History Lessens — The fall of autocrats bring endless possibilities

History Lessens

The fall of autocrats bring endless possibilities

Bryan Zepp Jamieson

June 18th 2023


One of the problems with historical parallels is that they usually don’t hold up very well. For example, when Putin attacked and invaded the Ukraine, a lot of people, including myself, compared it to Hitler’s attack on Poland in 1939.

Well, as the old saying goes, “History doesn’t repeat; it just has recurring themes.” History DOES show that similar motives result in similar actions, but the results are rarely similar.

Suppose, that by 1941, Hitler found that he only held a fifth of Poland, and was at risk of losing that relatively small gain. Suppose, further, that the Wehrmacht had lost a quarter of their troops, most of their tanks, and had lost air superiority. Finally, it had obliterated Hitler’s plans to seize all of Europe as a first step toward global conquest.

Some people would be smugly comparing it to any number of failed invasions and occupations (and indeed, most such do fail) and assuring us that history repeats.

I look at how the Russians have been largely stymied in Ukraine and reflect that had western Europe and what later came to be known as the Allied Forces resisted Hitler in 1939 the way they have resisted Putin, World War II might have been averted, at least in Europe, and Hitler would be another failed demagogue who would be forced from office, his fate to be that of a more obscure historical question in British pub quizzes.

For Russians, there are echoes of the their own past, some 100 to 120 years ago. Russia then was reeling from a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Japanese, the economy was crap, autocrats were robbing the country blind, and widening splits were appearing in the social fabric and in the military. Even the Russian calendar, still using the old Julian tabulation, was out of step with the rest of the world by some ten days.

Then WW1 broke out, and while Russia acquitted herself well in helping to subdue the Germans, von Hindenberg was able to expel the Tsar’s Army from East Prussia, further disillusioning a Russian population that wasn’t too enthusiastic about fighting in a family squabble amongst the detested western European nations. Before that “family squabble” was even over, the Tsar was overthrown, and a few months later, a second revolution put the Bolsheviks in power.

Does a similar fate await Russia now? Remember: themes, not repetition. Even though many older Russians miss the “good old days” of the USSR, I don’t expect anything along the lines of a Bolshevik revolution. Conditions are ripe for a revolt of some sort, though, although the nature of the various factions would make such an event a grim prospect indeed for the Russian people, and possibly for the world at large.

The Wagner Group—the fascist private militia Putin imagined could give him plausible deniability for Russian excesses and atrocities outside his borders—seems to be turning on him and his military. The mercenaries are fed up with incompetence and ineffectualness of the Russian military, with cause, and Russian soldiers are disgusted with the mercenaries because they are mercenaries and behave the way mercenaries usually do. (George III used mercenaries in the American colonies, and I suspect that is one of the major reasons the colonies succeeded in breaking away).

Because Russian society is nearly as closed off as it was in the days of Stalin, it’s hard to get a good feel for the social and political currents swirling around the Kremlin, but Russia’s diminished standing in the world, the lackluster-to-poor economy, and the disappointment of Ukraine do not paint a rosy picture for Putin.

If the reports are to be believed, Putin himself is exhibiting the paranoia and self-imposed isolation of an autocrat under siege. That’s usually the most self-destructive trajectory someone like Putin can take, and is widely regarded as a death spiral. Think Hitler in his bunker.

Outside of Turkiye and Hungary, the rest of NATO have to be feeling pretty good. Having resisted the efforts of Trump/Putin to destroy the alliance, they now can point to the Ukraine and lay claim to having avoided a much bigger regional war in Europe. I mention those two countries in particular because they are both ruled by vicious autocrats not unlike Putin, and both are more sympathetic to the fascist leader of Russia than to their own people, let alone NATO.

This summer may prove decisive for Ukraine. If they can expel the Russian forces, they will be a solid member of NATO for many years to come, and it’s likely that Putin will fall. How far Russia falls is a more open question; when the USSR fell, everyone welcomed a new capitalist and democratic Russian Union. Only the capitalists expressed their love through what amounted to a gang-rape of Russia, leaving the country as it is today, a broken kleptocracy.

For the sake of the Russian people, I hope history doesn’t repeat. For the sake of us all, I hope for some of the better themes that might follow in the wake of all this.

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