During a documentary interview in 1996, back when he was a little-known political functionary, Vladimir Putin offered an eerie warning about Russia’s future.
“However sad and however frightening it may sound, I think that in our country a return to a certain period of totalitarian rule is possible,” he said. “The danger,” he added, “is not to be found in the organs that provide order, the police or even the army. It is a danger at our summit, in the mentality of our people, our nation.”
Well over a decade later, while speaking as president during a nationally televised Q&A in 2012, Putin once again mused about the possibility of totalitarian rule. This time, though, his remarks sounded distinctly more like a threat—or a promise. “If I believed that a totalitarian and authoritarian system is the most preferable for us, I would simply change the constitution,” he said.
For Western ears, though not for Russian ones, totalitarianism is an old-fashioned word.
Used to describe a government that asserts complete control of its people—and limits its access to the outside world—the term was famously adopted by Winston Churchill and George Orwell to describe Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR and immortalized in Hannah Arendt’s 1951 era-defining work The Origins of Totalitarianism. Among political scientists, the phrase has fallen out of fashion since the 1980s, as decades of scholarship revealed Stalinism to have been a more chaotic, less top-down affair than the robotized party rule of Orwell’s nightmares.
Yet what’s happening in Russia now amid its invasion of Ukraine is exactly the sort of leap toward totalitarian rule that Putin foreshadowed in 1996. In a matter of weeks, his government has imposed a severity of repression and an information blackout comparable to the USSR’s before Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization. Opposition leaders have been vocal on this point. As the exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky put it: “Russia today has moved from an authoritarian regime to a totalitarian one.” [Continue reading…]