In the academic year 1995/96, during my visiting professorship at the University of California at Irvine, I had the pleasure of repeatedly meeting and talking with the distinguished professor of political science, Harry Eckstein. A refugee child from Nazi Germany, he later made his career in the United States and became one of the leading political experts on democracy.
After the end of the Soviet Union (December 1991) he had started a research project, titled “Can Democracy take Root in Russia?” The early 1990s, during the Yeltsin presidency, witnessed the dismantling of the Soviet communist power structure and the (rather chaotic) transformation of the economy. In those days, many observers in Western Europe and the United States hoped for a success of Yeltsin’s reform efforts and a transition to democracy.
Professor Eckstein, however, did not agree. His studies in the roots and conditions of stable democracies had shown that, what he called “authority patterns in society” were of primary importance. When analysing the pre-Revolutionary Russian and Soviet society, he concluded that the post-Soviet-Russian society was “not ripe” for democracy. The authoritarian pattern of political leadership was just too dominant to allow for a participatory and fair society. The last 20 years have shown how right he was.
On 1 January 2000, Vladimir Putin succeeded the ailing President Yeltsin. The President had called Putin from St Petersburg, where he had been a close collaborator of Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, to Moscow. In quick succession, Yeltsin appointed Putin as the Director of the FSB (the successor organisation of the Secret Service KGB) and later Prime Minister. During the last years of the Soviet Union, Putin had been a KGB agent in Dresden (Saxony, German Democratic Republic).
Back in Russia, he then quickly started a career as efficient organiser in St Petersburg. By working for the new ‘democratic’ leadership of his home city, Putin managed to survive the ‘collapse’ of his Secret Service. Still, the basic structure of the Secret Service remained in place.
While the Communist Party disintegrated and the Soviet Army fell into disarray, the ‘third pillar’ of Soviet power managed to survive, if only in camouflage. Putin had been, and would continue to be, a Secret Service worker. As President, he consolidated his power by involving his friends and colleagues, predominantly from ex-Leningrad. This is how Soviet power became transformed into the post-Soviet Secret Service power.
During the 70 years of Soviet Communist Party rule, the leadership had always made sure that the two other pillars of Soviet power, the army and the security services, remained under strict control. All army units had ‘Party commissars’, safeguarding strict political control. Then, when Joseph Stalin had obtained absolute power in the early 1930s, one could watch him bringing in and firing (shooting) NKVD leaders, such as Nikolay Yezhov in February 1940.
As long as the Soviet Union existed, the Communist Party leaders would make sure that their control remained absolute. Nine years later, however, on 1 January 2000, post-Soviet Russia became ruled by the Secret Service. In the following months and years, Putin worked at stabilising his rule by destroying other centres of power that had evolved during Yeltsin’s presidency. This primarily concerned the oligarchs – the new bosses of enterprises, particularly in the oil and gas industries. The oligarchs had been the architects of President Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996, and it was one of them, Boris Berezovsky, who had recommended Putin to Yeltsin.
When looking at Berezovsky’s fate, one can recognise what happened. He quickly got into conflict with Putin, had to leave Russia and find refuge in the UK, and finally died in London ‘under suspicious circumstances’. Another leading oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the head of oil-producing Yukos and the richest man in post-Soviet Russia, was sentenced to nine years in prison, released in December 2013, and found refuge in Switzerland. Only those oligarchs who proved loyalty and subservience to the President were allowed to keep some of their wealth – a good example being Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football Club.
Putin’s second major obstacle to absolute power was the independent media and civil society in general. Thus, step by step, TV channels and other media came under the control of the Kremlin. Civil society organisations, often supported by Western foundations, were harassed and finally outlawed. Independant journalists lost their jobs, several of them were killed, again under suspicious circumstances. One of them was the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who had researched the wars in Chechnya and was murdered on 7 October 2006.
A long list of people have fallen victim to assassination attempts and killings during the presidency of Putin. One prominent figure was the ex-KGB and ex-FSB member Aleksandr Litvinenko, poisoned by Russian agents with Polonium in London, November 2006. Other prominent cases were the assassination attempt at Sergey Skripal, poisoned with Novichok in Salisbury, March 2018, and, most recently in August 2020, the poisoning of Aleksey Navalny. Many more names could be listed to underscore the point that the Putin Presidency is not ‘normal’ governance, but a Secret Service organisation in ‘active combat’ mode.
One of the first decisions of Vladimir Putin when officially taking office as President was to reinstate the music of the national anthem introduced by Stalin in 1944, with a new text, now glorifying the Russian Federation. This is the best symbol of what has happened since the year 2000: bringing back ‘Soviet music’ with post-Soviet Russian words – the comeback of Stalinist practices camouflaged by Russian symbols.
Compared with Putin, Soviet leader Stalin had a completely different background and political career. Many books have been written about him, notably Dimitri Volkogonov, “Stalin”, (1989) and Simon Sebac Montefiore, “Stalin”, (2003). In summary, Stalin made his career as a ‘revolutionary gangster’ (robbing banks and killing ‘enemies’) and gained power after Lenin’s death by systematically ‘eliminating’ competitors by show trials and murders during the ‘great terror’ (1936–38). He also had some of his most prominent military leaders executed, such as Marshall Mikhail Tukhachevsky. The most famous killing of a ‘rival’ abroad happened in Mexico: Leon Trotsky, 20 August 1940. Stalin’s murderous regime remains incomparable and historians still debate how many million people have died on his orders.
Still, Putin proved to be a good disciple: ruthless suppression of opponents at home and persecution of ‘enemies’ abroad, including killings in foreign countries – as the United Kingdom and Germany have experienced during recent years.
When looking at the political killings in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, during the 1930s and after the 2000, one can recognise certain similarities, despite all the differences in historical circumstances and the personalities of the leaders. These killings have one single purpose in common: suppressing all potential enemies and serious threats to absolute power of “Stal-Put-in”