As world leaders get ready to convene in St. Petersburg for the annual G-20 meeting, they ought to be wary of an increasingly fashionable political phenomenon. Ever since Vladimir Putin was sworn in for a third term as President of Russia, numerous academics, journalists and politicians have been pressuring the U.S. government to view modern day Russia as the second incarnation of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. It’s a dangerous trend that should be resisted.
In response to the Pussy Riot trial, the Washington Post editorial page wasted no time likening the feminist punk band to victims of Stalinist repression. Then, at an event held in Washington in early June, the Russian activist Boris Nemtsov condemned Putin “as a modern combination of Stalin and Abramovich” and suggested that Stalin, whom he deemed a “murderer but...not corrupt,” might have been the preferable one, at least morally, of the two. Most recently, writing in the US News & World Report, Stephen Blank has proclaimed that: “In his quest for a pure autocracy, Russian president Vladimir Putin and his government have improved upon Joseph Stalin's epic achievements.” Even Putin’s call for an increased emphasis on physical education in Russian schools was interpreted by some in the media as further evidence of his affinity for Uncle Joe. Putin’s government record on corruption and civil liberties is unimpressive at best, yet, that does not logically lead to the conclusion that modern-day Russia is the Soviet Union redux. This interpretation is not only wrong, but it also interferes with the United States’ ability to pursue its national interests in dealing with Russia. When you demonize somebody, working together with them on issues of common interest becomes far more difficult.
Let us first establish the obvious. The number of people murdered by Stalin’s regime is in the millions, with some estimates as high as sixty million dead. Not only is there no evidence that Putin has done anything similar, but no one has accused him of doing so. Under Stalin, all forms of political opposition were forbidden. Dissenters were often executed or sent to gulags in Siberia. Under Putin, numerous opposition parties and publications exist, albeit their opportunities to influence policy are limited. Furthermore, Stalin pursued an expansionist foreign policy, as evidenced by his 1939 invasions of Poland and Finland as well as the occupation of Eastern Europe after WWII. By contrast, since 1990, Russia has been involved in only one armed conflict with another sovereign nation. Even then, an independent commission organized by the European Union concluded that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s invasion of South Ossetia was the ultimate catalyst for the 2008 Russia-Georgia War.
In July, I had the privilege to accompany a delegation organized by the Center for the National Interest to Moscow. I took the opportunity to visit several bookstores. What stood out the most was that in every bookstore I visited, there was a section dedicated to antigovernment literature. Clearly the owners of these establishments did not worry about facing repercussions for facilitating criticism of the Putin administration. This notable lack of fear was also evident in my discussions with self-proclaimed members of the Russian opposition. These people, who I know well and trust, freely expressed their disenchantment with the current state of Russian affairs. It is a far cry from Stalin’s time, when one would not dare tell a mere political joke for fear of being shot or shipped off to a labor camp in Siberia.
Indeed, earlier this year, on the government-owned Rossiya 1 channel, Vladimir Solovyov hosted a debate between Alexei Pushkov, head of the foreign-affairs committee of the Russian Duma, and Dmitry Gudkov, a prominent figure in the Russian opposition, on his popular talk show. In his opening speech, Gudkov denounced the ruling United Russia party by proclaiming: “They are not patriots, but hypocrites who also have the temerity to lecture us on how to love our country.” He went on to condemn Putin’s allies as “usurpers” and “falsifiers.” Dmitry Gudkov is not the first government critic to have taken part in Solovyov’s talk show. Previous guests from the outspoken opposition include Ilya Ponomarev, Alexei Venediktov, Sergei Udaltsov, Dmitry Bykov and Nikolay Alexeyev, Russia’s leading gay activist. It is important to note that the openness seen on Solovyov’s program is not the norm for Russian State television. By no means is Russian state television a paragon of independent thought. However, the existence of television shows like Solovyov’s demonstrates that in Russia there are venues for open debate and dissenting points of view. That is far more that can be said about some U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, let alone the totalitarian nightmare that was Stalinist Russia.
Another aspect of Putinist Russia that frequently invites comparisons to the USSR under Stalinism is the judicial system. While it is obvious that Russia's legal system is by no means ideal, with most defendants losing their cases, there is nevertheless a striking difference between that of the Stalinist system. During the Moscow show trials, the defendants were subjected to torture and blackmail until they would agree to give false confessions. Denying the prosecution's charges was unheard of. Many of the defendants, such as Lev Kamenev and Nikolai Bukharin, were executed. By comparison, many contemporary opposition figures not only deny the prosecution's charges, but the defense lawyers often give spirited defenses of their clients.
My grandmother, Dina Kaminskaya, was a leading human-rights lawyer during the Brezhnev era. She represented numerous prominent dissidents, such as Vladimir Bukovsky and Pavel Litvinov. For having the courage to defend the enemies of the Soviet government, she was not only expelled from the Moscow Bar, but ultimately was forced to emigrate from the Soviet Union or face arrest. In modern-day Russia, this sort of Brezhnev-era repression is virtually unknown, especially in comparison to the Stalinist era, which makes Brezhnev’s reign seem liberal by contrast.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not the Stalinist Soviet Union. Nor is it a bastion of Jeffersonian democracy. While it is undeniable that Russia has tremendous room for improvement when it comes to civil liberties, that is not a reason to promote a caricatured picture of it. If the United States wants to have an informed and effective foreign policy, then it ought to view Russia with open eyes and not be swayed by inaccurate portraits. To argue that Putin is the moral equivalent of Stalin is not only misleading, but it trivializes the victims of Stalin’s tyranny.
Dimitri A. Simes is an editorial assistant at the National Interest.