Russia’s Downhill Slide to Dictatorship

Niall Ferguson, a professor of history at Harvard University and a senior research fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, is the author of "Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire" (Penguin, 2004).

In an amateurish way, I am a Russophile. It was reading “War and Peace” as a schoolboy that convinced me I should study history at university. My favorite film of all time is still the Soviet-era adaptation of Tolstoy’s masterpiece. Throughout my 20s, I was a Dostoevsky devotee. Even today I can think of few pleasures to match reading the short stories of Chekhov. And then there is the music. For me, Shostakovich’s chilling, haunting Piano Quintet will always be the signature tune of the 20th century.

Yet it was always possible to love Russia and to hate the Soviet Union. And it is possible today to love Russia and to hate what Vladimir V. Putin is doing to her.

I seldom agree with the New York Times, but Nicholas Kristof was pretty much on target. “The bottom line,” he wrote, “is that the West has been suckered by Mr. Putin. He is not a sober version of Boris Yeltsin. Rather, he’s a Russified Pinochet or Franco.”


Correct -- except that Russia is not Chile or Spain. Neither of those countries was ever in a position to pose a serious threat to Western security. But Russia is different. According to Goldman Sachs, its economy could be bigger than Britain’s and even Germany’s by 2030. It remains the world’s No. 2 nuclear superpower. If Putin’s government is indeed turning it into a fascist regime, we should look elsewhere for parallels.

In 1997, I published an academic article -- co-written with the Russian economic expert Brigitte Granville -- titled “Weimar Germany and Contemporary Russia.” I can still remember being teased by one of my brightest undergraduates -- himself a German -- that this was excessively pessimistic, at a time when Russia’s economic recovery appeared to be gathering momentum. I had to remind him just how long the Weimar Republic took to dissolve into Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship.

Born in 1919 in the wake of Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I, the Weimar Republic suffered hyperinflation, an illusory boom, a slump and then, starting in 1930, a slide into authoritarian rule, culminating in 1933 with Hitler’s appointment as chancellor. Total: slightly less than 14 years.

Born in 1991 in the wake of the Soviet Union’s humiliating defeat in the Cold War, today’s Russian Federation has suffered a slump, hyperinflation and is currently enjoying a boom on the back of high oil prices. Its slide into authoritarian rule has been gradual since Putin came to power in 1999. Is it going to culminate -- 14 years on -- with a full-scale dictatorship in 2005? It is beginning to look more and more likely.

Hitler’s power was consolidated after 1933 by the emasculation of both parliamentary and federal institutions. Putin has already done much to weaken the Russian Duma. His latest scheme is to replace elected regional governors with Kremlin appointees. And Russia’s judges look to be next on his list for what the Nazis called Gleichschaltung -- “synchronization.”

Hitler’s regime also rested on the propaganda churned out by state-run media; Putin already controls Russia’s three principal television channels. And Hitler believed firmly in the primacy of the state over the economy. The Kremlin’s systematic destruction of the country’s biggest oil company, Yukos, suggests that Putin takes the same view and that, like Hitler, he regards both private property rights and the rule of law with contempt.


Hitler’s arbitrary rule made him a mortal danger to many Germans. But what made Hitler such a threat to the rest of the world was his desire to extend Germany’s power beyond its own borders. Here too Putin fits the bill. Just ask Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian presidential candidate opposed by Moscow, whose poisoning is widely suspected to have been the work of the Russian secret service.

Nor is this the only example of attempted Russian intervention in the affairs of former Soviet republics. Putin opposed, vainly, Belarussian President Alexander G. Lukashenko’s campaign for a third term in office. And he was hostile to the so-called “Rose Revolution” in Georgia that replaced the old Soviet autocrat, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, with the pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili.

Putin has not hesitated to play the separatist card. He has sought to encourage Abkhazia to secede from Georgia. In Moldova, he has favored autonomy for the enclave of Trans-Dnestr.

This is where the resemblance between Russia now and Germany in the 1930s seems especially apt. Back then, it was possible for Hitler to point to large German populations in Czechoslovakia, Austria and Poland to justify his demands for territorial expansion. Today, the Kremlin can, if it chooses, play much the same game with the Russian minorities in Kazakhstan (where Russians are 30% of the population), Latvia (just under 30%), Estonia (28%), Ukraine (17%), Moldova (13%) and Belorus (11%). Somewhere in that list could lurk the Sudetenland crisis of 2010.

With its hands full in Iraq, the Bush administration generally has been reluctant to lean on Putin. At times, the White House has even seemed willing to accept the Kremlin’s claim that its brutal five-year war against Chechen separatists is analogous to the American “war on terror.”

It hardly needs saying that appeasing dictators is a strategy with a dismal historical track record. Yet Washington needs to proceed with caution; rubbing Putin’s nose in the failure of his Ukrainian meddling might simply encourage him to become still more of a dictator.


But the Weimar parallel is not encouraging. Germany’s descent into dictatorship went in stages; there were three more or less authoritarian chancellors before Hitler, each of whom sought to rule Germany by presidential decree.

The question that remains open is whether Putin is just a more successful version of one of these authoritarian warm-up acts or a fully fledged Russian Fuhrer. Either way, he is fast becoming as big a threat to Western security as he is to Russian democracy.