In December 1979, I was an exchange student at Moscow State University when the Kremlin launched the war in Afghanistan. On our dorm room’s plastic, standard-issue wall radio, which was permanently tuned to Radio Moscow, I heard Soviet announcers employ the same Orwellian language that Vladimir Putin has just used to justify Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
In 1979, the Soviet government claimed that the USSR wasn’t invading Afghanistan but offering “fraternal assistance” in the form of a “limited contingent of troops.” Today, Putin insists that Russia is not engaged in a war with Ukraine but is instead conducting a “special operation” to “demilitarize and denazify” its neighbor.
It is tempting to see such similarities as evidence that contemporary Russia is little more than a scaled-down Soviet Union. Yet despite its reliance on disinformation campaigns that would make the Soviets proud, Putin’s Russia is in many ways a more dangerous adversary than the USSR in the last decades of its existence. First, Russia under Putin is a one-man dictatorship, not a one-party regime. After Stalin’s death, a one-party regime meant that Soviet rulers governed as a part of a collective leadership, where members of the Politburo could constrain the actions of a general secretary of the Communist Party. No such checks are in place today.
Putin enjoys powers over elite careers that no Soviet leader after Stalin could match. Most members of the current ruling group in Russia are individuals who owe their careers — and in many cases their personal fortunes — directly to Putin. These include unlikely rags-to-riches stories, such as that of Viktor Zolotov, Putin’s former bodyguard and judo sparring partner who now heads the Russian National Guard, a vital part of the invasion force in Ukraine.
Personnel from the uniformed services like Zolotov have had a prominent role in Russian government for centuries, but compared to the Soviet era, today’s Russia draws a disproportionate share of its top leaders from the armed forces and secret police, leading some to call Putin’s Russia a militocracy. In such regimes, the use or threat of force becomes the default solution to many of the country’s problems, whether at home or overseas.
Surrounded by yes-men instead of by Politburo members who often had deep institutional connections to key ministries or regions of the USSR, Putin has a freer hand on matters of war and peace than Soviet general secretaries, at least those in place after Stalin. As a result, pressure to divide the ruling elite on the war in Ukraine will likely fail, whether that pressure comes from the outside world or the streets of Russia.
In many respects, the worldview driving Putin and his lieutenants is also more dangerous than Soviet communism, especially the form of communism in place in the USSR’s last decades. Instead of a Marxist belief system that sees a struggle between workers and capitalists at the root of social conflict, Putin’s Russia advances an ideology that is grounded in a belligerent form of nationalism, which encourages Putin to see himself as the protector of all those in what he calls the Russian World.
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Conceived as a means of extending Russia’s influence well beyond its current borders, the Russian World includes not just the citizens of the Russian Federation but all Russian speakers and “compatriots” across the vast land mass of Eurasia. Besides Ukraine, the lands threatened by this concept include much of northern and eastern Kazakhstan and the eastern edge of Estonia, which is a member of NATO.
To the question, then, of whether contemporary Russia is returning to its Soviet roots, the answer is no. Although it is true that the Kremlin seeks to regain control over some territory that was lost when the USSR collapsed, Putin’s Russia is not a latter-day Soviet Union but something that is in many ways more menacing. It is a personalist dictatorship with expansionist ambitions that seems to have forgotten the lessons the Soviet Union and the world learned from Khrushchev’s brinksmanship in Cuba in 1962. It’s worth recalling that the Politburo removed Khrushchev two years after “the Caribbean Crisis,” as the Soviets labeled it.
Who will be able to remove Putin and transform Russia into a responsible actor in world affairs? All those in Ukraine and beyond await the answer to that question.
Eugene Huskey is professor emeritus of political science at Stetson University in DeLand. A native of Central Florida, he received his doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science and taught at Colgate University and Bowdoin College before joining the faculty at Stetson in 1989. From 1999 to his retirement in 2019 he was the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Political Science. Among his books are “Presidential Power in Russia” and “Encounters at the Edge of the Muslim World: A Political Memoir of Kyrgyzstan.”