The Death of Putin

Putin funeral
Photo by Alexei NikolskyTASS via Getty
Julia Ioffe
March 8, 2022

On Saturday, March 5, millions of Russians solemnly marked the 69 years since Joseph Stalin died of a massive stroke, an event portrayed with surprising historical accuracy in the comedic film The Death of Stalin. This date has always been an important one for liberal Russians, people who hate Vladimir Putin and want their country to look more like Western Europe than the Soviet Union. Many of them have ancestors who were among the millions that vanished during Stalin’s Great Terror. But most Russians—and Ukrainians—were touched in some way by the terror, simply because of its vast scale. Exact numbers are hard to come by but according to historian Robert Conquest, in just two years, 1937 and 1938, some 7 million Soviets were arrested as “enemies of the people,” one million were executed, and 8 million more were sent to the camps. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953, about 20 million people had passed through the Gulag. 

When the dictator’s death was announced, millions genuinely grieved the passing of the Father of Nations, and hundreds were trampled to death in the crush of his public funeral. But many others quietly celebrated his death. There was one immediate effect of Stalin’s death: it stopped the Doctor’s Plot, which Stalin, in his end-of-life paranoia, had hatched, alleging that Jewish doctors were poisoning their patients as part of an American and Zionist cabal. There were rumors going around Moscow that Stalin was readying to deport millions of Soviet Jews, who had just survived World War II and the Holocaust, to Siberia. But he died just in time, and his successors quickly unraveled the plan and let imprisoned Jewish doctors out of jail. Stalin’s death also lifted the blanket terror under which most Soviets lived, fearing that a stray word to the wrong person could end with a bullet in the back of the head. Even his daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, felt relief on March 5, 1953. “Petrified and mute,” she wrote, “I understood that a certain liberation had come.” And though persecution of dissidents returned with the ascent of Leonid Brezhnev to the Soviet throne, it never again reached the level and scale it had under Stalin.

This year, the anniversary took on a new and weighty significance. One Novosibirsk artist posted an image of Stalin’s funeral mask with the inscription, “That one died, and this one will, too.” The message from him and from every Russian posting about the anniversary was unmistakable: they were hoping and praying for Vladimir Putin’s speedy death—and for the relief they imagine it would bring. Death had not arrived in time to keep Putin from invading Ukraine, but it could still swoop in and end the war. 

As I wrote last week, this fantasy is flourishing wherever there are people who believe that Putin has committed a grave and criminal error in invading Ukraine. Most are Ukrainains, some of them are Russian dissidents, and some are longtime Russia watchers. Some are sitting U.S. Senators, like Lindsey Graham, who took to national television to beseech a Russian to kill Putin. It is a fantasy that has been fed by numerous reports that no one in Putin’s government knew about the invasion or wanted it, and, now that the war is unfolding, they are horrified and in shock. Surely, one of them could put an end to the madness.

But as I also wrote last week, I think this desire is an admission of powerlessness. I also think it won’t necessarily fix everything. The first time I took a Soviet history class, it was taught by the legendary scholar and Stalin biographer Stephen Kotkin, who asked a question that has since been seared into my memory. During his lecture on Stalin’s terror, Kotkin asked, essentially, how can one man kill millions of people? Sure, Stalin could have said, kill the following 1,000 people. But any of us could say the same thing and nothing would happen. Not a single person would die. So how did Stalin kill not just 1,000 or 10,000 people, but millions of them? 

When you read histories and memoirs of that era, you realize how many people were required to put the terror in motion and maintain it. When you think about all the snitches, investigators, drivers, interrogators, guards, cooks, doctors, and supervisors needed to carry out the execution and internment of tens of millions of people, you realize that there were probably more collaborators than victims. These were people who showed up at other people’s doors before dawn, ransacked their homes, and led them down to a waiting car, which someone then had to drive to a fully staffed, giant prison complex, where the prisoners were processed, thoroughly searched, and put in filthy, overcrowded cells. And on and on down the line. 

These were people who took active, violent part in a reign of terror against their countrymen, neighbors, and even relatives. They pulled the triggers and locked the gates. They administered beatings and burned bodies. They did not do it just because they were following orders, though many, doubtless, did. Many did it because they believed they were liberating the country from a fifth column. Many more did it because they personally benefited from the regime. The higher-ups got the apartments of the disappeared as well as their belongings; people lower down the rungs got more pay and more food at a time when millions went hungry. And many others believed in the system precisely because they benefited from it. Even when the system turned on them, they believed that there had been some terrible mistake. The railways to the Gulag were littered with notes to Comrade Stalin asking him to clear up this tragic misunderstanding. 

Which brings me back to today. I have seen the letter from the alleged F.S.B. official who thinks that invading Ukraine is a mortal error that no one had been warned about. I have seen the reports of anonymous Kremlin officials “in fucking shock” at what Putin has done. I have heard the whispers about the Russian Defense Ministry falling into a stupor at what the president was commanding them to do. It’s all very interesting and indicative of how closely-held the decision was, of how few people made it, and how poorly planned it was—because people didn’t know what it was they were planning for. But I disagree with people who say that this proves that this is “Putin’s war” and his alone. No matter their surprise, his ministers are still carrying out his orders. Despite some rumors of desertion and sabotage and low morale, the vast majority of Russian soldiers are, too. They are still shelling Ukrainian cities and shooting at civilians. Back home, Putin’s riot police are still beating and torturing anti-war protesters. If it was only Putin’s war, then nothing would have happened when he gave the order to invade Ukraine—much as nothing would happen if I gave the command to seize my neighbor’s car. It happened because millions of Russians are carrying out his orders, pulling the triggers and driving their tanks into Ukraine. It’s happening, too, because Russian people allow it to happen. Because, despite the thousands who protested the war over the weekend, tens of millions more support it. Three recent polls indicate that two-thirds of Russians support the war in Ukraine, at least the version they’re shown on television.

Stalin died on March 5, 1953. And on March 6, the Soviet system continued on, largely unchanged. It took another three years for his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, to deliver the Secret Speech denouncing Stalin’s cult of personality and its bloody excesses. It took years after Stalin’s death for the Gulag to slowly release its human cargo and for the state to rehabilitate all the people who had wrongly ended up there. And though Stalin had equated himself with the Soviet state, the Soviet state lived on for another 38 years after Stalin’s heart stopped beating. And just nine years after the system Stalin built was toppled from within at Belovezhskaya Pushcha in 1991, it quickly resurrected itself nine years later, brought back to life by Putin, a man born one year before Stalin died, but raised as a loyal student of Stalin’s empire—and his secret police.

That’s why I believe that even if Putin dies tomorrow, we are far more likely to get a Yuri Andropov than a Khrushchev, though both were more than happy to continue with the system Stalin built, just with some modifications. Could a palace coup sweep out Putin’s old guard and change Russia completely and for the better, at least according to what we in the West think is better? Sure. Is it likely? I doubt it. The brilliant screenwriter and director Michael Idov once joked to me that, in 100 years, Russia had reproduced essentially the same system three times: an authoritarian bureaucracy with a cult of personality at its center. Whatever its ideological trappings—monarchist, communist, neo-fascist—the core was the same. It was, he joked, a robust enough pattern for a New York Times trend story. I also think about what Gleb Pavlovsky, the spin doctor who helped Putin get elected in 2000, told me almost a decade ago: When Putin’s system collapses, it will collapse in a day and the system that replaces it will be exactly the same as this one. 

Americans like to believe that every problem has a solution, and a tidy one at that. When we don’t like the leader of another country—often for very good reason—we think that just getting rid of him will do the trick. George W. Bush put that theory into practice and learned that, not only does decapitating governments not work, it often makes things worse. And yet, here we are, hoping that Putin dies because we think it will magically solve everything.

If Putin dies tomorrow, there is not even the guarantee that the war ends the day after that. The man who succeeds him might well be one of the few now in the Kremlin who thought that invading Ukraine was a brilliant idea. Brezhnev died in 1982, but the Soviet war in Afghanistan went on for seven more years, continued by three of his successors. Nicholas II abdicated in February 1917 because his management of World War I was so disastrous, but it took another year for Russia to withdraw from the war. Even the Bolsheviks, who had campaigned explicitly on ending the war, took months to make up their minds to do so, causing a massive schism in their ranks. Starting a war is surprisingly easy; ending it, as the United States now knows full well, is surprisingly difficult.