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For Putin and Russia, some habits are hard to break

The Stalin era ended with the dictator’s death 65 years ago this month, and Putin certainly isn’t Stalin. But hints of the old ways are hiding in plain sight. 

Vladimir Putin will win a new six-year term as president on Sunday.
REUTERS/Anatoly Maltsev/Pool

It’s election season in Russia. Let’s party like it’s 1953.

The Stalin era ended with the dictator’s death 65 years ago this month. But some habits are hard to kick, and hints of the old ways are hiding in plain sight. 

Vladimir Putin, who will win a new six-year term as president on Sunday, is no Stalin, of course. He does have blood on his hands, and at minimum tolerates — perhaps encourages — poisonings and other political assassinations. But he’s not responsible for millions of deaths. On Sunday, his campaign will be satisfied with 70 percent turnout and 70 percent of the vote.  By the time this term is over, however, he will have been in power – either as president or prime minister – for 24 years, nearly as long as Stalin was in total control of the Soviet Union.

Putin’s foes are pretty much the same losers and fellow travelers as always. His most serious rival, Alexei Navalny, has been banned from running – and would have little chance of winning, even if he could.

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The exception in this field is Ksenia Sobchak, a 36-year-old television presenter once called the “Paris Hilton of Russia.” She is angling for the protest vote, but what really makes her unusual is that her father, who was mayor of St. Petersburg, gave Putin his start in politics. For the conspiracy-minded, she must be in cahoots with Putin. Maybe. Maybe not.

The campaign includes the cult of personality-lite features we’ve come to expect. In good Soviet tradition, there’s a new, pro-Putin video by leading Russian pop stars. How about these unsubtle art-serves-politics lyrics:

The ocean of life can be difficult, but our native shores keep us safe.

Out of a million stars, only one is true, only one is visible: the guiding star.

We are stronger together if the guiding star is with us, showing us the way.

So much for the fluff. There is more serious stuff going on, as well.

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of the poisoning of a former spy in Britain on March 4. Poisonings and other assassinations were a time-honored Soviet tradition, and they have been a regular feature of the Putin years, as well. There’s little doubt that the Russians are behind this one, too. On Thursday, Britain, France, Germany and the U.S. condemned Russia for the “first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War.” 

But why now? Putin doesn’t need a crisis to whip up election support. So maybe Russian spymasters with long memories saw an opportunity to go after a traitor. Whether Putin knew in advance is almost beside the point – he presides over a system in which poisoning your foes clearly is considered okay.

On the other hand, Putin is directly responsible for his own language, and his response to a question about Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election was a reminder of past excesses. Asked in an NBC interview whether Russians meddled in the 2016 U.S. election, he responded that perhaps “Ukrainians, Tatars or Jews” might have been responsible

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There is a kerfuffle over whether the question was properly translated. The Russian language uses different terms to describe ethnic Russians and Russian citizens, who may be members of other ethnic groups. There is no real equivalent in English. Even if you accept that the translation was imprecise, it was Putin who named groups who have a history of being singled out as troublesome or disloyal.

In Putin’s world, many Ukrainians are simply neo-fascists. The Anti-Defamation League called Putin out for including Jews, citing a long history of anti-Semitism in Russia. The last great “anti-Soviet plot” of the Stalin years, the so-called “Doctors Plot,” was actually an anti-Semitic concoction that, according to some historians, was to be the leading edge of a pogrom. It collapsed when Stalin died.

Tatars, traditionally Muslims, have their own tortured history. In 1944, Stalin deported them en masse from Crimea, where they lived for centuries, for alleged collaboration with Nazi occupiers. (The accusation was dropped after Stalin died.) Tens of thousands died due to harsh conditions in exile; the Tatars’ struggle to return home finally succeeded as the Soviet Union collapsed. But probably because of their history, they have been hostile to Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

The point is not that Putin would treat Jews or Tatars just like Stalin. More likely, it’s a signal to Russian voters to hang with him. If someone needs to take the blame, history offers plenty of other options.

Finally, there’s a new movie, “The Death of Stalin,” coming soon to a theater near you. It wasn’t the idea of anyone in Russia to make a farce about the dictator’s last days and the subsequent scramble for power. But someone in Russia did decide to ban it as an affront to the wartime generation.

The victory over Hitler holds a sacred place for Russians, who feel that Westerners downplay their wartime suffering and sacrifices. That’s often true. But still, you say an awful lot about your insecurities by banning the film. 

Stalin died in 1953. After a few decades, so did the system. Except it really didn’t. It eventually will, but right now it has a second wind.