Lucan Ahmad Way is professor of political science and co-director of the Petro Jacyk Program for the Study of Ukraine at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. He is the co-author, with Steven Levitsky, of Revolution and Dictatorship: The Violent Origins of Durable Authoritarianism, which is a finalist for this year’s Lionel Gelber Prize.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s disastrous and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine exposed Russia’s surprising military weakness, but it also revealed Mr. Putin’s unexpected resilience. Such resilience is, to an important extent, rooted in the 1917 Russian Revolution that occurred more than a century ago.
In early 2022, as more than 150,000 Russian troops amassed on Ukraine’s borders, U.S. intelligence officials worried that Kyiv would fall “within days.” However, poor planning, lack of equipment and fierce Ukrainian resistance quickly forced the Russian military to abandon efforts to take Kyiv and later retreat from positions in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. The Russian army has yet to fully recover.
Even more ominously for Mr. Putin, the invasion has had enormous social costs that would seem to present a serious challenge to a leader who has long relied on popular support to maintain his rule. Since the invasion, nearly 200,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded. Last fall, military setbacks forced the government to draft hundreds of thousands of ordinary Russians – a move that some predicted would put Mr. Putin’s regime in “serious danger.” About half a million people have abandoned Russia since the February invasion, resulting in the most serious brain drain since the collapse of the USSR. Unprecedented Western sanctions have cost Russian oligarchs nearly US$100-billion, slowed Russia’s growth and caused hundreds of Western businesses to leave the country. The invasion has also dramatically weakened Russia’s power on the world stage. Mr. Putin has lost influence in Central Asia and his country’s ties to the European elite. Russia has become “China’s new vassal.”
Despite such catastrophic policy failures, he remains firmly ensconced. No serious challenger has yet emerged in Russia either from within or outside the government. Existing public opinion polls – which obviously should be interpreted with extreme caution in a country that so brutally punishes dissent – suggest that Mr. Putin and the war retain significant support.
Yet, such support can be partly explained by the fact that Mr. Putin has systematically eliminated all opposition and independent, critical voices in the country. Over the past year and a half, what remains of the independent media and civil society that had survived the first two decades of Mr. Putin’s rule has been banned. Without public criticism or plausible opposition, at least some Russians likely acquiesce because alternative scenarios are very hard to imagine. Opposition exists in Russia – including brave, imprisoned individuals such as Vladimir Kara-Murza and Alexey Navalny. But such figures represent moral voices in the void – bearing closer resemblance to Soviet-era dissidents than to a viable, organized opposition that could plausibly take power or unite those disaffected by Mr. Putin’s rule.
Mr. Putin’s ability to rule unchallenged and his resilience in the face of recent problems can partly be traced to Vladimir Lenin’s Russian Revolution, which took place more than a hundred years ago. Social revolutions – such as those in Russia in 1917, China in 1949, Cuba in 1959, Vietnam in 1954, and Iran in 1979 – have historically produced some of the most durable autocracies in the modern world.
Revolutionaries violently seize power from below, and in contrast to most new leaders, they seek not simply to maintain power but fundamentally transform society by attacking powerful groups, including landowners, wealthy business people and aristocrats. In Russia, Lenin did not simply try to keep control but expended serious efforts to wipe out entire social classes – calling on Russians to “loot the looters” by seizing factories and killing members of the upper class. Tens of thousands were executed in the first years of Soviet power.
In China, Mao Zedong similarly sought to destroy and humiliate China’s entire ruling elite. In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini attempted to incite Islamic revolution against dictatorships in the Persian Gulf. Such behaviour provoked bloody conflicts – civil war in Russia and China, and external wars in Iran and Vietnam – that ultimately strengthened autocracies in these countries by forcing revolutionary governments to build powerful militaries and police forces and destroy alternative sources of power – churches, rival parties and independent civil society. For example, weeks after the Bolsheviks took power, Russia’s rulers created a new police force in response to counterrevolutionary threats – the Cheka, which would later become the KGB, the largest and most effective political police in modern history.
In the USSR and in China, social revolutions made it possible for governments to penetrate deep into their societies and create totalitarian dictatorships that suppressed virtually all forms of independent activity – political parties, trade unions, civil society. Even independent actions in support of the Soviet government were repressed for fear they might one day be directed against the regime.
The legacies of Soviet dictatorship remain strong in Russia today. Mr. Putin’s regime is not revolutionary: Russia is no longer communist and Mr. Putin gained power at the ballot box rather than through a revolution. Nevertheless, the legacies of Russia’s 1917 revolution have enormously strengthened Mr. Putin’s autocracy. In the first place, Mr. Putin draws his power from the KGB, which was one of the few institutions to retain its power when the USSR fell apart in the late 1980s. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev attacked the power of the Communist Party but did not threaten the KGB. When Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, came to power in 1991, he initially promised to abolish it but quickly changed his mind, in part because the security services were considered too powerful and dangerous – a hornets’ nest best left undisturbed. While the KGB was dismantled on paper, its main staff and activities were transferred to the Federal Security Service (FSB), which remains powerful and is now arrayed against an opposition that from the start was profoundly weakened by 70 years of Soviet totalitarian rule.
A nascent civil society and organized opposition was only just beginning to find its sea legs in Russia after the Soviet collapse when Mr. Putin almost entirely wiped it out. Revolutionary legacies have allowed Mr. Putin to eliminate threats while barely breaking a sweat.
Like its Soviet predecessor, Mr. Putin’s Russia represents an existential threat to global freedom that is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Therefore, U.S. President Joe Biden is right to organize a second summit to unite the world’s democracies – as imperfect as many of them are – to confront the challenges posed by Russia, China and other autocracies. After years in which dictators have been on the offensive, it is encouraging to see the United States take the lead in mobilizing an active defence of liberal values. Mr. Biden’s successful effort to rally Western countries in helping Ukraine beat back Russia’s imperialist aggression provides evidence of what such co-operation can achieve.