20 years under Putin: a timeline

Belarus and Russia are the two hotspots of the post-Soviet space, where Stalinism has claimed full revenge. The Lukashenko and Putin regimes are rooted in neo-Stalinism, which holds millions of people hostage. Amidst mass protests in Belarus and the declining ratings of the Russian authorities, the peoples of these countries now face a crucial historical choice: a free society or a neo-Stalinist dictatorship.


Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov participates in the ceremonial laying of wreaths on Joseph Stalin's grave by the Kremlin's wall to honor the 130th anniversary of the Soviet leader's birth. December, 2009. Photo: Vladimir Fedorenko (RIA Novosti via Wikimedia Commons).


In the late 1980s, great changes swept across Russia and the entire then-Soviet space. Stalinism was unequivocally condemned by the new emerging states that had embarked on the path of democracy and the rule of law. Many then decided that 20th-century history had drawn to an end, leaving Stalin in the past. Russia had defeated Stalinism, overcome dictatorship, and learned its lessons.

Now that optimism seems to have been premature. 

Today, a regime has been created in Russia that professes Stalinism. Under this regime, Lenin is associated only with the mausoleum, while Stalin is part of everyday life. It is generally accepted among political commentators that the Putin regime has not shaped its attitudes to Stalin and does not promote this topic because it finds it dangerous. But this is not the case. The Putin regime has a very clear attitude towards Stalin and Stalinism. It is, firstly, related to the origins of the regime. The FSB—as heir to the KGB and Cheka—simply cannot oppose Stalinism as an idea and practice; Stalin is their patron who defined their fate and history. Secondly, from the regime’s point of view, Stalin is a symbol of the Great Patriotic War; this sacred theme is not allowed to be touched by anyone. In this logic, Stalin emerged victorious from this war, so he cannot be a criminal. But this war, where Stalin is brought to the fore, whitewashed, purified, is a mythologized retelling by the Putin regime. 

This attitude determines the regime’s propagation of the victorious images of the Great Patriotic War and the supreme commander-in-chief—ruthless to the enemy and to his own people, to all those killed and tortured during the war, and to those who survived. If history is written by the winners, in this case it was edited and falsified. In this sense, the Stalinists prevailed: today, Russia has a Stalinist version of the war and a “correct” image of Stalin. The past is formatted and used by the Putin regime to dominate, subjugate, and oppress, Stalinist-style. 

Such an approach does not preclude speculation about certain criminal acts under Stalinism. This being the case, Stalinism is sometimes publicly condemned, monuments, and museums dedicated to the victims of mass repression still exist. But all this remains on the periphery of Russian politics and political education. These issues are not useful to the regime.

The Putin regime today is following the path of a new Stalinization. Its destination is known. The more power neo-Stalinism gains in society, the greater the danger of a new Stalin appearing. This new Stalin could conform to modern times, but would inevitable retain the old tacks—monopolizing power and property, subjugating people, annihilating dissent, threatening mass repression, menacing neighbors, and claiming world hegemony. In 2014–2020, neo-Stalinism in Russia reached maturity.

Neo-Stalinism is a dead-end. A predatory authoritarian regime can rely on it to survive, but the country cannot.

Stalinization of the public mind is one of the fundamental tasks of the Putin regime. The more Stalin is present in the mass consciousness (and in the collective unconscious) of the Russian people, the fewer chances for civil society to develop and democratize.

Stalinization involves Stalinist propaganda, both overt—through the sacralization of victory in WWII, and covert—through the installation of monuments to Stalin, the release of books, films, and television series about him, and the promotion of myths about his leadership in school textbooks. Obviously, all of these are part of the Kremlin’s policy. Otherwise, Stalinization would not have been so effective. Still, publicly, the regime keeps its distance from Stalinism, which says a lot about its nature: everything important is carried out as part of covert special operations. 

Here I must admit with regret that the Stalinist propaganda is falling on fertile ground. The success of neo-Stalinism is the result of efforts not only by the Kremlin, but also by the Russian people themselves, who believed in the myth of Stalin as a hero-victor and the “father of the nation,” a threat to the rich and the defender of “working and oppressed” people. The image of Stalin triggers a deep inner pull in the Russian people, a historical inclination manifested in different social and cultural strata.

By the standards of history, Stalin happened quite recently, and Russia is still poisoned by his presence. Culturally and psychologically, we remain a Stalinist society. And the fact that Stalinism was not exposed as evil, not condemned as an unacceptable social experience, but instead normalized by the Putin propaganda, allowed for mass Stalinization. 

But the last two decades have also shown that neo-Stalinism is a dead-end. A predatory authoritarian regime can rely on it to survive, but the country cannot. The main obstacle is the very idea of Stalin, which accumulates all the dregs stewing in the depths of Russia’s society: anti-democracy and anti-Westernism, the perception that the country is “encircled by enemies.” All these notions are brought to the surface and cast in the most ugly forms. It is these forms and their content that ultimately demoralize and ruin societies.

As a society, Russia is still infected by Stalinism. Our historical task is to find an antidote. De-Stalinization (like denazification) is a path to recovery, and this is the most obvious way out for today’s Russia—an opportunity to become a modern country.

The mass demonstrations in Belarus in the summer of 2020, like the protests in Moscow in 2019, largely reflected the public struggle not only with dictators and dictatorships, but with the historical foundations of these regimes. These events help identify a way for our two nations to self-purify and overcome Stalinism as a historical trauma. 

Both the Russian and Belarusian peoples have, in many respects, accepted and appeased dictatorships, but now the time has come to make the final choice. Neo-Stalinism or de-Stalinization? Free society or mass submission? There is no middle ground. All who are trying to find it are voluntary or involuntary supporters of the Putin and Lukashenko regimes.


* Leonid Nevzlin is a well-known entrepreneur, philanthropist, and IMR trustee.

An earlier version of this article (in Russian) was published on the Radio Liberty website.