De-Stalinization and de-Putinization

“The fool who does away with restraint and leaves the bounds of reason, does not easily return to the straight and narrow”.

Michel de L’Hospital, Complete Poems, Paris 1857

After so many hopes had been raised in Russian protest circles and in the West with candidate Boris Nadezhdin, despite his program which raised many questions, the hammer fell: the Russian Electoral Commission did not validate his candidacy on the pretext of a few thousand invalid signatures. But the emergence of a candidate, even if he has been rejected, who advocates an end to the war and a new rapprochement with Europe, is symptomatic. Historian Françoise Thom sees a sign of the end of Putin’s rule and a post-Putin era.

The meteoric rise of “anti-Putin” candidate Boris Nadezhdin has raised many questions in our media and those of the Russian diaspora. We wonder why he is still on the loose when he criticizes the war in Ukraine and even Putin. But we are not asking the right questions: if he has been allowed to speak, is it not because he reflects an underground change within certain circles of power? Was he not put to the test because he could become an important piece in the post-Putin Kremlin set up? Even if his campaign was aborted, it shows that serious thought is being given in high places to the post-Putin era, for which this Establishment figure has made himself the spokesperson. That is why the unsuccessful candidate’s program deserves our attention.

The libido dominandi that characterizes Russian leaders always comes up against the same obstacle. It is both inward-looking and outward-looking. There comes a time when internal tyranny is so extreme that it compromises ambitions for external expansion. We saw this under Stalin during the great purges that so disorganized the special services and the Red Army that Hitler almost won; or in 1952-3, when the transition to a war economy brought the Communist bloc to the brink of collapse. The same is true now, when scientists and entrepreneurs are leaving Russia in droves, to the extent that the “shortage of cadres” is severely crippling Russia’s ability to produce weapons and to project its power abroad. Moreover, Russia’s despotism acts as a repellent to the outside world, making it difficult for the Kremlin’s countless agents of influence in NATO countries to operate. We have reached a point where, as in the spring of 1953, a thaw at home is beginning to be seen as indispensable by part of the Establishment, so that Russia can regain the economic health required to relaunch the external expansion project.

“All dictators are mortal”

The atmosphere in Russia in recent months is strikingly reminiscent of that at the end of Stalin’s rule. We have a paranoid dictator preparing for the Third World War, leading the country’s economy to total ruin due to the priority of military production. We have the maniacal persecution of “foreign agents”, widespread denunciation, the hunt for “cosmopolitans” in the cultural sphere, the chauvinistic obscurantism imposed on scholars, the Guide’s increasingly delirious initiatives. All this is the tip of the iceberg. We now know from the memoirs and testimonies of Politburo members and those close to them – Khrushchev, Mikoyan, and Sergo Beria in particular – that a muted opposition had crystallized around the ageing dictator. These men secretly sabotaged Stalin’s most hare-brained orders, such as the increase in levies imposed on already starving peasants. We know that these men were preparing for de-Stalinization while the dictator was still alive. Beria had ordered an investigation into the profitability of the Gulag, which showed that far from contributing to the country’s economy, the Gulag was a burden on the state1. We know that Beria multiplied rumors about Stalin’s failing health, that he sent discreet signals to Western powers, warning against Stalin’s aggressive intentions and suggesting that the Guide’s successors did not necessarily approve of this policy. All kinds of evidence suggest that those close to Stalin sought to discredit him while he was still alive, amplifying to the point of hysteria the campaigns of the end of his rule, such as the famous « doctors’ plot », which unleashed a tsunami of anti-Semitism in the country. By the time of Stalin’s death in March 1953, there was a consensus among his successors around a minimum program: cutting military spending, reducing tensions with the West, and rehabilitating some of Stalin’s victims. But cracks soon began to appear, as Beria’s colleagues felt he was going too far, notably in wanting to bring down the communist regime in East Germany and to derussify the republics of the USSR.

Stalin’s funeral // Public domain

After Beria’s fall, Stalin’s diadochi opted for controlled de-Stalinization. As Mikoyan told the plenary session in June 1957: “It took us a long time to judge Stalin properly. In the two years following his death, we did not criticize him. First, we were not psychologically ready for such criticism. Secondly, we had to defend Stalin before the Yugoslavs; we did not want to judge Stalin under the influence of the Yugoslavs. We are prepared to correct our mistakes, but it is not up to the Yugoslavs to teach us what to think of Stalin”2. Khrushchev finally decided to raise the question of Stalin at the 20th Congress (February 1956), because he wanted to take the lead and channel the spontaneous de-Stalinization from below that was worrying the authorities (insurrections in the Gulags were shaking the country). The Soviet leadership initially envisaged a wide-ranging discussion of Stalin’s crimes within the Party, inviting old Bolshevik victims of the repressions. In January 1956, however, they decided it would be more prudent to make these revelations in a closed circle. The solution adopted was to contrast a good Stalin before 1935 and a bad Stalin after 1935, when he attacked the regime’s bigwigs. As Khrushchev put it, “there were often no serious reasons for the physical liquidation” of many people who were “honest Communists” (Khrushchev took it for granted that rank and file “enemies of the people” should be liquidated). But from April 5, 1956, Pravda went to war against “unhealthy minds” who took criticism too far. The Party organized resistance to de-Stalinization. Propaganda called for communism to be regenerated by going back to its roots: “The tragedy of the Party is that it did not listen to Lenin”. In 1956, Stalinism was explained according to Stalinist logic: the crimes of the “personality cult period” were due to the mistakes of some, the incompetence of others, and the treachery and sabotage of “enemies”. Stalin was solely to blame, he was a bad war leader and a mass murderer of good Communists.

In launching de-Stalinization, we must not forget foreign policy objectives. The Soviets were already intent on using the nascent détente to torpedo European integration and transatlantic cooperation. At the Berlin Conference in February 1954, Molotov proposed a European security pact. The West was not fooled. This is how Foster Dulles, the US Secretary of State, interpreted the move: the pact “was presented by Molotov as a Monroe Doctrine for Europe that would exclude American influence.” The pact was to be used by the Soviets to “establish their own dominance in Europe.” The US Security Council noted that “Molotov’s essential objective was to scupper the EDC (European Defense Community) project. In his mind, this was the purpose of the Berlin meeting, and the principal means of achieving it was to create disunity among Western powers.” And it was not long before Moscow was able to reap the rewards of this détente. The proposed European Defense Community (EDC), the Kremlin’s bête noire, was rejected by the French National Assembly in August 1954 under the influence of propaganda by the Gaullist Party and the Communist Party, which presented the project as a serious attack on France’s “sovereignty”. Better still, in December 1954, the Americans abandoned their “rollback” policy to free Eastern Europe from the Soviet yoke.

The 20th Congress of the CPSU voting for Nikita Khrushchev’s report // Public domain

A blueprint for de-Putinization?

This precedent helps us to decipher what is happening in Russia. Putin’s regime goes from one excess to another. The dictator’s obsession with LGBT people, gender-neutral toilets, etc. is reaching grotesque heights; the militarization of the regime is on display everywhere; threats of apocalyptic destruction of the West are an almost daily occurrence. At the same time, confidential contacts with the West are multiplying, foreshadowing an imminent change of policy. Professor Valery Solovey is spreading disparaging rumors about Putin, preparing the desacralization of the “national leader” and the denunciation of the “cult of personality” by showing Putin as a sicky old man wearing incontinence pads with one foot in the grave, or even a corpse kept in a freezer. These efforts to undermine Putin, suggesting that the West (and Ukraine) will soon have another interlocutor in the Kremlin, have already enabled Moscow to achieve notable successes, such as the suspension of US military assistance to Ukraine. The outrageousness of Putin’s policies, the repression for trivial offenses, the arrests of public figures, the suspicious deaths, the increasingly extravagant statements made by the president and his stooge Dmitry Medvedev: all this is paving the way for the tremendous success in Western opinion of an heir endowed with common sense using civilized language.

In the West, people are constantly asking why Putin has not yet been overthrown, when his bellicose posture is costing Russia more and more in economic and political terms. The answer is simple: because the Kremlin’s project of hegemony over Europe cannot be achieved until Ukraine is returned to the service of the Russian empire. Russian propagandist Daniil Bezsonov recently declared that “Ukrainians are needed by Russia as a ‘mobilization resource’ in Russia’s future war against NATO”. An independent and prosperous Ukraine would prodigiously strengthen Mitteleuropa, making Russia an average middle power. The prerequisite for the realization of Russia’s eternal design for domination of Europe is the destruction of Ukraine’s national elites for at least two generations. Stalin starved Ukraine in 1933 while obliterating the Ukrainian intelligentsia; after the war, he waged a merciless war on Ukrainian resistance fighters, most of whom came from annexed areas. Today, Putin stays in power because he does the dirty work. As soon as Russia feels it has achieved what it set out to do in Ukraine, Putin will have to make way for a more presentable replacement capable of repairing relations with the West, winning acceptance of Ukraine’s amputation and enslavement, and getting East-West trade back on track.

The launch of Boris Nadezhdin’s candidacy shows that the changeover may not be as far away as we think. Boris Nadezhdin is not a “decorative” candidate comparable to the “liberal” extras who have taken part in previous elections (indeed, he denies being “liberal”). Here is how he explains to Meduza journalists his reasons for believing in his presidential future by the nature of power in Russia: “Russia is a country where power is exceptionally important. Much more important than in any other country, simply because everything stems from power. And this does not date back to Putin; it was already the case under the Tsars. At the end of Yeltsin’s rule, the government was weak, much weaker than it is today. But the state managed to take someone as insignificant as Putin and turn him into a president. There was nothing obvious about that in 1999, I am sure you will agree. The state has enormous possibilities, everything depends on it.” These enigmatic remarks suggest that he feels he has powerful backing within the “Deep State” machine. And, why not, “maybe Putin will appoint me as his successor”. Indeed, Nadezhdin is an Establishment figure, a seasoned old apparatchik who is on first-name terms with the big names of the regime – Surkov, Volodin, Kirienko, as he likes to boast. He prides himself on being part of the establishment: “People know me,” unlike the unfortunate Yekaterina Duntsova, whom he speaks of with the patronizing attitude of a regime bigwig (“Nobody knew Duntsova”).

More importantly, Nadezhdin is the only person who has formulated a program of controlled de-Putinization that deserves our attention, as it may hold the key to the way Russia changes in the years to come. It is a long-term project: as early as the summer of 2023, Boris Nadezhdin, then Director of the Institute of Regional Projects and Legislation, suggested on the NTV channel that normal relations with Europe should be rebuilt. However, he said, “under the current political regime, we won’t be able to return to Europe; all we have to do is choose another president, who will build a normal relationship with European countries. And everything will fall back into place. The presidential elections will take place next year. I won’t say any more”. In August, he announced his intention to run in the March 2024 elections on the YouTube channel of his friend Dmitry Demushkin, an ultra-nationalist who made his name organizing “Russian marches”. Whenever he expresses a point of view, Nadezhdin engages tirelessly in psychotherapy of the Russian people, deeply marked by the slogan hammered home for two decades by televised propaganda: “As long as there is Putin, Russia will continue to exist. Without Putin, there would be no Russia”. He strives to prove that his approach is strictly legalistic, that he is not a revolutionary, ostensibly distancing himself from Navalny: “I’m not a hero, I have no intention of ending up in prison”, or: “I’m not crazy, I’m not trying to fight the Russian state. Why should I? I’ve been living with it quite normally for so many years. My task is a little different: to create mechanisms that will influence the behavior of this state.” He cites the model of peaceful transition from Stalin to Khrushchev, from Brezhnev to Gorbachev. In short, it will not be the end of the world when Putin leaves power. Everything will go smoothly in the revolution from above that he is proposing. Already, Nadezhdin continues, the regime’s apparatchiks understand the situation as they see problems piling up. They will only serve Putin as long as they perceive his grip to be tight. The Prigozhin crisis shows that this is no longer the case. “Everyone realizes that we’re heading straight for the wall.” When the system enters its final crisis, the Potemkin institutions and organizations created by the regime will start to really function, just as the sham parties in the GDR ended up behaving like real parties in 1990. In the meantime, the watchword is: no waves – “I’m not a revolutionary”. Nadezhdin has no intention of forming a radically new government or reforming the state apparatus. “These are civil servants who carry out orders.” There will be no mass dismissals, no sudden moves. Nadezhdin is aware that it will take time to return to a less militarized economy. Nor does he want to see oligarchs dekulakized. They will simply have to pay more taxes.

“Putin has made catastrophic mistakes in recent years.” In a lengthy interview with nationalist blogger Igor Rybakov, Nadezhdin gives the most exhaustive list of his grievances against Putin (the quotes without hyperlinks that follow are taken from this video). In his view, the Russian president has set the country back, and destroyed the institutions of the Russian state. He confuses a country’s power with its military potential. But “militarization killed the Russian empire and the Soviet Union”. The war in Ukraine, militarization, the obscurantism that leads to brain drain (notably contempt for science, to which Nadezhdin says he is particularly sensitive because he was trained as a physicist), Putin’s obsession with the LGBT community (“according to him, we are at war with gays and lesbians supported by NATO”), the clericalism on display (even though “Catholic churches are busier than Russian Orthodox churches”). But worst of all, in Nadezhdin’s eyes, is the break with Europe, “with which we cooperated for 300 years”, and the pivot toward China: “I don’t understand how we decided to turn toward China”. “The Chinese have no concept at all of what helping a friend means. They think like this: you are weak, we can take advantage of that to make money.”

Saving the essentials

Ideologically, Nadezhdin is a chameleon, just like Putin was during his election campaign in 2000. He sends signals to liberals and patriotic nationalists that he is one of them. But it is in his videos with patriots that he reveals himself the most, and it is obvious that he is on their side. “I’m a Russian patriot, 100% a gossudarstvennik,” he repeats. Like Putin, Nadezhdin regrets the collapse of the USSR. “Gorbachev should have turned it into something similar to the EU.” Nadezhdin justified Russia’s aggression against Georgia. Asked about it by the Georgian media, he replied that, in his opinion, this war had been “90% provoked by Saakashvili”. In a 2018 interview, he also expressed surprise that the Georgian president had taken this decision, when his army numbered 30,000 and the Russian army numbered over a million. Apparently, according to Nadezhdin, he was hoping for support from the West, which encouraged him to go to war, but he received no help. Thus, Nadezhdin was repeating word for word the allegations of Kremlin propaganda. And when a Ukrainian journalist pointed out that there was a regular Russian army in Donbas, Nadezhdin was furious: “Why are we giving you the floor?” In 2014-5 our “liberal” welcomed the bloodless annexation of Crimea and believed that “the West will swallow it”.

Nadejdine and his boxes with signatures // His X account

More importantly still, he proposes to relaunch the realization of the Putin-Dugin project for a Russo-centric Eurasian Union, the only way for Russia to maintain its status as a great power: “Russia must unite with Europe, it’s the largest country in Europe, more populous than any European country, and its economy is bigger than that of any European country. In this choir, our voice will be the loudest, and if we unite Europe and Russia, we’ll have an economy more powerful than that of America and Canada, capable of competing with India and China, whereas if we pursue Putin’s policy toward China, we’ll find ourselves China’s vassals”. And he reassures patriots: “We won’t kowtow to NATO. Europeans need to understand that we are no longer a threat.” Nor does he fail to harp on about Europe’s lack of sovereignty because of US presence: “Why isn’t Europe sovereign? Because the American army is stationed there. I want the Russian army there… Today, American generals are in charge, but I want Russian generals to be. Europeans put up with Americans, they’ll be delighted to have Russians. Not by conquest, God forbid. America is in decline. The Germans themselves are going to ask for a Russian corps to be stationed in Germany…” Nadezhdin does not dispute Putin’s thesis about the decline of US and NATO hegemony.

Nadezhdin pledges that his first measures will be the release of political prisoners and the suspension of military operations in Ukraine. He also promises to bring back the Russians who have fled the country. But beware: evacuating occupied territories is out of the question, and so is handing over war criminals to The Hague: “They are Russian citizens”. Giving up occupied territories is also out of the question, since according to the Russian Constitution they belong to Russia. Besides, “Ukrainians fight well precisely because they are Russians. As far as foreign policy is concerned, Nadezhdin sees his main task as getting the West to recognize Russia’s Crimea and Donbas, even if “it’s going to take a long time”. “Without negotiations with the West, we won’t solve the Ukraine problem”. Like Putin, he is counting on Trump. His aim is to persuade the West to force Ukraine to accept the amputation of its territory, endorsed by a referendum in the occupied territories. With America, it will not be difficult, he says: Americans are only interested in making money. Agreeing with Valery Solovey, Nadezhdin is convinced that the Kremlin will be able, with symbolic gestures such as the amnesty of political prisoners, but without any fundamental concessions, to mend fences with the West and return to business as usual. It has to be said that precedents are encouraging, so Russia’s future leaders have good reason to look to the future with optimism.

Preparing for succession: what policy for the West?

As soon as the Kremlin talks about détente, the West magically forgets all about its past difficulties with Moscow. No sooner had Russia dismembered Georgia in 2008 than the West was raving about “liberal” Medvedev. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner felt that Medvedev offered his country a more “promising” future: “The Medvedev generation is something other than Vladimir Putin”. And, under the guise of contributing to the “modernization partnership” with Russia, Westerners rushed into arms contracts, led by France, helping to manufacture the “weapons of the apocalypse” that Putin is now threatening us with. In April 2014, a few days after the annexation of Crimea, French Senator Jean-Pierre Chevènement found justifications for Putin and invited the West to wipe the slate clean by carrying out Russia’s grand project of absorbing European states into the Moscow-dominated Eurasian Union. In September 2014, after the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s organization of secessionist enclaves in Donbas, Chevènement was despatched to Russia by the French government to convey to the Kremlin that France was eager to lift sanctions. Chevènement was careful to stress that France was not concerned about Western solidarity: “I am still of the opinion that contracts have been signed and must be implemented. France is a sovereign country.” In his view, Putin acted as he did as a result of a misunderstanding, “of instances of incomprehension whose accumulation over time has led to this Ukrainian crisis that nobody wanted in the first place”. Russophiles and Kremlin propaganda always speak of “incomprehensions” and “misunderstandings” precisely when Westerners begin to see through Moscow’s game.

The de-Putinization program now emerging has another point in common with Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization. In both cases, the criminal aspect of the regime is glossed over. The war in Ukraine is criticized because it was a failure, not because it is criminal and unlawful to attack a neighbor who will not submit. The destruction of the Ukrainian nation is an objective that no Establishment Russian will question. Yet, without an honest willingness to expose the crimes of the past (not only those committed by Putin, but also those of the Soviet era), all we will get is a new-look autocracy. The study of history is a school of honesty and an apprenticeship in truth, which Russia needs more than anything.

History, as ever, has one last question for us. We have seen that Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization went off the rails, despite the CPSU’s efforts to channel and control it. It led to a crisis in the Soviet empire (Berlin uprising in 1953, political turbulence in Poland in 1956, Hungarian uprising in 1956); in the long term, it undermined Marxist-Leninist ideology and dealt it a blow that proved fatal. The leaden blanket that Putin has brought down on the country is so heavy that, predictably, the process initiated by future de-Putinizers will be unmanageable. As soon as the lid is lifted a little, everything risks boiling over. Reformers may be forced to go further than planned. Here, much depends on the firmness of the Western position. In October 1989, the beleaguered GDR requested emergency financial aid from West Germany. To the dismay of East German leaders, who had been accustomed to living off West Germany for years, Chancellor Kohl refused to bail out the SED (GDR’s Communist Party), and made it a condition of his aid that truly democratic elections be held in the GDR. This firm stance led to the collapse of the SED and made German reunification possible.

The Russia that will emerge from the ruins of Putinism will require investment, technology, and consumer goods. It will have understood its dependence on Europe, but it will intend to remedy this by seeking to bend European elites to the Kremlin’s will. Consequently, the West will have to set firm conditions from the outset for the lifting of sanctions and the resumption of trade with this country, and not budge on this point, despite Moscow’s siren calls. The evacuation of all territories taken from neighboring countries is the only serious indicator of a genuine desire for change and the abandonment of hegemonic aims in Europe. Until Russia gives up its domination logic, it will remain a dangerous interlocutor for democracies. Nadezhdin was not an anti-war candidate; he was a candidate for war by other means.

She has a degree in classical literature and spent 4 years in the USSR from 1973 to 1978. She is an agrégée in Russian and teaches Soviet history and international relations at Paris Sorbonne.

Footnotes

  1. About the end of Stalin’s rule, a particularly fascinating time, see Beria, by Françoise Thom, Lexio, 2022.
  2. Istoritcheski Arkhiv, 4/1993 p.40

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