History Repeating: Putin and Stalin

Matt Williams
8 min readMar 17, 2023

If it walks like Stalin, talks like Stalin, and is trying to rehabilitate Stalin… you get the rest!

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In a previous article, I pointed out the parallels between the Soviet-Afghan War (1979–1989) and the current conflict in Ukraine. In the process, I recalled how in recent years, Putin has attempted to rewrite history in order to portray this war in positive terms. Whereas the Soviets (under Gorbachev) denounced the campaign in 1989 as a travesty, shortly after the withdrawal, Putin’s government reversed this stance and even drafted legislation claiming the war was justified and ended too soon.

This raises another way in which history is repeating itself under Putin. In addition to launching repressive measures at home (like the Purges and Great Terror), military misadventures abroad (like the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5 and Afghanistan), and blaming the west for all his actions (like Soviet dictators since 1917), he is also trying to revise the past to fit HIS worldview and agenda today.

For brutal dictatorships, history must occasionally be rewritten to fall in line with whatever lie they are currently pushing on the public. In this respect, Putin is in good company, especially where Russian tyrants are involved. And when it comes to Russian tyrants, no one can match the depravity and brutality of Joseph Dzhugashvili (better known by his alias, “Joseph Stalin”).

“He who controls the past controls the future.”

This Stalinesque practice is well-documented by historians and scholars, not the least of which was Eric Arthur Blair (aka. George Orwell). Orwell brutally satirized this and other aspects of Stalin’s rule in his seminal books, 1984 and Animal Farm. For those who are not familiar, the latter story is set on a farm where the animals have revolted and overthrown the former owner, Mr. Jones (a drunk who is cruel to the animals he keeps).

Once the animals are in charge, they establish rules inspired by their spiritual leader — Old Major (an allegory for Karl Marx and Lenin). The most important of these is that:

“All animals are created equal.”

Eventually, the pigs assume a leadership role (being more clever than most of the other animals), and a leadership struggle begins between the intellectual Snowball (representing Trotsky) and the brutal Napoleon (Stalin). In time, Napoleon chases Snowball off the farm using a bunch of attack dogs he has raised in secret. Now firmly in charge, Napoleon and his cronies begin committing abuses and atrocities and imitating the behavior of other farmers — including Mr. Jones.

Concordantly, the pigs begin casually rewriting the rules to justify their actions — and, of course, pretending that the rules were always that way. In no time at all, the farm becomes indistinguishable from what it was before and the rules have been so rewritten that they effectively say the opposite of what they said before. Eventually, the pigs abandon all pretense and rewrite the foundational principle of the revolution itself:

“All animals are created equal. But some are more equal than others.”

In 1984, Orwell explored this practice in more detail. In the society he depicted, the Party relies on the constant destruction and alteration of historical documents to create the illusion that life is improving and that the Party line has always been consistent. Orwell was inspired not only by Soviet and Nazi practices but the censorship he witnessed during the Second World War while working as a journalist for the BBC. He also drew inspiration from the history of the Church and the concept of “Papal Infallibility.”

As Orwell depicted, dictatorships have always conspired to control information so that it presents a version of reality favorable to them. Basically, the truth is whatever the “infallible” rulers say it is, and it has always been this way. “There is no contradiction between what we’re saying now and what we said in the past! If you question that, you’re a heretic, a traitor, and in league with our enemies, and we’ll kill you!”

In Orwell’s brilliant satire, the fictitious rulers of Oceania maintain total control over the flow of information and are revising it constantly to ensure people can never prove otherwise. Political prisoners disappear, are executed in private, and all records of them are erased (they become an “unperson”). When the ongoing war shifts to a new enemy, all historical documents are altered to say that they were always the enemy. The State declares that old heroes are traitors, and they were always traitors. It makes no sense, but that’s how totalitarian regimes work.

Stalin and his cronies were particularly adept at this. Throughout his rule, they rewrote the rules repeatedly to define what was proper and what wasn’t. When Stalin needed to rid himself of Trotsky and his desire to export the revolution, he denounced anyone who appeared too international in outlook (“left-deviation”). When he needed to consolidate his control over Soviet industry and agriculture, he condemned support for the peasantry and privatization as “right deviation.”

WW2 Database

As Stalin purged his enemies, Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamanev, and Tukhachevsky, the historical narrative was repeatedly revised to depict them as traitors to the Revolution. A perfect and well-known example is the Damnatio memoriae photos of Nikolai Yezhov (shown above). Yezhov was the head of the NKVD until 1940, when he was purged and executed (because Stalin needed someone to take the fall for his latest rampage). Thereafter, he was removed from photos where he was shown in the company of senior Party members.

In addition, Stalin began pushing the “great men” version of history during his rule, which coincided with his attempts to legitimize his rule. Gone were the days of Marxist-Leninist slogans that claimed that it was the common people who drove history. Given that Stalin ruled through fear and a cult of personality that portrayed him as the only one fit to rule, he needed history to reflect that romanticizing rulers like Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible, and other dictators.

Such was the nature of truth under Stalin: entirely fluid and shifting to suit whatever the hell he was doing (or whoever he was murdering) that day.

“He who controls the present controls the past.”

Between 1989 and 1991, there was a new spirit of hope sweeping through the Soviet Union. Along with Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost (“openness”) and Perestroika (“reconstruction”), the Berlin Wall fell, the Warsaw Pact broke apart, and the Soviet Union collapsed. During this period, the Soviet archives were opened, and the full extent of Stalin’s crimes were made public.

This was accompanied by people from all across the country sharing letters, photos, and memorabilia that revealed just how awful life was under Stalin. This included the millions who were sent off to the gulag, the years they lived in abject terror, how they were terrorized into fighting and dying during the Second World War and the countless people who were summarily murdered. But with the economic crisis of the 1990s and the rise of Vladimir Putin, the narrative changed.

Instead of being viewed as an era of hope, the period between 1989–1991 is now seen in terms of defeat. The Soviet Union was no longer a dark past characterized by oppression and murder, but nostalgia. And Stalin went from being a sadistic murderer to a strong leader who won the Second World War and made the Soviet Union a superpower. Granted, this narrative existed during the post-Soviet era but was confined to a small minority of revisionists.

Today, Stalin’s face can be seen everywhere in Russia, on billboards, walls, and in windows. Monuments dedicated to him have popped up all around the country, many of which were gathering dust in storage facilities. It’s no coincidence that this campaign to rehabilitate one of history’s greatest monsters has coincided with Putin’s own rise to power. As Putin eliminated all opposition, suppressed civil rights, censored the press, and assassinated and jailed journalists, whistle blowers, and political opponents, the idea that he was the next “Iron man of Russia” (and Stalin’s successor) grew.

This is no different than his attempts to rehabilitate the Soviet Union, which parallel his attempts to restore it. In addition to comparing himself to Peter the Great, Putin has also claimed that the collapse of the Soviet Union — which he described as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century —is the reason for his military misadventures into Chechnya (1999), South Ossetia (2008), Crimea (2014), and now Ukraine (2022).

It should come as no surprise that Putin is imitating the tactics of Stalin and other Soviet-era dictators. Nor should it come as a surprise that he is trying to rewrite the past to fit his behavior. He is a product of the old Soviet ways, a Russian tyrant in the exact same mold. He also came to power amid the exact same circumstances as Stalin — a false flag operation (the Russian Apartment Bombings) that he then exploited to consolidate his power and launch wars and purges.

For most of his life now, Putin has waged an unrelenting war on truth and reality, all for the sake of seizing and maintaining power. He has killed any narrative (or anyone who dares to speak it) that he doesn’t control, mainly because those narratives expose him as a liar, a monster, and a coward who rules through fear, intimidation, corruption, and violence. This has been demonstrated and documented backward and forward by Russian sources — which is why Putin is in the habit of murdering journalists and whistle-blowers.

Claiming that the attacks on him are somehow “western propaganda” are pure cynicism and flagrant hypocrisy — not to mention blatantly and stupidly predictable! It is always the first resort of dictators and the guilty to feign persecution and point fingers. And if you’re willing to believe these claims based on nothing more than blanket anti-western rhetoric, and your only defense is “well, you believe the other narrative,” you are engaging in sophistry and intellectual dishonesty.

The truth is knowable and ascertainable. You just have to be willing to think critically, for yourself, and not project your failings onto others.



Matt Williams

Space/astronomy journalist for Universe Today, SF author, and all around family man!