Rostislav Ishchenko: Comparing and Contrasting Putin and Stalin’s Strategies

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard


Our Western partners are inventive, but not consistent in their attempts to crack down on the Russian government, which became too independent. Still a couple of years ago they fought against the Kremlin under the slogan “Putin is today’s Stalin”. However, while Obama hadn’t yet become a “lame duck”, and even the most advanced CIA and NSA experts couldn’t know about Trump’s claims to the presidency, by the beginning of 2016 it turned out that Putin is not only not “today’s Stalin”, but he can be criticised because he doesn’t use Stalin’s methods in domestic and foreign policy.

The phrase “everything would be different under Stalin” became a marker of the opposition. Gradually even the most flexible liberals, who still yesterday were the most irreconcilable anti-Stalinists, mastered it. If today you meet an expert, publicist or politician who actively contrasts Stalin and Putin, then in nine cases out of ten you are dealing with a representative of the so-called radical patriotic opposition, who either directly works for the West or is used by this same West as a useful idiot.

Putin is indeed not Stalin, but it’s not a coincidence that people draw parallels between the two reigns. What they have in common lies on the surface – success: a huge, unexpected success; the almost lightning-fast thrust of a State – which was still great yesterday but was dismantled for parts – from the third to the first world; the almost magical restoration of a superpower like the revival of the phoenix bird.

But the differences are also obvious, even if they don’t jump into the eyes so much. Stalin achieved success through maximum mobilisation, on the verge of breaking down (and sometimes even beyond this verge) all forces of the people and the State. Moreover, this mobilisation was carried out with the help of harsh suppression. Saying that there were millions of victims of Stalin’s repression is delirium, but the repression itself is not delirium. In reality, there is no need to shoot or jail tens of millions of people in order to establish strict control over people’s lives. On the contrary, Stalin, indeed being a great statesman, and also a pragmatist, knew that resources should be protected, and that the human is the main resource of any State. It is enough that everyone knows that at any moment, any most innocent and most accidental mistake can be punished in the most harsh way so that people will supervise themselves and each other, is much more effective than all possible special services combined.

Stalin achieved a resounding success. Up to the fact that he was able to triumphantly win the twice-lost war. For a long time, any disputes of historians and political scientists concerning the personality and methods of Stalin rested on one impenetrable argument. The USSR lived surrounded by enemies. It had to prepare itself for an inevitable war. If it weren’t for Stalin’s mobilisation they wouldn’t have the time to prepare for it. It was impossible to mobilise by other means.

Today, Putin’s own example convincingly demonstrates that it is possible. Counting from 1925, Stalin was in power for 28 years – until 1953. Putin, in a particular post, has ruled for 18. I.e., for Stalin it would be 1943. If we consider the confrontation between Russia and the United States in terms of the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the Third Reich, then it is somehow like that: the war has already been won, but it’s not yet over.

They say that Stalin inherited Russia with a plough, and left it with an atomic bomb. This is an exaggeration. Before the revolution, Russia was one of the five most developed economies in the world (just like now). Of course, the economy suffered huge losses during the revolution and the civil war; many things were simply destroyed. Nevertheless, the St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Ural factories worked, which formed the basis of the economic power of Russia. Many skilled workers survived in the fire of wars and revolutions, because the state constantly needed their production skills and nobody sent them en masse to the external and internal fronts. Engineering personnel also were far from being dislodged.

There wasn’t enough money, raw materials, equipment, educated personnel, but all these were solvable problems. In any case, the situation in the USSR was as a minimum no worse than the situation in Weimar Germany. Germany was also destroyed by war and revolution, and lost territories. But the Versailles restrictions were also imposed on it, which hampered the development of industry. Plus, Germany had to pay the winning countries huge, unaffordable reparations.

Stalin faced huge difficulties, but they were not exclusive even for the world of that time. By the way, the method of overcoming difficulties by forcibly mobilising all the forces of the State was not exclusive either. Stalin was simply able to use it better than others. I think that it is precisely for this reason that many years ago Putin called him a talented manager. Stalin indeed made effective use of the tools involved. Another thing is that the instruments were not the most effective.

For a long time it was impossible to make a historical experiment and see how in those conditions another, not so rigid in relation to the population program could be implemented, allowing much greater levels of freedom of political and economic systems.

However, in the 90’s the situation of the early 20th century repeated. A huge, powerful, stable country – whose problems were absolutely unnoticeable in comparison not with the problems of the 1920s-1930s, but with the problems of modern America – suddenly fell apart, having fallen into a stupor of revolutionary (counter-revolutionary) shocks, local civil wars, and economic devastation. Moreover, unlike the Soviet Union of the early 20th century, maybe not direct, but external control over Russia of the 90’s was established.

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Putin, who came to power in 2000, received a starting situation that was worse than what Stalin had. The economy was also virtually destroyed. The Armed Forces had disintegrated and were able to repel external threats to a lesser extent than even the Red Army and Red Navy in the 1920’s-1930’s. At the same time, Russia’s enemies were full of strength and energy, unlike the enemies of the USSR – who themselves experienced the post-war shock and considered the ended World War to be the last war of mankind (because it was too horrible), and pacifist sentiments prevailed throughout the West and it simply wasn’t ready for a great war with the USSR.

But the most serious starting lag between Putin’s Russia and Stalin’s USSR was that in the USSR civil war had just ended. The winners and losers were determined, the new government was consolidated, and the society accepted it and even began to enjoy it in the form of the New Economic Plan. But Russia of the 90’s was on the verge of another revolution (this time, an anti-oligarchic one, in a fruitless attempt to restore the USSR) and a new civil war, after which the State had practically no chances of survival. Society had been torn into strata that hated each other, extremely marginalised and atomised. The best specialists in most industries left the country or sought to leave it. There was no money, and the State apparatus was controlled by the oligarchic comprador semibankirschina.

Yes, Putin, unlike Stalin, had nuclear weapons. But Russia couldn’t afford to not even fight against someone, but to even bicker with the,. At any moment it could be broken and destroyed simply by stopping the food supply, which at that time the country barely satisfied 30% of what was needed. At the same time, the West did not suffer from pacifism, like after World War I, but pursued a conscious policy aimed at further limiting Russia’s influence in the world, and in the future – at the complete fragmentation of the Russian State. Many processes that seemed irreversible at that time had already begun.

I.e., as a whole the situation was worse for Putin than it was for Stalin. With a no less profound collapse of the economy and finances than in the early 20th century, in Russia in the early 21st century there was no public accord, power structures were controlled partly from abroad and partly by its own oligarchs. Finally, in the early 20th century, the USSR was only preparing for a future war, and at the beginning of the 21st century aggression – albeit hybrid, but no less brutal than what started on June 22nd, 1941 – had already been unleashed against Russia.

In a comparable time frame (by 2014-2015), Putin has achieved more success than Stalin’s USSR. Under Putin’s reign more roads and bridges have been built than in tsarist Russia and the USSR combined. Railway construction is comparable. Aviation has been revived practically from scratch. The same thing can be said about the civilian fleet (commercial, fishing, recreational, Arctic, etc.) too. The army was not just revived and re-armed. It does what the USSR in the 1940’s couldn’t even dream of doing – it successfully, using the forces of a relatively small expeditionary corps, kicks the collective West out of Syria and the Middle East. Nobody even dares to think about a military attack on Russian territory. Moreover, they are afraid not of nuclear weapons, but of conventional weapons. Even terrorists who are not afraid of anyone and attack everyone are far less likely to succeed in bypassing Russian special services than Western intelligence agencies. The number of Russia’s allies recognising its leading role in the international arena is growing (for example, at least the last pilgrimage of European leaders to Sochi).

So, the starting conditions are comparable, the time frames are comparable, the achievements are also comparable. Only one thing is not comparable. Despite the public demand for a “firm hand” and “today’s Stalin”, Putin not only did not encroach on all sorts of freedoms, but often sought to develop them despite public sentiment. In a country where liberals dream of hanging Communists, Communists jailing liberals, and “patriots” shooting both of them, the authorities manage to maintain the highest level of social harmony, don’t try to play on existing contradictions, and seek to maintain a balance of interests based on public consensus.

It so happens that a person is endowed with talent regardless of their political views. And Russia needs talent to work for it, and not to gift their inventions to the rest of the world, like Sikorsky, who created for the US not even just a helicopter, but also an appropriate industry sector and the concept of using this machine. Moreover, a “single, correct” political or economic concept doesn’t exist; even Marxism is “not a dogma, but a guide to action”. Only in the free struggle of different political views, different philosophical systems, and different economic concepts can breakthrough ideas be born.

As soon as any political force becomes the owner of a patent for an ideological monopoly, it immediately loses its development potential and moves to negative personnel selection. The demand for those who don’t have doubts, are loyal to the course, ideologically consistent, ready for constant fluctuations – together with the policy of the party – and the ruthless elimination (if not physical, then morally) of any opposition or factionism leads to the recommendation of dogmatists for senior positions – who are unable to think independently and creatively – or of careerists.

I believe that Putin’s greatest achievement is that he was able to ensure a breakthrough without breaking down. He was able to form a team (and far from being only from like-minded people), which led the country through a series of crises so that most of the people did not even notice it. They did not notice to such an extent that people who 20 years ago dreamed of eating once or twice per day are today outraged by the prices of “Mercedes”. The Crimean bridge – which was built in less than four years, and which the USSR wanted, but was not able to build for all the time of its existence – was perceived as quite everyday. Questions immediately started to be asked: “When will such a thing be built in Ivanovo”. And in general no one pays attention to the development of the Northern sea route, the construction of gas terminals and floating nuclear power plants beyond the Arctic Circle, or the laying of the Northern railway latitudinal passage. Food security is 100% guaranteed for all major agricultural products, Russia became a net exporter of food – but nevertheless this is “bad”, there is a full “Internet” of disgruntled and offended persons who, however, never came closer to the farmlands than the Moscow Ring Road. By the way, under Stalin, for any one of the aforementioned achievements, the award stars of the Heroes of the Soviet Union and the Heroes of Socialist labor would be distributed in their dozens, and in their thousands under Brezhnev. We are not impressed — we got used to it.

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And there are no Gulags, urgent work, or collective farms. It’s as if everything just happens by itself – in conditions of sanctions, continuous attacks on the financial system, in conditions of constant attempts from the outside to undermine domestic political stability, in conditions of constant military blackmail and provocations, which must be answered.

Against this background, Putin’s greatest achievements are undoubtedly in the sphere of foreign policy. After all, within their own State, with all the differences and disputes, everyone – from the homeless to the oligarchs – is interested in ensuring that the State is as strong and respected as possible. From this everyone receives something: some get a comfortable flophouse with hot meals and a shower, and others get to protect their capital and investment. Everybody will receive their own. But around us in the world there are countries that do not owe us anything and build a system of unions on the basis of pragmatic egoistic national interests. They gravitate towards the strong, hoping to receive something from them, and they treat the weak believing that they are the future victim of the strong one, from which they can receive a little bone.

I.e., those who can defend their allies, help them solve economic and/or social problems, etc enjoy international authority. Consequently, if the former allies of the United States – and not only such as Turkey, but also such as Germany – start to move into the Russian camp, and the notorious Russophobe Tusk scares Washington by saying that the EU will abandon America and go to Russia, then it means that these countries – who still four years ago considered Washington as a power, and Moscow as a victim – radically revised their assessment. I would like to stress that their choice was not forced, like China or Iran, which the West was going to strangle in any case. These countries are consciously switching to the Russian side, like vassals in the Middle Ages moving to the service of a more promising señor.

Bloomberg, who wrote that President Trump pushes the world into Putin’s hands, explained why this is happening. The agency accuses Trump of creating tension in existing alliances. I.e., in carrying out this same forcible, Stalinist policy that, according to many critics, Putin so lacks. Meanwhile, Russia indeed wins because the US suppresses for the sake of its interests, but Russia proposes mutually beneficial cooperation (when every country earns more from interactions than they would earn without them). As soon as it became clear that Russia can provide its world with military protection, the US’ vassals flocked to the reception room of Putin. Well, they do not want to work for an idea; they want to do it for the money.

I will try to explain the reason for the effectiveness of the strategy used by Putin’s Russia by using a domestic example.

Up to 23-24 years of age I also considered Stalin’s strategy of forcefully suppressing opponents to be the only correct and effective one. And I had the grounds for this. I used it successfully in my life. Namely, using intellectual and technological (I studied politics in all its features from 5 years of age) superiority, I always successfully suppressed any opponent. And this could continue for all my life if I did not pay attention to the fact that sometimes there is a need to periodically quell “revolts in the rear” (to return to already taken place conflicts), and that your allies are not your friends – they support you out of fear or for profit, but at a critical moment, when their help will be needed the most, they will betray.

I reflected upon this, made some analogies, and remembered that all great empires that pursued a permanent aggressive policy died at the peak of their success, for one and the same reason — their resources became insufficient for the simultaneous continuation of aggression and ensuring the loyalty of the already conquered. Only those remained who found a balance between the interests of conquerors and conquered people, who no longer had to spend their forces to control their territories, because the population received benefits from life in the Empire — it was more comfortable, prosperous, and safer inside it than outside it. While the balance of comfort was in favor of the empire, it had no problems, there was no need to herd people inside of it, people asked to come there. But if it changed, then very quickly the imperial monolith began to crack and crumble. And the main resource eater has always been an aggressive, forceful foreign policy. If you go from military victory to military victory, then it means you are approaching a defeat. If you don’t stop at Austerlitz in time, then you will surely come to Waterloo.

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After thinking about all this I decided to dramatically change the format of my “foreign policy” and to switch from a “strategy of suppression” to a “strategy of the Kroshka Enot from the famous Soviet cartoon (do you remember: “and you throw the stick and smile at him”). Well, and I smiled. And very quickly I found out that the conflicts that lasted for years and required constant victories (and therefore constant effort) were instantly resolved, and so successfully that it wasn’t even possible to dream about resolving them by force.

In the future I always proceeded from the fact that almost any person can be negotiated with. It is only necessary to obtain such a format of cooperation that not only you benefit from it, but them too. Of course, there are unique people with who it is not only impossible to negotiate with, but even to talk to. They require you to unconditionally recognise and popularise their point of view, which is often beyond the limits of the thesis “everyone who isn’t with us must be killed”, and which they can’t even formulate themselves. But there is no need to enter into a conflict with them. If you feel reliably protected and invulnerable, what difference does it make to you what a certain victim of intellectual deficiency says and thinks about you. You know that if they rush towards you, you will crush them; and while they are still barking but don’t bite, let them flail around.

At the State level, an example of such relations is the work of Russia with Ukraine, the Baltic countries, and the Eastern European limitrophes. They are independent, that’s why everything in this world, including their own policies, depends not on them, but on their masters. On this stage only the US or the EU can be their masters. They orientate themselves towards the United States. It would be more favourable for us if it was Western Europe that was the manager of these countries. It, unlike Washington, is capable of negotiating. But these are the problems of our relations with the EU and the US, and not with the Baltic States or Ukraine. That’s why Russia does not notice the limitrophes when they growl and bark. If they dare to do a test bite, then they are quite fatherly punished with a slipper or a broom, then they are again not noticed. Russia will only speak to them – and speak to them respectfully at that – if they restore their subjectivity and begin to defend their own, and not the master’s interests. And concerning the master’s interests – it is with the masters that there is talks, while a pet, even the most beloved and spoiled one, is nothing more than an item of furniture.

In general, to sum up, the difference between Stalin and Putin’s strategies is that Stalin’s is more expensive and less reliable, because it requires a state of constant extreme mobilisation from society. Sooner or later, society becomes tired of this and the well-established management mechanism starts to stall, degenerating into Khrushchev’s “thaw”, Brezhnev’s “stagnation”, or Gorbachev’s “perestroika”. All of this is the reaction of society to physical and moral overstrain and ideological monopoly.

In turn, Putin’s strategy is stricter in management, requires a much more qualified and educated apparatus, and more fine-tuning. Unlike Stalin’s coercion to cooperation, Putin’s strategy is focused on voluntary cooperation. Moreover, this applies to both foreign and domestic policy.

Putin’s strategy can be implemented in a more mature and developed society. Under Stalin, diplomats record the achievements of the army. Under Putin, the army is needed only to ensure that the opponent does not have the temptation to go beyond diplomatic discussion.

Stalin’s strategy is more obvious both in its successes (fireworks, parades, victories) and failures (retreats, encirclements, defeats). Within the framework of the Stalin’s strategy, it is necessary to enter Berlin at all costs. Within the framework of Putin’s strategy, taking Tbilisi in general is contraindicated.

It should be understood that the differences between the two strategies are of a private nature. If behind diplomats there isn’t a strong army and a strong State, then they will be able to manoeuvre not much more effectively than their colleagues from Ukraine or Lesotho. I.e., force is needed anyway. Another thing is that the projection of force with the proposal to negotiate in an amicable way, as a rule, appears to be more effective, cheaper, and more reliable than direct capture. In the end, both strategies were aimed at making Russia great again. And they succeeded in their own way.

But Trump’s attempt to play against Putin in Stalin’s way fails, and China initially, from ancient times, prefers the strategy of accord, while in Russia people like to recognise and notice the strategy of suppression and Chinese successes instead of their own. It seems obvious to me that since war or other forms of violent standoff always deplete the resources of both the loser and the winner, if you can achieve what you desire by negotiation and compromise, then there is a need to reach an agreements, regardless of how much stronger you are. Just because it’s efficient and it works great.

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