Putin Re-ups the Regime: How We Got Here


Russian President Vladimir Putin was sworn in for a fifth term this week to the applause of the sycophantic elites of his oligarchy crammed into a gilded ballroom of the Grand Kremlin Palace.

As the adoring fans of autocracy celebrated his new six-year phase of Leader for Life, tens of thousands of Russia’s newly indoctrinated militants were hunkered down in foxholes in Ukraine, dodging drones and artillery fire in the third year of an unprovoked war.

Putin celebrated Thursday’s 79th anniversary of Allied forces’ defeat of Nazi Germany with a warning to those former allies of another world war looming. He blamed that threat on “arrogant” Western democracies that have come to Ukraine’s defense and hindered his quest to conquer territory for a new Russian empire.

“We will not allow anyone to threaten us,” he declared in the Red Square parade of depleted armor and survivors of his war aimed at forcing Ukraine back under the Kremlin domination. He brandished the threat of Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal with the warning that “our strategic forces are always in a state of combat readiness.”

Putin’s bellicose rhetoric lands on sympathetic ears in Moscow, far from the Ukraine battlefields and the remote Russian areas where its fighters are recruited. But his resurrection of Stalinist-era repression is likely to eventually backfire as the reality of the Ukraine war’s toll on a generation of men becomes apparent in every town and village whose fighters don’t come home. British military intelligence estimates 300,000 Russians already killed or permanently disabled, heartfelt losses that propaganda about patriotic sacrifice may not be enough to keep Russians supportive of a widening and endless war against the West.

Hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled abroad to evade mobilization, inflicting a brain drain and decimating the generation of young males Putin needs to reverse Russia’s shrinking population. He has called on women to do their patriotic duty and give birth to at least eight children.

The Kremlin leader is under International Criminal Court indictment for war crimes after he and his commissioner for children’s rights orchestrated the illegal relocation to Russia of thousands of Ukrainian children from orphanages and residential schools. Further charges of Geneva Conventions violations may be forthcoming for the Moscow government issuing Russian passports to an estimated three million people living in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory.

By any sober measure, how Putin has transformed the aspiring democracy he inherited 25 years ago is a study in squandered opportunity and brazen disregard for the people he rules. Russians who previously enjoyed the freedom to travel and emigrate are now fenced in by sanctions imposed in Western efforts to deter Putin’s war against his sovereign neighbor. The good jobs created in the first post-Soviet years under President Boris Yeltsin have shriveled with the exodus of Western investors in joint ventures with Russian entities.

Putin’s reliance on furloughed prisoners to fight in Ukraine has unleashed a new danger to towns and cities across Russia. Those who survive six months of fighting return home as free men in compensation for their service. Reports of the liberated murderers, rapists and thieves committing new crimes leak out by word of mouth despite state-controlled media making no mention of violent offenders on the loose.

His closing down of independent media, which began with his first year in office, has created an echo chamber of Kremlin pro-war propaganda. His motivating grievance accuses Western alliances, including the European Union and U.S.-led NATO, of humiliating Russia by extending membership to states and territories seized or dominated by the Kremlin during the Soviet era or its czarist predecessors centuries ago.

Assassinations and jailing of political opponents that shocked the civilized world no longer have much galvanizing impact among Russians who have been indoctrinated to believe Putin’s designated enemies are theirs as well. When former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov was killed in a drive-by shooting in the shadow of the Kremlin in February 2015, floral tributes buried the sidewalk along the bridge across the Moscow River where he was felled by the assassin’s bullets. Staged prosecutions never tied the killing to Putin. The Kremlin has likewise denied any role in the death of Russia’s leading opposition activist Alexei Navalny on Feb. 16 this year in a remote Arctic Circle prison colony. The charismatic 47-year-old died serving a 19-year sentence on trumped up charges of violating his parole by leaving Russia for treatment in Germany after being poisoned by Russian security forces agents in Siberia in 2020.

As the Washington Post impressively reports in its recent series “Russia, Remastered,” Putin has transformed Russia into “a regressive, militarized society that views the West as its mortal enemy.”

With control of news and social media indoctrinating Russians into his dystopian world view, elimination of political opponents and criminalizing criticism of the war in Ukraine, he has succeeded in convincing much of the Russian citizenry that Ukraine and its Western allies threaten Russia with infection of decadence and fascism.

The Post documents in the series launched on May 6 “the historic scale of the changes Putin is carrying out and has accelerated with breathtaking speed during two years of brutal war… It is a crusade that gives Putin common cause with China’s Xi Jinping as well as some supporters of former president Donald Trump. And it raises the prospect of an enduring civilizational conflict to subvert Western democracy and—Putin has warned—even threatens a new world war.” 

Putin reiterated that ideology in his address to the applauding thousands during his inauguration Tuesday. It is a revenge-driven strategy to counter the diminishment of his country from the superpower status it held during the Cold War. The population of the Soviet Union was 290 million when the federation broke up its 15 republics into independent countries in 1991, sending the dominant Russian landmass into a demographic tailspin that has cut its citizenry in half to today’s 144 million. Part of 71-year-old Putin’s strategy for making Russia great again has been to build up the population and indoctrinate its youngest citizens into score-settling retribution for perceived injustices dealt post-Soviet Russia.

Carnegie Endowment analyst Andrei Kolesnikov labeled the indoctrination ideology “Scientific Putinism,” a spin on the Soviet-era sociology known as Scientific Communism that merged the ideas of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin of an empowered working class succeeding the monarchies of pre-revolutionary Eurasia.

“Putin’s militant, anti-liberal, anti-Western, isolationist, paternalistic, and harshly authoritarian regime has always had an ideology,” Kolesnikov wrote in November 2022, arguing that the war in Ukraine launched nine months earlier required a more articulated goal to justify the invasion in the minds of young Russians who would be called up to fight it.

“Such a curriculum justifies the cult of the eternal leader,” the commentary noted in laying out Putin’s suspected plan for staying in power for the rest of his life. “It is also in line with the religious discourse according to which Russia is fighting the forces of evil and Satan, as illustrated by statements about the ‘special military operation’ as a ‘war of the army of Archangel Michael against the devil’ and the need to ‘de-Satanize’ Ukraine.”

Codifying Putinism led to a presidential decree listing “traditional spiritual and moral values,” as well as a new ideological curriculum for colleges, Kolesnikov wrote. “It is no longer enough to indoctrinate children in kindergartens and schools. It is now time to unify the world views of college students (and, by extension, those of their professors, whose ranks will inevitably be purged). This type of course was taught during the Soviet era and was known as “Scientific Communism.” 

“In a radical reshaping of Russia’s education system, curriculums are being redrawn to stress patriotism and textbooks rewritten to belittle Ukraine, glorify Russia and whitewash the totalitarian Soviet past,” the Post writes in its second installment on Putin’s remastered Russia, describing the changes to schooling as the most sweeping since those under Communist dictator Josef Stalin in the 1930s. 

Even during the Soviet era, universities and research institutions produced skilled engineers and developers charged with lifting the country’s social and economic development, as well as the sophisticated weaponry that accorded the USSR with superpower status.

Today, Russians are paralyzed by a nationalist mindset that demands they conform to Putin’s vision of a rising global alliance of autocracies to confront a decadent Western cabal. He casts his enemies—Americans, Europeans, Australians and other free societies—as an existential threat to Russians for defending a Ukraine portrayed as governed by neo-Nazis.

Putin has resurrected the image of Stalin as a wartime leader, rewriting the history of a leader remembered by previous generations as a ruthless dictator who killed millions of his own people through famine caused by collectivized agriculture and his initial alliance with Nazi Germany in World War II.

The Russian public today is unrecognizable from the ambitious young visionaries inspired by the reforms and liberations of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who saw looming economic collapse and endeavored to prevent it. Gorbachev failed, largely due to opposition from uncompromising Communist Party hardliners who opposed risking their power in free and competitive elections.

The August 1991 coup d’état against Gorbachev lasted only three days but spotlighted the reality that the Soviet Union had already collapsed with the independence declarations of the Baltic states and Ukraine. The Soviet Union ceased to exist with the lowering of the hammer and sickle flag on Dec. 25, 1991, and its replacement with Russia’s tricolor over the Kremlin.

Independent Russia in the early 1990s under its first president, Yeltsin, continued to invoke market reforms. The new philosophies and opportunities were soon discredited, though, when much of the population was plunged into poverty by the economic shocks of a state no longer guaranteeing full employment and the failure of millions to swiftly adapt.

The Yeltsin administration became captive to the oligarchs who grew wealthy from the investment boom when Russian resource enterprises opened to foreign partnerships. Those new kingpins profiting from sales of oil, gas, gold, diamonds and other valuable elements steered a mentally deteriorating Yeltsin to resign on New Year’s Eve 2000, when the little-known KGB agent Vladimir Putin was appointed interim Kremlin leader and won election three months later.

Putin launched his campaign to turn back the clock to Soviet life early in his tenure, shutting down independent television NTV and rolling repressing political opposition. He first sent Russian troops into an ex-Soviet republic with the 2008 invasion of Georgia and seizure of two provinces still under Russian occupation. That Caucasus country is awash in anti-Russian unrest as Putin acolytes roil Georgian politics, lately over a Kremlin-like bill labeling critics as “foreign agents.”

The Ukraine invasion began a decade ago when Putin sent paratroopers into Ukraine’s Crimea province and mercenaries into eastern Ukraine to seize territory in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, then hunkering down in a slow-boil campaign of driving out or destroying the homes and businesses of the Ukrainian population. The 2014 Russian aggressions were triggered by Ukrainians’ ouster of their Kremlin-allied President Viktor Yanukovych by the three-month Maidan rebellion. The uprising was sparked by Yanukovych’s scuttling of a Ukraine agreement with the European Union to begin the yearslong process of joining the Brussels-based alliance.

Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, 2022, with the war planners grossly underestimating the resistance of the Ukrainian people. By early spring the war bogged down into two years of territorial gains and losses.

In a symbolic end to the post-Soviet hopes for a peaceful and collaborative Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev died in relative obscurity at the age of 91 on Aug. 30, 2022. Putin denied the last Soviet leader a state funeral. He was buried in Moscow, along with his vision of a democratic Russia.

Carol J Williams
Carol J Williams
Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.


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