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Virtual Stalinism

  • Brian Whitmore

Putin's willing executioner (cartoon by Sergei Elkin, RFE/RL)

Putin's willing executioner (cartoon by Sergei Elkin, RFE/RL)

Russian officials seem to have developed an execution fetish of late.

One example, of course, is the disturbing video Ramzan Kadyrov posted on Instagram showing opposition figures Mikhail Kasyanov and Vladimir Kara-Murza in the crosshairs of a sniper's rifle.

Another is the bizarre series of animated clips Vladimir Putin's All-Russian Popular Front posted on their website showing the Kremlin leader personally executing several officials accused of corruption.

One is beheaded with an ax. One is cut in half with a buzz saw. One has his head removed by a crane. One is eaten by piranhas. One is vaporized with a laser gun. And another is eaten by rabid dogs.

Putin is no Josef Stalin -- but apparently he likes to play him on the Internet.

"So welcome to the theatre of tyranny. A style of governance which actively encourages the appearance of being tougher and nastier than it really is, and at the same time enthusiastically telegraphs that it could be tougher and nastier still," Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and expert on Russia's Security Services, wrote recently.

The aim, Galeotti adds, is to make the Kremlin appear "ruthless, unpredictable and downright crazy, so it seems easier to accommodate than challenge it."

Kadyrov's menacing antics and the Popular Front's creepy execution cartoons are the latest illustrations that Putin's regime has indeed fine-tuned the art of creating a virtual Stalinism, a hybrid form of low-intensity terror designed to intimidate and sow fear.

It's a massive psy-op. It sends signals on social media that repression could be on the way -- without really crossing over the line into full-blown tyranny.

But it passes laws, like the one allowing the security services to open fire on crowds, that indicate that it might just cross that line someday.

And it reinforces this message through a stream of statements from mid-level officials

In an interview this week, for example, Kremlin aide German Klimenko, who advises Putin on the Internet, said Russians should be forced to switch from foreign operating systems like Windows to Russian-made software -- under threat of being shot. "And yes, I am quite serious," he added.

And Igor Kholmanskikh, Putin’s representative to the Urals Federal District, said the Kremlin needs to eliminate Russia's "fifth column" and suggested that opposition leaders should be "flogged in the kitchen."

And sometimes it all goes beyond the virtual and gets very real -- like with the assassination of Boris Nemtsov nearly a year ago.

Taking out an internationally known former deputy prime minister whom Boris Yeltsin once touted as his potential successor as president suggests that -- just as in Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s -- nobody is immune.

And nobody knows who will be next.

And it appears to be working.

In a recent interview with Ekho Moskvy, the respected Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov said that for the first time since the 1980s, "fear dominates society," limiting the ability of many to express their true opinions even to family and close friends.

According to a recent poll by Gudkov's employer, the Levada Center, 26 percent of Russians say they are afraid to express their true opinions to pollsters -- and more than half say they believe others are afraid to express honest opinions.

Russians, Gudkov said, have developed something similar to Stockholm Syndrome, the tendency for hostages to identify with their captors rather than oppose them.

Back in 2012, the venerable human rights activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva told Reuters that Putin "would probably like to use exclusively Soviet methods, but that's impossible in the 21st century."

It appears that he thinks he has found a virtual equivalent.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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