Stephen Sestanovich is a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
If you want to know what might keep Vladimir Putin from a good night’s sleep after his expected landslide reelection as president of Russia on Sunday, there’s no better place to start than Armando Iannucci’s satirical film, “The Death of Stalin,” which has just opened in Washington. It was banned in Russia for what the minister of culture called “insulting mockery of the Soviet past.” But don’t be misled. If you were president of Russia you’d want this movie banned not for its ideas about Joseph Stalin but for the ideas it may give people about you. It’s an inventory of Putin’s nightmares as he embarks on a new term.
Imagine Putin’s staff nervously summarizing “The Death of Stalin” for him. The movie’s chief villain is the head of the secret police, who seeks to become the new dictator through a combination of semi-liberal rhetoric and brutal repression. (Does this sound familiar?) It seems to be working for a while, but before long others unite against him. After a mock trial for his many offenses, he’s executed on the spot.
There are, of course, vast differences between the real-life Lavrenti Beria, who failed in his bid to succeed Stalin, and Vladimir Putin. But no Russian leader who is a former head of the security services (and wears his past proudly), who is said to have been horrified by the Panama Papers’ revelations of his ill-gotten wealth and who has reportedly watched videos of the killing of Moammar Gaddafi over and over is going to think a story like this should be coming to a theater near you.
Its villain’s fate is just one part of the movie’s contemporary resonance. Putin won’t like the way “The Death of Stalin” shows the coercive instruments of the state at war with each other. Russian officials have complained that Iannucci treats Marshal Georgy Zhukov — the great World War II hero — as a buffoon. But what surely makes them even more uneasy is the role — accurately described by Iannucci — that Zhukov played in the Stalin succession. The marshal aligned the army against the secret police and facilitated Beria’s arrest. Without him, the thugs, spies and killers might have stayed on top.
Putinism has always been described as the rule of the siloviki, sometimes translated as the “power ministries” or “the guys with guns.” Yet the term misses the divisions among these institutions — the military, the spies, the police, the state security service and more. They’re not yet plotting to arrest each other, but there are unmistakable and increasing tensions among them that Putin has to deal with. Some scholars believe that “Fancy Bear” and “Cozy Bear” — the famous hacking arms of different Russian intelligence agencies, both of which penetrated the Democratic National Committee’s computers two years ago — were not working together, but recklessly competing. In Syria, the Russian high command has recently found itself surprised by the activities of mercenaries, including one unit armed and directed by a Putin insider (the same person — known as “Putin’s chef” — who was indicted last month by the Justice Department for bankrolling Russian Internet trolls).
As for the police, there is no part of the Russian state more unpopular, more corrupt or more predatory. Even Putin has begun to speak up about the problem. But he has to act with extreme care, lest the institutions that have made his rule possible descend into conflict.
There is a final brooding presence in “The Death of Stalin” that should worry even a Russian president who’s just been handily reelected — the people. Iannucci’s portrait of a mass outpouring of grief refutes the claim that he dishonors popular memory — the ordinary Russians he shows us are far more loyal to Stalin than their new leaders are. But they are also far less predictable. The tensest moment in the movie is a confrontation between the police and a mob of mourners too big to be ordered around. The result is mass bloodshed.
For all the quiescence of Russian politics, for all of Putin’s real popularity, this same question — how to manage political conflict, how to prevent abuses of power, how to fend off public anger — remains unsolved. It will be Putin’s biggest challenge in the term ahead. He knows that, no matter how many votes he ends up with, vast numbers of Russians are dissatisfied with their lot. Nine of 10 consider corruption a big problem; just as many feel they are unable to do anything about it; and a shrinking number believe he will address it seriously. For a leader thought to have profited from foreign adventures, Putin’s support for specific policies has also started to look shaky. Polls show an astonishing 49 percent of Russians want out of Syria.
Once he notches a resounding electoral victory Sunday (maybe his last), Putin will have to reckon with the symptoms of aging-dictator syndrome. Everyone will acknowledge his power, but more and more people will feel they have to look out for themselves; fewer and fewer will expect him to do anything for them or even to listen to their advice. He may hold onto power for many years, but his real remaining task will be how to let it go.