As we watch the horrific events in Ukraine unfold, many are trying to understand how we got here. With Vladimir Putin leading a brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russia, many who have praised Putin over the years for his leadership skills now look foolish. Also, given the embarrassing performance of the Russian armed forces thus far and the heroic resistance of the Ukrainians, the praise heaped upon Putin for the efficiency of his authoritarian state look even more ridiculous.
Events are unfolding quickly and none of us know how this will end, but it’s useful to put the current situation in historical context. This interview in The New Yorker by David Remnick of historian Stephen Kotkin provides a fascinating perspective from one of the most respected scholars of Russian history.
The entire interview is worth a read, but two points stand out. The first is Kotkin’s response to those suggesting that the expansion of NATO drove Putin’s reckless actions:
“I respectfully disagree. The problem with their argument is that it assumes that, had NAT0 not expanded, Russia wouldn’t be the same or very likely close to what it is today. What we have today in Russia is not some kind of surprise. It’s not some kind of deviation from a historical pattern. Way before NATO existed—in the nineteenth century—Russia looked like this: it had an autocrat. It had repression. It had militarism. It had suspicion of foreigners and the West. This is a Russia that we know, and it’s not a Russia that arrived yesterday or in the nineteen-nineties. It’s not a response to the actions of the West. There are internal processes in Russia that account for where we are today.”
Even more interesting is his explanation of what goes wrong when an autocrat or a despot is in power:
“You have an autocrat in power—or even now a despot—making decisions completely by himself. Does he get input from others? Perhaps. We don’t know what the inside looks like. Does he pay attention? We don’t know. Do they bring him information that he doesn’t want to hear? That seems unlikely. Does he think he knows better than everybody else? That seems highly likely. Does he believe his own propaganda or his own conspiratorial view of the world? That also seems likely. These are surmises. Very few people talk to Putin, either Russians on the inside or foreigners.
And so we think, but we don’t know, that he is not getting the full gamut of information. He’s getting what he wants to hear. In any case, he believes that he’s superior and smarter. This is the problem of despotism. It’s why despotism, or even just authoritarianism, is all-powerful and brittle at the same time. Despotism creates the circumstances of its own undermining. The information gets worse. The sycophants get greater in number. The corrective mechanisms become fewer. And the mistakes become much more consequential.”
We’ve seen this before throughout history. Authoritarian regimes can look very powerful and efficient in the short term, particularly when compared to the many messy aspects of ruling in a democracy. But history has repeatedly show how these autocratic rulers undermine their long-term interests with the tactics they use to maintain control.
Kotkin has excellent credentials regarding these topics. He is know for his biography of Josef Stalin. The first volume is titled “Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928” and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The second volume is titled “Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941” covering the period leading up to WWII. The third volume will cover WWII through Stalin’s death. Obviously, we’re living in much different times, but historians and experts on authoritarianism and despotism have pointed out the dangers associated with these political systems. Many have forgotten these lessons, but the world is now getting a painful reminder of the dangers associated with leaders like Putin.