With a Soviet-style election, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has come full circle.

By Adrian Karatnycky

March 24, 2024

Foreign Policy


In 1968, the American scholar Jerome M. Gilison described Soviet elections as a “psychological curiosity”—a ritualized, performative affirmation of the regime rather than a real vote in any sense of the word. These staged elections with their nearly unanimous official results, Gilison wrote, served to isolate non-conformists and weld the people to their regime.

Last Sunday, Russia completed the circle and returned to Soviet practice. State election officials reported that 87 percent of Russians had cast their vote for Vladimir Putin in national elections, giving the Russian president a fifth term in office. Not only were many of the reported election numbers mathematically impossible, but there was also no longer much of a choice: All prominent opposition figures had been either murdered, imprisoned, or exiled. Like in Soviet times, the election also welded Russians to their regime by serving as a referendum on Putin’s war against Ukraine. All in all, last weekend’s Soviet-style election sealed Putin’s transformation of post-Communist Russia into a repressive society with many of the features of Soviet totalitarianism.

Russia’s return to Soviet practice goes far beyond elections. A recent study by exiled Russian journalists from Proekt Media used data to determine that Russia is more politically repressive today than the Soviet Union under all leaders since Joseph Stalin. During the last six years, the study reports, the Putin regime has indicted 5,613 Russians on explicitly political charges—including “discrediting the army,” “disseminating misinformation,” “justification of terrorism,” and other purported crimes, which have been widely used to punish criticism of Russia’s war on Ukraine and justification of Ukraine’s defense of its territory. This number is significantly greater than in any other six-year period of Soviet rule after 1956—all the more glaring given that Russia’s population is only half that of the Soviet Union before its collapse.

In addition to repressive criminal charges and sentences, over the last six years more than 105,000 people have been tried on administrative charges, which carry heavy fines and compulsory labor for up to 30 days without appeal. Many of these individuals were punished for taking part in unsanctioned marches or political activity, including anti-war protests. Others were charged with violations of COVID pandemic regulations. Such administrative punishments are administered and implemented rapidly, without time for an appeal.

On March 4, 2022, a little over a week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Russia’s puppet parliament rapidly adopted amendments to the Russian Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure Code that established criminal and administrative punishments for the vague transgressions of “discrediting” the Russian military or disseminating “false information” about it. This widely expanded the repressive powers of the state to criminally prosecute political

beliefs and activity. Prosecutions have surged since the new laws were passed, likely leading to a dramatic increase in the number of political prisoners in the coming years. In particular, punishments for “discrediting the army” or “justification of terrorism”—which includes voicing support for Ukraine’s right to defend itself—have resulted in hundreds of sentences meted out each year since the war began. The most recent such case: On Feb. 27, the 70-year-old co-chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights group Memorial, Oleg Orlov, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for “discrediting” the Russian military.

As the Proekt report ominously concludes, “[I]n terms of repression, Putin has long ago surpassed almost all Soviet general secretaries, except for one—Joseph Stalin.” While this conclusion is in itself significant, it is only the tip of the iceberg of the totalitarian state Putin has gradually and systematically rebuilt.

As in the Soviet years, there is no independent media in Russia today. The last of these news organizations were banned or fled the country after Putin’s all-out war on Ukraine, including Proekt, Meduza, Ekho Moskvy, Nobel Prize-winning Novaya Gazeta, and TV Dozhd. In their place, strictly regime-aligned newspapers, social media, and television and radio stations emit a steady drumbeat of militaristic propaganda, promote Russian imperialist grandeur, and celebrate Putin as the country’s infallible commander in chief. In another reprise of totalitarian practice, lists of banned books have been dramatically expanded and thousands of titles have been removed from the shelves of Russian libraries and bookstores. Bans have been extended to numerous Wikipedia pages, social media channels, and websites.

Human rights activists and independent civic leaders have been jailed, physically attacked, intimidated into silence, or driven into exile. Civic organizations that show independence from the state are banned as “undesirable” and subjected to fines and prosecution if they continue to operate. The most recent such organizations include the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, Memorial, the legendary Moscow Helsinki Group, and the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. In their place, the state finances a vast array of pro-regime and pro-war groups, with significant state resources supporting youth groups that promote the cult of Putin and educate children in martial values to prepare them for military service. Then there are the numerous murders of opposition leaders, journalists, and activists at home and abroad. Through these various means, almost all critical Russian voices have been silenced.

Private and family life is also increasingly coming under the scope of government regulation and persecution. The web of repression particularly affects the LGBT community, putting large numbers of Russians in direct peril. A court ruling in 2023 declared the “international LGBT movement” extremist and banned the rainbow flag as a forbidden symbol, which was quickly followed by raids and arrests. Homosexuality has been reclassified as an illness, and Russian gay rights organizations have shut down their operations for fear of prosecution. Legislation aimed at reinforcing “traditional values”—including the right of husbands to discipline their wives—has led to the reduction in sentences and the decriminalization of some forms of domestic violence.

Russia’s sham elections next month—with voting on occupied Ukrainian territory—should not be recognized.

Many of the techniques of totalitarian control now operating throughout Russia were first incubated in territories where the Kremlin spread war and conflict. Chechnya was the first testing ground for widespread repression, including massive numbers of victims subjected to imprisonment, execution, disappearance, torture, and rape. Coupled with the merciless targeting of civilians in Russia’s two wars in Chechnya, these practices normalized wanton criminal behavior within Russian state security structures. Out of this crucible of fear and intimidation, Putin has shaped a culture and means of governing that were further elaborated in other places Russia invaded and eventually came to Russia itself.

In Russian-occupied Crimea and eastern Ukraine since 2014, there has been a widespread campaign of surveillance, summary executions, arrests, torture, and intimidation—all entirely consistent with Soviet practice toward conquered populations. More recently, this includes the old practice of forced political recantations: A Telegram channel ominously called Crimean SMERSH (a portmanteau of the Russian words for “death to spies,” coined by Stalin himself) has posted dozens of videos of frightened Ukrainians recanting their Ukrainian identity or the display of Ukrainian symbols. Made in conjunction with police operations, these videos appear to be coordinated with state security services.

In the parts of Ukraine newly occupied since 2022, human rights groups have widely documented human rights abuses and potential war crimes. These include the abduction of children, imprisonment of Ukrainians in a system of filtration camps that recall the Soviet gulags, and the systematic use of rape and torture to break the will of Ukrainians. Castrations of Ukrainian men have also been employed.

As Russia’s violence in Ukraine has expanded, so, too, has the acceptance of these abominations throughout the state and in much of society. As during the Stalin era, the cult of cruelty and the culture of fear are now the legal and moral standards. The climate of fear initially employed to assert order in occupied regions is now being applied to Russia itself. In this context, the murder of Alexei Navalny ahead of the presidential election was an important message from Putin to the Russian people: There is no longer any alternative to the war and repressive political order he has imposed, of which Navalny’s elimination is a part.

All the techniques and means of repression bespeak a criminal regime that now closely resembles the totalitarian rule of Stalin, whom Putin now fully embraces. After Putin first came to power in 1999, he often praised Stalin as a great war leader while disapproving of his cruelty and brutality. But as Putin pivoted toward war and repression, Russia has systematically promoted a more positive image of Stalin. High school textbooks not only celebrate his legacy but also whitewash his terror regime. There has been a proliferation of new Stalin monuments, with more than 100 throughout the country today. On state-controlled media, Russian propagandists consistently hammer away on the theme of Stalin’s greatness and underscore similarities between his wartime leadership and Putin’s. Discussion of Stalinist terror has disappeared, as has the memorialization of his millions of victims. Whereas only one in five Russians had a positive view of Stalin in the 1990s, polls conducted over the last five years show that number has risen to between 60 percent and 70 percent. In normalizing Stalin, Putin is not

glossing over the tyrant’s crimes; rather, he is deliberately normalizing Stalin as a justification for his own war-making and repression.

Putin now resembles Stalin more closely than any other Soviet or Russian leader. Unlike Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, Konstantin Chernenko, and Yuri Andropov—not to mention Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin—Putin has unquestioned power that is not shared or limited in any way by parliament, courts, or a Politburo. State propaganda has created a Stalin-like personality cult that lionizes Putin’s absolute power, genius as a leader, and role as a brilliant wartime generalissimo. It projects him as the fearsome and all-powerful head of a militarized nation aiming, like Stalin, to defeat a “Nazi” regime in Ukraine and reassert hegemony over Eastern and Central Europe. Just as Stalin made effective use of the Russian Orthodox Church to support Russia’s effort during World War II, Putin has effectively used Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill as a critical ally and cheerleader of Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine. And just like Stalin, Putin has made invading neighboring countries and annexing territory a central focus of the Kremlin’s foreign policy.

Putin’s descent into tyranny has been accompanied by his gradual isolation from the rest of society. Like the latter-day Stalin, Putin began living an isolated life as a bachelor even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Like the later Stalin, Putin lacks a stable family life and is believed to have replaced it with a string of mistresses, some of whom are reported to have borne him children for whom he remains a remote figure. Like Stalin, he stays up late into the early-morning hours, and like the Soviet dictator, Putin has assembled around him a small coterie of trusted intimates, mostly men in their 60s and 70s, with whom he has maintained friendships for decades, including businessmen Yury Kovalchuk and Igor Sechin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and security chief Nikolai Patrushev. This coterie resembles Stalin’s small network of cronies: security chief Lavrentiy Beria, military leader Kliment Voroshilov, and Communist Party official Georgy Malenkov. To others in leadership positions, Putin is a distant, absolute leader who openly humiliates seemingly powerful officials, such as spy chief Sergey Naryshkin, when the latter seemed to hesitate in his support during Putin’s declaration of war on Ukraine.

Through near-total control of domestic civic life and media, his widening campaign of repression and terror, relentless state propaganda promoting his personality cult, and his vast geopolitical ambitions, Putin is consciously mimicking the Stalin playbook, especially the parts of that playbook dealing with World War II. Even if Putin has no love for Soviet Communist ideology, he has transformed Russia and its people in ways that are no less fundamental than Stalin’s efforts to shape a new Soviet man.

Putin’s massive victory in a Soviet-style election last weekend represents the ratification by the Russian people of his brutal war, militarization of Russian society, and establishment of a totalitarian dictatorship. It is a good moment to acknowledge that Russia’s descent into tyranny, mobilization of society onto a war footing, spread of hatred for the West, and indoctrination of the population in imperialist tropes represent far more than a threat to Ukraine. Russia’s transformation into a neo-Stalinist, neo-imperialist power represents a rising threat to the United States, its European allies, and other states on Russia’s periphery. By recognizing how deeply Russia has changed and how significantly Putin is borrowing from Stalin’s playbook, we can

better understand that meeting the modern-day Russian threat will require as much consistency and as deep a commitment as when the West faced down Stalin’s Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.


Adrian Karatnycky is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, the founder of Myrmidon Group, and the author of Battleground Ukraine: From Independence to the War with Russia, to be published by Yale University Press in June 2024.