The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin is resurrecting one of Stalin’s tactics in Ukraine

Staged referendums are an attempt to discipline Ukrainians into accepting Putin’s rule, not to provide democratic legitimacy

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on a screen set at Red Square in Moscow on Sept. 30 as he addresses a rally and a concert marking the annexation of four regions of Ukraine. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)
7 min

On Sept. 30, in an impassioned speech riddled with historical errors, Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s annexation of more than 40,000 square miles of Ukraine. A celebration in Moscow’s Red Square followed Putin’s televised address, welcoming the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions into the Russian Federation.

Russia held fraudulent referendums in the occupied regions to provide a pretext for Putin’s announcement. To nobody’s surprise, Russian state media reported that all four voted overwhelmingly to join Russia. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine pumped out videos of elderly Ukrainians voting to join Russia and claiming that the Russian Federation is their homeland — even as videos on social media showed local “election officials” canvassing door-to-door with armed paramilitaries, intimidating people into voting.

The West decried these rigged elections, reiterated its support for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and denounced Putin’s latest claims. But these were not simply rigged elections, an imitation of democracy or a media exercise, as some analysts have claimed. Instead, they reflect a much more aggressive and intrusive attempt to discipline citizens of the occupied territories — teaching them how they must behave under Putin. This move comes straight from the playbook of Joseph Stalin.

The Soviet Union under Stalin deployed this type of “education” campaign — including voting in sham elections — to subjugate and teach people in Poland and the Baltic states how to speak the language of the Communist Party. Putin is convinced that like Stalin, he can override Ukrainians’ political consciousness, which he sees as having been corrupted by decades of liberal and nationalist propaganda. In its place, he wants to reveal Ukrainians’ “true” and historically predetermined interest: joining Mother Russia.

The Russian referendums in occupied Ukraine bear a striking resemblance to the sovietization of Eastern Poland and the Baltic States in 1939 and 1940. Once the Soviets secured military control of a country, they implemented hasty elections to the “people’s assemblies” and “people’s parliaments,” claiming more than 90 percent support for pro-Soviet deputies. These deputies then appealed to Moscow to join the USSR, requests that Moscow promptly granted in lavish Kremlin unification ceremonies in the same white Hall of the Order of St. George as Putin’s annexation ceremony.

Many historians have assumed that these elections aimed to feign democracy and legality. But that is not true. The Kremlin was implementing a crucial element of Marxist-Leninist thinking. Essentially, the Soviet leadership saw people as being blinded by a bourgeois “false consciousness.” Only through reeducation in Communist thinking and ways could they be liberated.

For this reeducation to be successful, a firm hand was needed. The Soviets referred to this ideological reeducation effort as an “ideo-political upbringing” or ideino-politicheskoe vospitanie. In this phrase, the inclusion of the Russian word vospitanie akin to the idea of “raising children” — suggests a quasi-violent parental authority over the “immature” society. This concept legitimized the Communist Party leadership over the “backward” peasant masses and “unenlightened” workers. It also justified brutal economic and political tactics deemed to be in the interest of the “workers’ state.”

Self-determination evaporated in the countries newly controlled by the Soviets. Guided by this belief in the need for a firm hand, the Soviets imposed a singular Marxist-Leninist future on them. They mobilized hundreds of thousands of local citizens in Poland and the Baltic states to participate in what they openly admitted were illegal (given the “extraordinary times”) elections. Their goal was to initiate the local peoples into their new political reality.

The Soviets boasted of the superiority of these single party elections over liberal democratic pluralist ones, blaming the latter for being inherently skewed by financial interest or akin to a lottery, where the people’s future was left to random chance rather than to the realization of the inevitability of socialist progress. In the Baltics, the Communist-controlled media openly intimidated people into voting, forcing every individual to place themselves on the side of either historical progress or reaction. “Let’s not be the enemies of the people,” the Latvian paper Rīts declared. “Anyone who abstains from voting today and tomorrow is unquestionably an enemy of the people … backsliders and cowards will not be able to halt history.”

A few days after the elections, the Communist-run papers celebrated the fantastic results, with the Union of the Working People of Estonia receiving 92.9 percent of the vote in an election with 81.6 percent participation, the Latvian Working People’s Bloc getting 97.6 percent with 94.7 percent turnout and the Union of the Working People of Lithuania securing a whopping 99.19 percent of the vote with 95.51 percent participation. In early August 1940, the Baltic states were officially “admitted” to the Soviet Union and full-scale sovietization and mass repression commenced.

From then on, the Soviet Baltic republics were subject to regular Soviet elections (except for the brief Nazi occupation, 1941-1944) to the republican and central Supreme Soviets, always preceded by a month-long campaign of intense propaganda and intrusive door-to-door canvassing by “agitators.” These regular elections served primarily to “raise” the New Soviet People rather than feigning democratic legitimacy. “The polling station must be a school for the political upbringing of the masses,” Lithuanian ideology chief Kazys Preikšas instructed his cadres for the 1941 January elections.

By means of discipline and punishment, Moscow maintained its hegemony over the Baltic states for the next half-century, but given the ease by which the Balts threw off the Soviet order from their shoulders in the early 1990s, the waves of purges and the steady diet of forcible reeducation had a very limited long-term impact.

While Putin is not a communist, the former KGB officer embraces a similar philosophy toward society as the Soviets. For him, too, the move to hold sham referendums is an attempt to teach Ukrainians a “lesson.” He wants to discipline them to behave and accept their future in his ethnonational project of the “Russian World.”

Western observers have often interpreted Putin as an idea-less tyrant, a cold Realpolitiker or a vile kleptocrat. But Putin is also an ideologue, and spreading ideas clearly matters to him. He sees himself as providing tough education and discipline in the face of Ukrainian resistance. As far as Putin is concerned, the “Little Russians,” as he likes to call Ukrainians, need to learn what is “in their best interest.”

Putin’s reliance on old Soviet attitudes and practices portends an utter lack of imagination. He and his cronies operate with obsolete ideas, practices and assumptions without developing them much further. Putin's stubborn denial of empirical reality, including his belief that societies have no autonomous agency, is highly reminiscent of the dogmas that doomed the Soviet order.

Ukraine, unlike Poland and the Baltic States in 1939-1940, enjoys much stronger international moral and material support, and is fighting off the enemy with admirable success. Putin’s lack of original ideas may not prevent him from wreaking further havoc, displacing people and committing mass murder. But it will continue to undercut his international status, as well as his legitimacy at home, as reflected in the concerned and unenthusiastic faces of Russian elites at his annexation ceremony.