A sweeping history of Russian power in the world, and of Stalin’s power in Russia (recast as the Soviet Union), full of surprises, with uncanny echoes of today’s realities.

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Stephen Kotkin

is the John P. Birkelund Professor in History and International Affairs at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1989. He is also a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Weimar: the Analogy in History

Historical analogies come all too easily and invariably mislead.  In the 1990s, the Weimar analogy, in relation to Russia, was ubiquitous.  Post-Soviet Russia suffered an economic collapse worse than what most countries had suffered in the 1930s Great Depression.  Commentators observing Russia’s agony, as well as its nationalist clowns (like Vladimir Zhirinovsky), perceived a replay of Germany’s democratic republic giving way to Nazism.  This was wrong, as I argued at the time – but now?

Fascist-like regimes can only result from concerted political action, not economic distress, but in that light much has happened.  Russia’s constitutional order after 1991, even more than Germany’s in the 1920s, never coalesced and in the 2000s was transformed into Putin’s personalistic dictatorship, built up over many years of dedicated work.  Of late what we see is even more: rabid promotion of a hateful, prideful nationalism as well as of stormtroopers (albeit in the tens of thousands rather than Weimar Germany’s millions).  Drumbeats about Russia as an exceptional or providential power are being reinforced by still more relentless accusations of Western, especially American, treachery to sabotage or outright dismember the country.  True, resentment at American power is hardly confined to Russia; on the contrary, together with social conservatism, it is one of the most globally resonant ideologies, strong in China, Iran, Turkey, Germany.  But in Russia, the anti-Americanism has acquired particular potency in combination with an enforced state of siege, and could help inspire and justify mass violence.

Putin appears able – should he so desire – to ratchet up the emotional appeals to a “special destiny” and “a stab in the back,” as well as, crucially, the street paramilitaries.  Were the popular Russian leader to opt for that path – a big if – Russia would not come to resemble Nazism.  But it could become a fascist-style regime, not just the repressive, kleptocratic, “patriotic” one of today.  This is not a prediction.  And one should not make the regime’s propaganda seem 100 percent efficacious, or overlook the countervailing tendencies in Russian society.  As in the 1930s and Hitler’s revolution, much depends on the domestic establishment, and on the behavior of foreigner powers.