Vladimir Putin’s regime has always been authoritarian. But since Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, something has shifted. Putin has completely shut down Russian civil society and criminalized free expression while launching a massive campaign of propaganda and disinformation. Russia is rapidly becoming a totalitarian state. The pieces are all there.
As a historian of the Soviet Union, I do not use the term “totalitarian” lightly. But Western policymakers need to understand what they are looking at in Russia in order to come up with effective policies.
What is totalitarianism? The German-American political philosopher Hannah Arendt saw it as a novel form of authoritarianism based on the total mobilization of society and the isolation of individuals. The British author George Orwell described it as a system of government that thrives on the inversion of truth: “WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”
One of the most perceptive observers of a totalitarian state in the making was the German Jewish scholar Victor Klemperer, who chronicled the rise of Nazi Germany. Klemperer’s diary entries from 1933, as he watched Adolf Hitler’s rise toward becoming the Führer, can help us make sense of what we are now seeing in Russia — the coordination of institutions from above, a sustained propaganda campaign that imparts a sense of inevitability, and the atomization or breakdown of society.
The Socialist papers are permanently banned. The “Liberals” tremble. The Berliner Tagesblatt was recently banned for two days. . . . Every new government decree, announcement, etc., is more shameful than the previous one. — Victor Klemperer, March 1933
In Russia we are currently witnessing the regime coordinate all social, political, and cultural institutions to serve its goals. Putin has shut down independent media, banned Western social media, and criminalized all criticism of his policies. Every nongovernmental organization that does not explicitly support Putin’s policies has been shuttered. The Russian State Duma has supported these actions with endless decrees.
Putin’s adviser on culture, Vladimir Tolstoy, has told Russia’s writers and artists that there is a “litmus test” and the only acceptable position is “open support” for the regime. The Russian Education Ministry is introducing a compulsory patriotic curriculum for elementary school students. There also have been moves to close sociology departments at universities and eliminate other disciplines that are seen as having been too heavily influenced by the West.
As Russian institutions are being brought into line with Putin’s regime, virtually all ideas expressed in the Russian media are now projections of an official position. Western observers have asked whether Russian pundits who call for the elimination of Ukraine as a nation and Russian academics who put forth an imperialist agenda are really expressing the intentions of the state. The answer is yes.
Propaganda and inevitability
I too am beginning to believe in the power and permanency of Hitler. It’s dreadful. . . . And if I can hardly guard against believing it — how shall millions of naive people guard against it? And if they believe, then they are indeed won by Hitler and power and the glory are really his. — Klemperer, November 1933
Since the start of the war, a national-patriotic ideology, grounded in anti-Westernism and deriving emotional resonance from the memory of World War II, has reached new heights. Russian propaganda falsely depicts Ukraine as an “artificial” state run by Nazis and as a pawn being used by the West to pursue an aggressive agenda. It proclaims a life-or-death struggle with the West and portrays Russia’s victory and Putin’s continued rule as inevitable.
Putin held a huge rally in Moscow in March, and state officials have organized demonstrations across Russia. On Russian social media, propaganda videos depicting the “special military operation” as a fight against Nazism use religious imagery and spliced-in footage from World War II. Talk show hosts on Russian state television warn of “fifth columnists” and call for society’s purification. At the same time, “Z,” a symbol of support for the war, has become ubiquitous.
Western policymakers should work with Russian dissidents and NGOs that have fled the country to develop a counterpropaganda campaign that can penetrate the information barrier and reach the Russian people. The BBC has revived its shortwave radio service to Russia, but this is not enough. Effective counterpropaganda will need the same emotional resonance as Russian propaganda. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s video appeal to the Russian people, shared on YouTube and via the Russian messaging app Telegram, has been the most successful effort yet. It was seen widely enough in Russia that it prompted a response from the Kremlin. It should serve as a model.
The atomization or breakdown of society
I simply cannot believe that the mood of the masses is really still behind Hitler. Too many signs of the opposite. But everyone, literally everyone, cringes with fear. No letter, no telephone conversation, no word on the street is safe anymore. Everyone fears the next person may be an informer. — Klemperer, August 1933
Russians who oppose the war have become isolated. The imposition of fines and prison sentences for speaking up, along with the threat of being sacked from one’s job or expelled from school, has led people to recalculate the cost of opposition. Cases of students denouncing teachers who express doubts about the “special military operation” are featured on TV and have a chilling effect.
Tens of thousands of Russians who oppose Putin’s policies have left the country. Others have come to hide their dissent, or even publicly express support for the regime, for the sake of self-preservation. Some Russians continue to engage in small acts of resistance such as posting “No to War” signs in their neighborhoods and leaving antiwar messages on supermarket labels and rubles. A few brave souls take greater risks, like passing out the phone numbers of human rights lawyers to young men called up for conscription.
With the spread of surveillance and the mobilization of society to turn in “traitors,” resistance of any kind has become much more dangerous. At the same time, the Russian government has blocked Western social media apps, making it more difficult for Russians without VPNs (which get around online firewalls) to find accurate news online. Some antiwar Russians are continuing to find one another on Russian social media apps like VKontakte and Telegram. Russian activists and journalists abroad, including those writing for Meduza and Mediazona, are doing what they can to send information about the war into Russia, but getting it through has gotten much harder.
There is a reason Klemperer’s diary entries from 1933 sound so foreboding. Just like Klemperer, we have been watching a totalitarian regime settle into place. The good news is that Russian opinion polls showing popular support for Putin’s policies are meaningless. We are not seeing a “rally around the flag” effect. The bad news is that Putin does not need popular support at home to wage his war against Ukraine and to carry out a genocide. He just needs complacency.
In response, Western policymakers should look for better ways to reach the Russian people. Counterpropaganda efforts should tell the truth about the war in Ukraine, and they should also amplify Russian voices of dissent to let Russians who oppose Putin know that they are not alone. Finally, Western observers who have questioned whether the goals of Putin’s war include genocide should understand that calls in the Russian media to wipe Ukraine off the map and eliminate the Ukrainian identity are a direct expression of Putin’s agenda.
Putin’s Russia differs from 1933 Germany in one critical way: Germany had not yet launched a brutal war of aggression against a neighboring nation, and Putin has. It was a mistake for European leaders to meet with Hitler in the 1930s. Thankfully, President Biden understands that with Putin, appeasement is not an option.
Francine Hirsch, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.