The supreme Russian leader tightens his grip as paranoia reigns. He plays his potential heirs off against one another, refusing to appoint a successor, amassing ever more power and refusing to relinquish it, never acknowledging mortality or even age. No one really knows what the potentate in the Kremlin really wants, or plans, or believes, and that is just the way he wants it. This is Vladimir Putin, certainly. But also Joseph Stalin.
To understand Putin’s latest powerplay, go back to the predecessor whose image he has rehabilitated and whose techniques he has partly aped throughout his reign.
Last year Putin informed Russia that the official retirement age (in force since Stalin’s time) would rise from 60 for men and 55 for women to 65 for men and 63 for women. This week the Russian president, 67, made it abundantly clear that he has no plans to retire now, soon, or ever, having pushed through a series of constitutional changes that will enable him to rule indefinitely.
The Russian president has made it abundantly clear that he has no plans to retire now, soon, or ever.
Stalin also refused to contemplate stepping down. Indeed when his physician, Vladimir Vinogradov, rashly suggested in January 1952, at the age of 73, that comrade Joseph Vissarionovich might slow down and start thinking about retirement, the doctor was immediately arrested and accused of working for British intelligence.
Stalin reigned supreme in Russia for 29 years. Putin has been in office for 20 and shows every sign of planning to eclipse Stalin’s record, using at least some of the same methods. Putin’s presidential term officially ends in 2024 but he has a variety of other labels to choose from, including prime minister, chairman of parliament, or head of the reinforced State Council which advises the Kremlin. All of which add up to precisely the same thing: a vice-like hold on power. Stalin’s authority was also so unchallenged that titles ceased to mean anything. For much of his reign he was neither president nor prime minister but a private citizen, general secretary of the Communist Party.
A Swaggering, Bare-Chested Symbol
Putin has shunted his underlings around, fomenting rivalries and ensuring that none can challenge him. He has elevated a successful but little-known tax inspector to the post of prime minister, because he can. He has brought in reforms that would limit the power of any successor, including the loophole that enabled him to serve more than two successive presidential terms. Through it all he has burnished a cult of personality, as the swaggering, bare-chested symbol of a resurgent Russia.
These are all techniques straight out of the Stalin playbook. In 1946, amid rumours of the leader’s failing health, the American diplomat George Kennan sent his “Long Telegram” from Moscow to the State Department, warning that the Soviet Union had not yet “demonstrated that it can survive [the] supreme test of successive transfer of power from one individual or group to another. Lenin’s death was [the] first such transfer, and its effects wracked [the] Soviet state for 15 years.” Kennan predicted that if Stalin lost control or died a second power transfer could lead to chaos.
Stalin’s last years were marked by rising antisemitism and his mounting fear of assassination. In 1952 several Kremlin doctors, most of them Jewish, were arrested and accused of plotting to murder senior politicians. Stalin had them tortured into making confessions.
Increasingly isolated at his dacha in Kuntsevo, he summoned his inner circle to watch films, dine, drink and tell bawdy jokes. Real and imaginary enemies were removed. He anointed no heir and made no succession plans. Like Putin, he was unaccountable. An open challenge to his authority was an invitation to summary execution. “Not even a wet spot would have remained,” said Nikita Khrushchev, his eventual successor.
Increasingly isolated at his dacha in Kuntsevo, Stalin summoned his inner circle to watch films, dine, drink and tell bawdy jokes.
Stalin was preparing yet another purge when he died from a stroke in March 1953. The leading Politburo members were terrified, as rumours began to spread that he had been murdered. Their hesitation, dithering and jockeying for power is hilariously portrayed in the Armando Iannucci film The Death of Stalin.
Putin may be haunted by what happened next. The gang that had kept “the Greatest Genius of All Times and Nations” in power for so long, including Vyacheslav Molotov, Georgy Malenkov and Khrushchev, set about dismantling his legacy almost immediately, launching wide-reaching reforms, calling off the antisemitic campaign and freeing the imprisoned doctors. A million inmates were released from the Gulag. In 1956, in his “Secret Speech” at the 20th party congress, Khrushchev denounced Stalin, the “cult of personality” and the “brutal violence” of his rule.
The Moment He Is No Longer There
Putin’s latest assertion of personal power cannot disguise the probability that his underlings may already be sharpening their rhetoric, gathering evidence and manoeuvring in anticipation of the moment when he is no longer there.
But there is one more historical precedent that Putin must be well aware of. Stalin’s successor was unceremoniously ousted by his colleagues. In 1964, after more than a decade in power, Khrushchev was summoned from his holiday home, stripped of his powers and sacked. The last years of his retirement were spent under house arrest. The death of a man who had been the undisputed ruler of a vast empire merited a single sentence in Pravda.
Putin apparently intends to hold office for life and leave power at the end of it in the same way as Stalin, a giant of history, with his cronies quaking in his wake. But, as a keen student of Russian history, he also knows there are very different ways to exit the Kremlin, involving violence, conspiracy and humiliation. Avoiding that epitaph is the central purpose of Putin’s regime.