What Putin Learned From Stalin
by Paul R. Gregory
Show trials, mysterious deaths in prisons, thought crimes, intimidation of political opponents, and control of the media are reminiscent of Stalin’s Russia, but they are mainstays of Russia under Putin.
Unlike Stalin, Putin uses these instruments of power and intimidation behind a façade of democracy. Unlike Stalin, they are used selectively against a few citizens. Those who “mind their business” are left alone. While Stalin held power, even those who played by his rules were at risk. Modern dictators have learned that mass repressions are not necessary; selective intimidation works just as well.
Putin has created the very system that Stalin feared most: A KGB state unconstrained by any other source of power. Stalin was constantly on guard with respect to his secret police. If they and their leaders became too powerful, he had a simple solution: Kill them. Putin’s KGB state – which controls much of Russian industry, finance, and trade – has no Stalin or Politburo to rein them in.
Stalin won the power struggle following Lenin’s death through his use of kompromat, intimidation, and (well concealed) murder. Putin used many of these same tools, only in a more refined and subtle manner. Both Putin and Stalin share the same goal: the “lust for absolute power.”
In Stalin’s case, other Bolshevik contenders were a poor match. Trotsky wanted to be anointed based on his charisma. Nikolai Bukharin, about whom I write in Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin, was a man of ideas, not action. His fellow Politburo members scorned him because he was “soft.”
Putin’s potential opponents not only considered him a nobody initially (Stalin’s rivals made the same mistake), but they also counted on the constitutional limit of two terms to restrain his power. They did not realize he would use a proxy to continue his power.
Both Stalin’s and Putin’s consolidation of power illustrate the proposition of Frederick Hayek that “the worst rise to the top” in societies that lack a rule of law, do not protect property rights, and whose “commanding heights” are controlled by political authorities.
My account of Stalin’s slow mental and physical torture of Bukharin and his young wife, Anna, makes for unpleasant reading. Putin and his KGB colleagues were also prepared to be more brutal than other contenders, using intimidation, kompromat, and even violence to achieve the same goal. Whereas Stalin gained power in a non-democratic context, Putin used the charade of democracy – a tactic that gained him credibility and legitimacy in the world community.
Putin and Stalin are cautionary tales for those who argue that a “strong hand” is required to create growth and prosperity. Such an argument has been popularized by the apparent success of China. If indeed the worst really do rise to the top, those who long for a benevolent dictator are likely to end up with a Stalin or a Putin in due time.
Paul R. Gregory is the Cullen Distinguished Chair of Economics at the University of Houston and author of the recently published Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina (Hoover Press, 2010)