What Just Happened in Russia? — It feels like 1934, and the start of the Great Purge

Bryan Zepp Jamieson

June 26th 2023


Despite having had seven years to consolidate his power, Joseph Stalin (Joseph Vissarionovich) was feeling uneasy. Despite the propagandistic success of his “cult of personality” leadership (since emulated by Hitler, Mao, and Trump) and ongoing purges of party leadership in show trials for the previous five years, it was already becoming clear that his plans to collectivize the entire agricultural sector was becoming a major social and economic disaster. Millions had already died as a result of the Holodomor, or Great Famine, which struck principally in the bread basket of the USSR, the Ukraine. Millions more starved to death in Russia proper and in the Kazakh regions. Abroad, Hitler had taken power in Germany, openly proclaiming his intent to invade and subjugate “the Slavic regions” which included the USSR. At home, talk of revolution became more open, and in his personal life, Stalin’s wife committed suicide and his eldest son attempted the same. His oldest daughter had massive mental problems.

Stalin’s response was “the Great Purge” which by 1938 was called “the Great Terror.” Some 750,000 people were executed, and tens of millions thrown into the Gulags.

Incredibly, and American right wingers emulate this cult of personality leadership model, Stalin remained fantastically popular. Even the bloody and wasteful way in which he fought Hitler (somewhat akin to a pitcher wearing out the opposing baseball team by making them run around the bases all day) didn’t put a dent in that popularity, and one of the most striking passages in Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago” is the fulsome and utterly unfeigned grief shown by people imprisoned by Stalin for decades for trival or non-existent offenses upon the news of Stalin’s death.

So why am I comparing 2023 Russia to 1934 USSR, Putin to Stalin? Both were feeling cornered by political, military, economic and personal pressures, most self-inflicted. Both had a triggering crisis that sent them off an operative and subjective precipice.

In 1934, Stalin obsessed over his exiled rival for Soviet power, Leon Trotsky. Exiled since 1922, Trotsky had shifted from nation to nation, and, by then in an unhappy relationship with France, was rumored to be considering a return to the Soviet Union. Stalin feared Trotsky’s influence and possible restoration to power, and that triggered the Great Purge. The biggest of the show trials, in 1936, resulted in executions of Soviet political powers for “Trotskyist–Zinovievist” activities. At that point, the Soviet bloodbath became a result of political calculation, rather than just incompetence and misplaced idealism.

Everyone knows that something very strange happened this past week. Following months of rumors of increasing strife between Vladimir Putin’s Red Army and Ministry of Defence, and Yevgeny Prigozhin’s powerful and vicious mercenaries, the Wagner Group. Prigozhin announced that the Red Army had killed “huge numbers” of mercenaries in what was portrayed as a deliberate attack. Wagner seized control of military facilities in the southern Russian cities of Rostov-on-Don and Voronezhand announced a march on Moscow, a threat the Kremlin took seriously enough to order the capital on lockdown. Then, less than 24 hours later, Prigozhin announced “We turning our columns around and going back in the other direction toward our field camps, in accordance with the plan.” Some kind of agreement permitted the mercenaries to abandon the march on Moscow, unmolested and unpunished for what Putin just hours earlier had called treason and “terrorist acts.” Prigozhin himself left in a cloud of adulation for Belarus, where the country’s brutal dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, has offered him sanctuary. Given that Putin is Lukashenko’s only ally, it’s not clear to anyone why he offered a negotiated out to Prigozhin, although if I were Prigozhin, I would avoid going up stairs in buildings that have windows, odd men with bowlers and umbrellas, and cuppa teas with dusty surfaces. I’m guessing that Lukashenko’s real offer of protection was made to Putin, not Prigozhin, and Putin wants Prigozhin dead or vanished. Prigozhin probably realized that by effectively declaring war on Russia, he bit off more than he could chew. He has since said he was just trying to protect his ‘troops’ and not overthrow Russia. Oh, dear me, no. Just a misunderstanding. Tut tut.

I don’t expect to see Prigozhin still alive by the end of this year. Similarly, Putin took a huge black eye politically, and he’ll either be out of office by then, or Russia will be embroiled in another Great Purge or possibly a revolution.

While nobody has much love for Putin, Prigozhin or Lukashenko, the situation is very worrisome, given that Russia still has more nukes than any other country, and nobody knows who will control those nukes or what they will do with them by year’s end.

For the Ukraine, all this is a golden opportunity to drive the Russians out of their eastern regions, and quite possibly Crimea itself. But remember that will only exacerbate the crisis in Russia and make things even more unstable.

And that’s why I think Putin in 2023 so resembles the position of Stalin in 1934.

This situation hasn’t ended. It may well just be beginning.

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