After Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president of Russia in 2000, one of the first things he did was rewrite the country’s post-Soviet Union national anthem – a wordless dirge that had been chosen in 1990, and which left the country’s athletes standing mute on the podium when they won an Olympic gold medal.
His choice for the new anthem? The old Soviet one, with new lyrics from the poet commissioned by Joseph Stalin to write the original verses.
Even Mr. Yeltsin was taken aback; he saw it as a rejection of the post-communist, democratic path the Russian Federation was on after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
A better interpretation would have been that Mr. Putin was foreshadowing where he intended to take Russia – a destination that today could be described, in the words of some other famous songwriters, as Back in the U.S.S.R.
Just like the good old Soviet days, Russia is annexing neighbouring territories, putting industry to work for the state, rigging the justice system, silencing the media and murdering domestic critics, all while its citizens are fleeing the country for a better life.
On Friday, Mr. Putin will announce to great ceremony that he is annexing a large slice of eastern Ukraine, based on the results of “referendums” in four Ukrainian regions that border Russia: Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
To call the referendums a sham is an insult to shams. The Kremlin-controlled authorities in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” are reporting that 99.23 percent of voters opted for Russian annexation – which is the kind of result you get when you determine the count before the votes are counted, and when voters are politely requested to fill out a ballot by soldiers holding guns. People would have agreed to hitchhike to Mars if that had been the Kremlin’s desired outcome.
Mr. Putin used the same trick when he annexed Crimea in 2014. It also harkens back to the Soviet Union’s takeover of the Baltic states and other satellite countries before and after the Second World War, in which Stalin used a combination of military force, rigged votes and puppet governments to expand his empire.
Mr. Putin no doubt remembers that the Soviets were able to hang on to these territories for decades, even though the West never recognized, for instance, Stalin’s claim on Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – just as it doesn’t recognize Russia’s claim on Crimea but has not stopped Russian from controlling it these past eight years.
He has also picked up the old Soviet trick of making enemies disappear. And, as was the case of anti-Soviet Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk in 1948, many of them are inexplicably flinging themselves out of windows.
The latest was Ravil Maganov, the chairman of the board of Russia’s largest private oil company, on Sept. 1. After he criticized the invasion of Ukraine, he fell to his death from a sixth-storey hospital window while walking and smoking a cigarette, as one does. At least three other Putin critics have been mysteriously defenestrated since August 2021; another fell off his yacht, while another fell down some stairs.
A startling number of mysterious deaths, which also include hangings, have occurred this year alone and have involved prominent players in Russia’s oil and gas industry – which under Mr. Putin has not become a Soviet-style planned economy, but is controlled by him to the degree that he has been able to turn off the taps to European countries to suit his political ends.
And while desperate Russians aren’t (yet) risking their lives by fleeing oppression in flimsy rafts on the icy Baltic Sea, they are leaving the country by the tens of thousands to avoid being drafted into Mr. Putin’s disorganized but escalating military campaign in Ukraine.
What’s old is new again. A critic of Mr. Putin – or anyone who dares call his invasion a war instead of a “special military operation” – has as little chance of getting due process as a victim of Stalin’s show trials. Russian citizens are fed a diet of lies and propaganda over state media that would impress a Soviet apparatchik. And, as Khrushchev once did, the Russian president-for-life is hanging the threat of nuclear war over the world.
If there is any consolation in all this, it’s that the Soviet regime eventually collapsed under the weight of its many contradictions. The downside is that it can take a lifetime for that to happen.