Putin’s Achilles Heel Is Buried Beneath the Boot of His Totalitarianism
Viewing him as an authoritarian fundamentally misunderstands his vulnerabilities
Many commentators have accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of becoming an autocrat who is using his invasion of Ukraine as cover for turning Russia into an authoritarian state. This analysis is wrong; worse, it’s misleading.
In fact, Putin has been directing a gradual totalitarian restoration in Russia since his ascent to power more than two decades ago. We are now witnessing the denouement of this process. Understanding the totalitarian — not authoritarian — nature of Putin’s restoration is vitally important for understanding not just Russia’s present state, but also its future and the various ways in which Putin’s regime might be susceptible to collapse.
It is hard to say with any certainty what might be in the cards. But the most likely outcomes are not that the Russian people facing crackdowns due to their anti-war protests or the disenchanted Russian military will bring Putin down. Rather, a Russian state weakened by the Ukraine misadventure might fall apart without anything replacing it at the center — or a palace coup would eject and replace Putin without any fundamental regime change.
Totalitarian vs. Authoritarian
In totalitarian states, the center of power is the secret police — whether the NKVD, the forerunner of the Soviet KGB; or the FSB, the Russian successor to the KGB — or the Nazi Gestapo and the SS. In authoritarian states, such as those ruled by juntas, the center of power is the military. Totalitarianism is thus more puzzling than authoritarianism. The secret police is much smaller than the military, and it is lightly armed, with no tanks, gunboats, heavy artillery or combat planes. How can it control and even intimidate the military, which wields massive weaponry?
The secret weapon of the secret police is its secrecy; its anonymity is the weapon it uses to prevent any opposition from cooperating or organizing. If nobody knows who is friend or foe and who informs on whom to the secret police, distrust dominates social relations, and society atomizes into families and individuals. Consequently, the chances for an organized coup — military or otherwise — against a totalitarian regime, including Putin’s, are slim.
A Politically Impotent Russian Military
A crisis changes things, however. The military may try to launch a coup after a regime is weakened by military defeats or during an ongoing political transition. For instance, when it became clear that Germany would lose World War II, there was a nearly successful attempt to assassinate Hitler and launch a coup. After Stalin’s death, military units under Marshal Georgy Zhukov helped neutralize Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the secret police, allowing Nikita Khrushchev to take over the Soviet Union.
But even if Ukraine succeeds in foiling the Russian invasion, Russia’s situation will not be as desperate as Germany’s in 1944 because Ukraine will not then launch an invasion of Russia or bomb Moscow. Moreover, constant speculation to the contrary notwithstanding, Putin appears to be well-fed and in robust physical health, so a crisis following his death is not imminent.
The excellent intelligence NATO has about Russian plans indicates that the Russian military is probably much better penetrated by Western agents than its Soviet predecessors. Despite Putin’s elaborate precautions, a determined individual or small group may reach him — a Western agent, an organized Russian cadre, a lone-wolf Russian soldier or bodyguard. Still, the chances are low.
Disaffected Russian soldiers could pose a threat to Putin. In World War I, the Russian front collapsed when soldiers abandoned their posts, retreated either individually or in groups, and went back home. Some of those soldiers then participated in bringing down the czar and the short-lived republican government that succeeded him. If the Russian front in Ukraine collapses and Russian cities are filled with retreating soldiers, they may join disaffected civilians to destabilize the regime, as in 1917. A major Russian retreat in Ukraine could bring down the regime.
But the Russian military may well hold its lines. Even if Ukraine wins a decisive victory, it will not cross the border into Russia for fear of triggering a nuclear response and of losing the moral high ground in international public opinion by abandoning its exclusively defensive war. Putin may then follow in Stalin’s footsteps by carting any retreating or captured Russian soldiers to new gulags.
Politically Poor ‘Oligarchs’
Totalitarianism is marked by a single, united social hierarchy. Political power implies wealth and social prestige. Briefly, during the 1990s, Russia’s elites appeared to be splintering. The ultrarich “oligarchs” emerged from the margins of the political elites and started to become a distinct class, mostly because the political elites were generally risk-averse and preferred to use the emerging oligarchs as frontmen who assumed political risks but willingly shared the economic profits. The oligarch puppets then began to behave as if they had no strings.
Putin and his secret service elite put an end to all that, re-unifying the political and financial elites and restoring the totalitarian political domination of wealth. The oligarchs either became exiles like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, with money but no political power, or accepted their puppetish existence as rich at Putin’s pleasure and firmly under his thumb. The neototalitarian nature of Putin’s regime prevents the emergence of alternative elites that can challenge and replace the unified hierarchy composed of and run by the secret police. The chance then that the oligarchs, wounded from sanctions, would bring Putin down are slim.
Totalitarianism eliminates the independent space between the family and the state where civil society dwells. Civil society was weak when Putin took over, and he gradually enfeebled it further.
First, he took over the independent mass media. Doing so was essential both for controlling the information Russians received and for manipulating and disinforming them. While he initially ignored media outlets that catered to a small urban intelligentsia too critical to be manipulated, he gradually tightened the screws on them and on independent civil society, returning it to the nonexistence of the Soviet era. The assassination of Boris Nemtsov and the poisoning and indefinite imprisonment of Alexei Navalny — both prominent political figures and outspoken Putin critics — mark not only the final stage in the elimination of all political opposition, which authoritarian regimes undertake as well, but also the suppression of any independent nongovernmental organization. Russian political parties that ostensibly “compete” with Putin are, in fact, yet another façade for the same power structure.
While civil society is on the ropes, a popular uprising remains unlikely. Brave people are necessary for a revolution, but not sufficient. They have to be able to organize, which means that they have to be able to trust each other. That’s hard to do in Putin’s Russia.
In the absence of leadership from an independent social elite, the totalitarian elite — the “siloviki” comprising Russia’s security services — might split and overthrow Putin itself. The Soviet totalitarian elite was in a state of constant internal war. It is no coincidence that of all the Bolshevik leaders of the 1917 revolution, only Lenin and Stalin were not killed by other Bolsheviks. Faced with a threat, Lenin and Stalin were quicker than anyone to eliminate their confederates.
Still, following the executions of Soviet secret police boss Beria and other leaders of that organization after Khrushchev’s 1953 coup d’état, the Soviet totalitarian elite reached an agreement to settle its power struggles without killing each other. The Communist Party asserted its dominance over the secret service by forcing the secret service to ask the permission of the party before recruiting agents within the party and arresting party members. This created a balance of power between the party and the secret service that moderated the level of terror in society. Losers of political struggles lost their positions and stations, but not their lives, and their families were spared.
Putin has so far adhered to the terms of that late-totalitarian intra-elite unwritten pact. While he has organized the murder, poisoning, jailing and harassment of political opponents, members of the elite have continued to enjoy the windfalls of official corruption without fear for their personal security, even if they lose favor. But if Putin eventually finds it politically necessary to scapegoat members of the elite to cover his own failures, or if Putin’s paranoia gets the better of him, he may violate this unwritten nonaggression pact. In that case, members of the elite may feel threatened enough to take preemptive action to protect themselves and their families. If they feel they can trust each other, they may initiate the kind of intra-elite coup spearheaded during the Soviet era by Khrushchev or Brezhnev, producing a change of leadership without a change of regime. Such an outcome is quite probable if Putin is perceived as having violated the unwritten code, but Putin knows it too — hence the physical distancing and the long tables.
Wheels Falling Off the Russian State
One piece of the totalitarian puzzle is missing from Putin’s neototalitarian state: The totalitarian party. This may be the soft belly of the beast. Imagine Hitler with the SS, but without the Nazi Party, or Stalin with the NKVD, but without the Communist Party. Putin’s United Russia Party has attempted to concoct an ideology from a syncretic witch’s brew of reactionary social values, Russian nationalism and authoritarianism to mobilize the Russian masses. But measured by the party’s membership and level of social penetration and engagement, the United Russia Party does not even come close to the reach of the Communist Party of old, with its Marxist-Leninist doctrine.
This means that the capacity of Putin to mobilize and control society is low. Without the party, the secret police can only resort to manipulation and terror. Most Russians will be too afraid to protest in the streets, but without a party to mobilize and control them, they may ignore instructions from the central government, weakening its hold.
After all, Russia has the largest land mass on earth. Any central government in Russia has always had, and will always have, a problem of command and control. This internal weakness manifested itself especially in the terminal stages of Russian communism, when the state was at once very big and very weak. The state cogwheels spun in empty space, powerless to move each other. The machine of state fell into disrepair, and then it fell apart.
It is highly probable that something similar will happen in the not-too-distant future. Relying almost exclusively on terror, without a messianic ideology or ubiquitous party hierarchy to connect the state with society, the Russian state may yet again fall apart, as it did in 1989 to 1991. Weak central authorities may no longer be able to rule their territory or implement policy. Alternative power structures would emerge — perhaps local; perhaps criminal, military or corporate. With or without Putin at the totalitarian helm, the Russian ship of state may sink.
The Evitability of Neototalitarianism
Against the high hopes of the 1990s for historical progress in Russia, the apparently “eternal return” of the totalitarian same is exasperating. It is tempting to ask whether Putin’s neototalitarian restoration could have been preempted before it began.
One measure that would have preempted not just the rise of Putin, but the restoration of totalitarianism by his siloviki associates in the former USSR’s security, military and intelligence services, would have been the enactment of “lustration” laws. Such laws were passed in various other post-communist countries to prohibit former secret police officers from occupying positions in the higher echelons of government, sometimes including posts in finance and education. These laws recognized that democratization required separating the former secret police, with their well-honed methods of manipulation, disinformation, extortion, terror and so on, from power.
Pro-communist or naive Western commentators — Tina Rosenberg, for example — have railed against lustration. Rosenberg’s The Haunted Land, a Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller, portrayed lustration as a McCarthyist “witch-hunt” that violated the rights of former secret police officers and informers, who were depicted as the pitiful, oppressed victims of democratic vengeance. In addition to misrepresenting lustration as a process applying to a much broader scope of people and bureaucratic positions than it actually did, Rosenberg’s book reproduced the classic talking points of secret-police disinformation: The dissidents were opportunists; the secret police and their informers were law-abiding, patriotic citizens; and the Czechs were grateful to the Red Army for liberating Prague.
Other Western fellow travelers have been arguing against the very concept of totalitarianism. They describe it as a Cold War ideological construction developed by Central European émigrés like Hannah Arendt and Zbigniew Brzezinski to distinguish the West’s authoritarian enemies — the so-called “totalitarians” — from its authoritarian allies, such as the juntas and military dictatorships in Latin America and Southern Europe.
However, examining the toll of the two kinds of regimes shows just how important the distinction between totalitarianism and authoritarianism really is. Totalitarians, who must annihilate all alternative elites, end up eliminating about 10% of their populations, while authoritarians, who are interested only in destroying political rivals, eliminate about 0.1% of their populations. Democratization after totalitarianism requires the political neutralization of the secret police, just as democratization after authoritarianism requires the political neutralization of the military. If the secret police and its veterans retain access to political, social and economic power, its informal power structures will reassert themselves and engineer a reactionary restoration. Preventing the subversion of liberal institutions and the embezzlement of public funds means that government ministries, political parties, public companies, banks, colleges and universities should not be led by former officers of the secret police.
Such measures would have preempted Putin’s secret police restoration and the gradual return of totalitarianism to Russia. Similar measures of de-Nazification in Germany were criticized by the 1968 youth revolutionaries for not going far enough in reforming West German society, but nobody claimed the laws went too far.
It’s been argued that many officers of the communist secret police were never convicted of a crime, so limiting the scope of their opportunities for legal employment would have violated their civil rights. But the secret police apparatus was in essence a criminal organization, stronger than any mafia. People like Putin joined it because they enjoyed terrorizing and manipulating weaker people. This fact does not change just because the totalitarian state imploded. If financial criminals are not permitted to work in banks and pedophiles are not allowed to run kindergartens, political criminals should not be allowed to work in politics. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a case of criminal recidivism — of a career criminal resuming his old life of crime.
Other critics of lustration have claimed that former officers of the secret police acquired technical skills that are in demand irrespective of regime, and that excluding the Putins of this world from power would deprive humanity of their services. Well, consider their primary technical skills: terror, intimidation, extortion, blackmail, bribery, mass manipulation and disinformation, and so on. Would the world miss these skills once their bearers are out of power?
Democratization after totalitarianism requires the rebuilding of civil society, mutual trust between citizens, and the generation of alternative elites without totalitarian roots. Treating the distinctions between totalitarianism and authoritarianism as fictitious social constructs rather than realities does not change these realities any more than treating totalitarian-era secret police as persecuted victims of overzealous liberals makes them less vicious, terrorizing, manipulative, deceptive and, above all, dangerous. If you don’t believe it, ask the Ukrainians.
One can hope that Putin’s hubris turns the cracks in the Russian state and the elite into fissures that swallow him. But without lustration laws there is no guarantee that another Putin will not arise and menace his neighbors — and the world — yet again.
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.