In reality, the misdeeds of Putin’s regime pale in comparison to the scale of Stalin’s crimes. But increasingly, the Russian president is actively rehabilitating the Soviet dictator’s record, working to paint him as a strong leader who saved the world from fascism. The goal is to bolster Putin’s own “strongman” leadership style in the eyes of ordinary Russians.
As of this year, Putin has ruled Russia for longer than any leader since Stalin. Both ascended at similarly young ages: Putin first became president in 2000 at age 47, while Stalin succeeded Lenin in 1924 at age 45 and ruled until his death in 1953.
Both men promised to bring stability after a period of war and social chaos. They both promoted the same historical narrative: Russia requires a “strong hand” to prevent internal disorder and protect against external aggression. This narrative enabled both men to forge political systems that allowed for no challenge to their personal authority. Both leaders saw the outside world as a hostile and threatening place — while much of the outside world in turn saw Russia as a source of instability and a threat to its neighbors.
The core principle underlying both men’s ruling philosophy was patriotism, meaning protecting the long-term security of the Russian/Soviet state above all else. That meant valuing collective duties above individual rights. It also meant using military force to expand the reach of the Russian state: Stalin in 1939 and 1945; Putin in 1999 (Chechnya), 2008 (Georgia) and 2014 (Ukraine).
This willingness to use force stemmed from a sense of threat. This sense, however, highlights one of several crucial differences between the two leaders.
Stalin’s Soviet Union faced far more severe existential threats than Putin’s Russia. And Stalin’s anxiety about his grip on power tipped over into outright paranoia: Collectivization and purges left 6 million to 8 million people dead and up to 20 million in the Gulag.
Putin, by contrast, is more pragmatic and consistent: He uses violence ruthlessly, but also selectively and cautiously. The main stain on his record is the second Chechen war, which he launched in September 1999 and resulted in an estimated 25,000 civilian deaths. That war ended in a compromise deal that left one of the Chechen clans in charge of running the province as proxies for Putin.
And while Stalin had an ambitious agenda to defeat capitalism on a global scale, Putin and his ruling clique are doing their best to join the world’s capitalist elite.
Yet writing Putin off as an opportunist lacking in ideology would be a mistake. Putin’s extraordinary popularity among the Russian public shows that he is tapping into something deeper in the national psyche. The annexation of Crimea in March 2014 boosted Putin’s approval rating by 20 percent in one month. In seizing the territory from Ukraine, Putin invoked Russia’s past sacrifices to secure the peninsula, which was the scene of bitter fighting during World War II, and appealed to Russians who identify with their country as a great world power.
Putinism has also attracted international attention, as authoritarian leaders from Venezuela to Hungary see it as an alternative to Western liberalism.
Protecting the popularity of his authoritarian brand is what drives Putin to work to safeguard Stalin's reputation. Putin seems to perceive attacks on Stalin as threats to his own legitimacy.
As a result, in 2014, his government shut down the last independent TV station, “Rain,” after it asked viewers whether they thought Stalin should have surrendered Leningrad rather than subjecting it to the 872-day Nazi siege, during which more than 1 million inhabitants — including Putin’s elder brother — died.
A new law subsequently made it a crime to “spread false information about the activity of the Soviet Union during World War II.”
The 70th anniversary of the end of the war in 2015 saw more lavish praise for Stalin, with Putin even approving of the decision to sign a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1939. Critics complained that Putin was “making Stalin great again.”
Putin’s most direct discussion of Stalin came in a 2017 interview with filmmaker Oliver Stone. Putin compared Stalin to Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon Bonaparte, saying that “Stalin was a product of his time,” which can be understood as excusing his flaws. Putin complained that “excessively demonizing Stalin is a means to attack Soviet Union and Russia” — though he did go on to say “that does not mean that we should forget the horrors of Stalinism.”
This answer illuminates how Putin aims to position himself: as Stalin-lite, with all of the virtues and none of the vices. The patriotism and strong leadership without the paranoia.
This is not only ahistorical but also dangerous. It inures people around the world to the horrors of tyranny and leads to a perverted sense that authoritarianism is to be admired. It also whitewashes the crimes of a brutal dictator, leaving younger Russians with no conceptions of the threat posed by such leadership: A VTSIOM poll in 2018 found that 47 percent of 18- to 24-year-old Russians had never heard of Stalin’s acts of repression.
Survey evidence also shows how potent this campaign has been: A March 2019 poll found support for Stalin had spiked: 70 percent saw his historical role as positive and only 19 percent negative, up from 53 percent vs. 33 percent in 2001. Forty-six percent thought the results of Stalin’s rule justified the human cost, up from 25 percent in 2008. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given these other results, 38 percent of respondents to a 2017 Levada poll saw Stalin as the most outstanding figure in Russian history, up from 12 percent in 1989, while Putin came in second, tied with poet Alexander Pushkin at 34 percent.
But there is an antidote to this push: trying to educate the public about the ills of Stalinism. In April, YouTuber Yury Dud released a powerful two-hour documentary on the Gulag that has been viewed over 14 million times. This shows that not all of Russian society swallows Putin’s interpretation of Russia’s historical trajectory.
And the fact that such critical materials can circulate on the Internet (at least for now) shows that Putin’s Russia is far removed from Stalin’s Soviet Union. Further efforts will help keep it that way.