A Scholar of Stalin Discusses Putin, Russia, Ukraine, and the West

Unfortunately, this encouraged people up and down the regime to start stealing other people’s businesses and property. It became a kind of general melee. If it was good enough for Putin and his cronies, it’s good enough for me as governor of Podunk province. The regime has become more and more corrupt, less and less sophisticated, less and less trustworthy, less and less popular. It dug in. This is what happens with dictatorships.

But such people and such a regime, it seems to me, would care first and foremost about wealth, the good life, power. Why would they care about Ukraine?

It is not clear that they do. We are talking about, at most, about six people, and certainly one person as the decision maker. That’s the thing about authoritarian regimes: they’re terrible at everything. They cannot feed their people. They cannot ensure the safety of their people. They cannot educate their people. But they only have to be good at one thing to survive. If they can deny the political alternatives, if they can force any opposition into exile or prison, they can survive, however incompetent, corrupt or terrible.

And yet, as corrupt as China is, it has lifted tens of millions of people out of extreme poverty. Education levels are increasing. Chinese leaders take credit for enormous achievements.

Who did that? Did the Chinese regime do this? Or Chinese society? Let us be careful not to let the Chinese Communists expropriate, so to speak, the hard work, the spirit of enterprise, the dynamism of millions and millions of people in this society. You know, in the Russian case, Navalny was arrested…

It is Alexey Navalny, Putin’s most vocal political rival, who was poisoned by the FSB and is now in prison.

Yes. He was imprisoned on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine. In retrospect, this may well have been a preparation for invasion, as Ahmad Shah Massoud blew up, for example, in northern Afghanistan. [by Al Qaeda] just before the fall of the twin towers.

You have denial of alternatives, suppression of all opposition, arrest, exile, and then you can prosper as an elite, not with economic growth but just with theft. And, in Russia, wealth is coming out of the ground! The problem of authoritarian regimes is not economic growth. The problem is how to pay the clientele of their elites, how to retain the elites, especially the security services and the upper levels of the officer corps. If money springs from the ground in the form of hydrocarbons, diamonds or other minerals, the oppressors can emancipate themselves from the oppressed. The oppressors may say, we don’t need you. We don’t need your taxes. We don’t need you to vote. We don’t rely on you for anything, because we have oil and gas, palladium and titanium. They can have zero economic growth and still live very heavily off pork.

There is never a social contract in an authoritarian regime, where the people say, OK, we take economic growth and a higher standard of living, and we give you our freedom. There is no contract. The regime doesn’t provide economic growth, and it doesn’t say, Oh, you know, we’re not keeping our promise. We promised economic growth in exchange for freedom, so we’re going to quit now because we haven’t fulfilled the contract.

What explains the “popularity” of an authoritarian regime like Putin’s?

They have stories to tell. And, as you know, stories are always more powerful than secret police. Yes, they also have a secret police and a regular police, and, yes, they are serious people and they are terrible in what they do to those who protest against the war, putting them in solitary confinement. This is a serious diet, not to be taken lightly. But they have stories. Stories about Russian greatness, about the rebirth of Russian greatness, about enemies at home and abroad trying to hold Russia together. And they could be Jews or George Soros or the IMF and NATO. It can be all kinds of enemies that you pull off the shelf, like a book.

We think of censorship as suppressing information, but censorship is also actively promoting certain types of stories that will resonate with people. The aspiration to be a great power, the aspiration to fulfill a special mission in the world, the fear and suspicion that outsiders will try to get them or bring them down: these are stories that work in Russia. They are not for everyone. You know a lot of Russians who don’t buy into it and know better. But Putin’s version is powerful and they promote it at every opportunity.

The West decided, for obvious reasons, not to go to war with Russia, not to have a no-fly zone. The economic sanctions have proven to be more comprehensive and more powerful than people may have expected a few weeks ago. But it seems that the people they speak to most directly will be able to absorb them.

Sanctions are a weapon you use when you don’t want to fight a hot war because you’re facing a nuclear power. It’s one thing to bomb countries in the Middle East that don’t have nuclear weapons; it is quite another to consider bombing Russia or China in the nuclear age. It is understandable that economic sanctions, including the really powerful ones, are the tools we seek.

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