule is personal. After all, what really explains Boris Nemtsov’s awful murder in the shadow of the Kremlin’s walls?