Is Vladimir Putin really a Communist?

The modern nation of Russia was formally the centre of the Soviet Union, a socialist state founded after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. On December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Its collapse was gradual and, some would say, even inevitable.

However, some Westerners still believe that Russia is a communist country, even though the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. In March 2022, a poll conducted by The Economist/YouGov found that 42 percent of Americans thought that Russia was communist. The poll also found that the group most likely to have such a perception about Russia are those who voted for former President Donald Trump, with 56 percent of Trump supporters saying that today’s Russia remains communist.

Because many Westerners, including many Western politicians, know very little about Russia, they assume that today’s Russia and its current leader, Vladimir Putin, are communist. According to Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, Ukraine has been invaded “by Soviet dictator Vladimir Putin”. This is so even after the current Russian President having spoken against Communism many times over the years. In fact, the main opposition to Putin’s presidency comes precisely from the Russian Communist Party.

In 2021, during his annual four-hour question-and-answer session, one of the journalists attending that public conversation asked Putin what he thought of Vladimir Lenin, the architect of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the first leader of the Soviet Union. Lenin, he said, was “a destroyer of a thousand years of history whose priority was revolution and destruction”. The State he created, Putin said, "had a weak foundation because it was built on violence, not law." Putin went on to argue that the Soviet Union lasted as long as the Communist Party held it together, but it fell apart as soon as the party's control weakened.

Putin, KGB dissident

Putin also made an important point that he was an intelligence officer so he knew “the people in the KGB very well and they were not nice people". Back in the days of working for the KGB in the 1980s, General Karasev, Putin's former mentor in Leningrad, noted that young officers like him knew much more about the system's flaws, thus becoming more critical of the Soviet regime and its need for change and renewal. They understood that the absurdities of the regime were causing immeasurable damage to the country as much as foreign intelligence agencies combined.

By the late 1980s, Putin was rethinking a lot of things, and his supervisor, Sergei Bezrukov, asserted that he was not a communist. There was a sharp contrast between Putin, the secretary of the party cell, who in front of Colonel Matveyev pretended to be a believer, and Putin, the apostate, who in private conversations considered communism as a destructive ideology. By 1987 the last Soviet leader, Mikael Gorbachev, realised that the political system of the Soviet Union had to be changed. The word Perestroyka became firmly associated with his reforms. When it became clear that Gorbachev aimed for more than a mere cosmetic change to the old communist regime, Putin was hopeful. As noted by his biographer Philip Short,

“Putin had been deeply impressed by the private shops and small enterprises which the East German communists allowed to operate alongside the state sector. They were a different world from the grim, unwelcoming state stores at home with their empty shelves bored shops hands and surly cashiers. Private ownership, Putin concluded, was key. If people were to be motivated, they had to be allowed to accumulate property and to pass it on to their children. If the economy was to develop, there had to be competition”.

For the Russians, the 1980s was an extraordinary period, uplifting and disconcerting at the same time. In the Soviet Russia of those days previously unquestioned tenets of communist belief were set aside and people started to think and say things that had been unimaginable only a short time before. But the real “eye-opener” for Putin was when he worked for the KGB in Dresden. He witnessed all the backwardness of the East German communist regime. First expecting to live in a relatively prosperous European state, soon he found himself working in a “harshly totalitarian country, similar to what the Soviet Union had been 30 years earlier … The entire population was under surveillance as though they were still living in Stalin’s time. Perestroika and Glasnost were anathema”. 

Putin's five-year sojourn in Dresden abruptly ended in 1990. When he and his family were forced to return to Leningrad, at first, they had no place to live and not even furniture. There was no way to buy anything until Putin's first salary arrived. They lived for several months among packing boxes with their meagre belongings from Dresden. In the months following their return from Dresden, the decline in Soviet production dramatically accelerated and rationing of the most basic foodstuffs had been imposed. At a time when approximately 80 percent of the population lived below the poverty line, and factories had stopped paying wages, no Western government wanted to talk of a Marshall Plan to save Russia. The George H.W. Bush administration was wary of anything that might make it appear soft toward its former Cold War adversary.

In May 1990, Putin was appointed as an advisor on international affairs by Anatoly Sobchak, the first democratically elected mayor of St Petersburg, and a co-author of the Constitution of the Russian Federation. Putin’s formal title was Adviser on International Relations, a job aiming to promote Sobchak’s plans to build up Leningrad’s links with the outside world and to affirm Leningrad’s independence from its eternal rival, Moscow. In Leningrad, soon to be renamed St Petersburg, the conflicts within the local legislative council (Lensoviet) between the democratic majority and the communist minority made it almost impossible to administer the city efficiently. Sobchak thus sent Putin to negotiate on his behalf, thus holding meetings with the deputies and winning the support of district administrators for his "very positive role".

The collapse of the USSR

The most remarkable event in the life of every Russian at that time was the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union. The communist regime was gone in September 1991. The many monuments to Lenin all over the country were removed and, in that month, the people of Leningrad voted to return the city to its old name, St Petersburg. In the renamed city, every single street that existed in 1917 got its old name back. Sverdlovsk, named after Yakov Sverdlov, Lenin’s right-hand man, regained its pre-revolutionary name.

Putin personally knew that the Soviet Union was held together by brute force alone. His personal understanding was that the dissolution of the Soviet Union had originated in the sins of its founders. In a television interview in February 1992, six weeks after the Soviet flag was lowered in the Kremlin for the last time, Putin laid out his view about the former Soviet regime:

“We need to see history as it was, and this Soviet period cannot be delivered from our history … Communism was harmful because the attempt to put in into practice in our country caused enormous damage… That is the root of the tragedy that we are experiencing today ... It was precisely those people in October 1917 who laid a time bomb under this edifice, the edifice … which was called Russia … At the same time, they destroyed everything that brings together and rallies the peoples of civilised countries, namely they destroyed market relations … they destroyed nascent capitalism. The only thing they had to keep the country within common borders was barbed wire. And as soon as this barbed wire was removed, the country fell apart. I think this is largely the fault of those people [who made the Bolshevik Revolution].”

This was a controversial view, not widely shared by the general population. Still, on 26 March 2000, Putin was popularly elected as the President of Russia. As the new leader, he soon renewed the important debate about the destructive legacy of communism. In “Russia on the Threshold of the New Millennium”, published on 28 December 2000, Putin denounces the “historical futility of the Bolshevik social experiment,” for which Russians had to pay “a scandalous price.” Communism, Putin declared, was a destructive ideology that had condemned Russia to lag behind the more advanced Western countries:

Russia’s GNP is ten times smaller than the US and five times smaller than China … Labour productivity and real wages are extremely low … Over 70 per cent of our machinery and equipment is over 10 years old … Only five per cent of Russian enterprises are engaged in innovative production. This is the price we have to pay for the economy we inherited from the Soviet Union. But then, what else could we inherit? Today we are reaping the bitter fruit, material and intellectual, of the past decades”.

On the other hand, often quoted is his statement in April 2005 that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century". Here Putin was talking about how the Russian population was left across multiple countries, so his complaint is of a nationalistic nature, not a communist one. Indeed, Putin has spoken up against Lenin many times over. There are even interviews of Putin back in 1991 where he says he's not a Marxist-Leninist and is a Russian nationalist, which is confirmed by his later policies and statements. Dima Vorobiev, a former Soviet Propaganda Executive, and by no means a friend of Putin, bitterly complains that he “consistently acted and sounded like a professed adherent of Capitalism”. According to Vorobiev,

“Vladimir Putin was a card-carrying member of the CPSU until it was banned in 1991. But this was almost a requirement for a successful career, so this doesn’t say much about his past convictions. Moreover, he didn’t lift a finger to protect the USSR when ethnic nationalists brought the country down. His best spin masters didn’t manage to cook a story that would explain why he broke his KGB plead of allegiance … From which we can with full certainty conclude is that President Putin is an anti-Communist … [He] is a very commercially-aware politician and a professed anti-Communist.”

Putin clearly manifested his anti-communist views in a major speech in October 2007, during a visit to the Butovo execution site, 15 miles south of Moscow. Butovo was used for mass executions and mass graves during Joseph Stalin's Great Purge. At the height of the purge, in 1937 and 1938, more than 20,000 people were killed and buried over there. Those murdered in Butovo included more than 900 Russian Orthodox clerics, executed solely for their beliefs, and countless of other Russian people imprisoned by the NKVD only because they had quotas to fill, regardless of presumed guilt or innocence. “We are gathered here”, Putin said,

“to honour the memory of the victims of political repression … 1937 is considered to be the year that the repression peaked, but it had been well prepared by the brutality of the previous years. It is sufficient to recall the shooting of hostages during the civil war, the destruction of entire social classes, of the clergy, the dekulakisation of the peasants, the destruction of the Cossacks. Such tragedies … happened when ideals which were attractive at first glance but which proved in the end to be empty, were placed higher than fundamental values of human life, human rights and freedoms. Millions of people were destroyed, sent to labour camps, shot and tortured to death. As a rule they were people who had their own views, who were not afraid to speak out. They were the most capable people, the flower of the nation … Much must be done to ensure that this is never forgotten”.

 

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Putin’s intellectual hero

Curiously, one of Putin's heroes and his favourite philosopher is the white Russian émigré philosopher, Ivan Ilyin. He was a Russian jurist, religious and political philosopher. Ilyin also was a conservative monarchist and staunch supporter of the anti-Bolshevik White Movement during the Russian Civil War. The Whites were conservative forces who opposed the Bolsheviks, or the Reds, during the Russian Civil War. In 1918 alone, Ilyin was thrice arrested by Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police known for its brutality and terrorist activity. In 1922, he was arrested once again. The charge sheet stated that “from the time of the October Revolution to the presence, [he] has come to terms with the existing Workers’ and Peasants’ Government in Russia, and has not ceased his anti-Soviet activities”.

 Because of his strong anti-communist views, Ilyin was eventually exiled from the country. He first settled in Berlin, where he started teaching at the Russian Scientific Institute. Established by Russian émigrés to study Russia’s spiritual and material culture, the Institute encouraged higher education among young people of Russian descent in Germany. At the same time, Ilyin remained in close contact with Russian White Movement organisations. Indeed, he remained a strong opponent of communism for all of his life, believing that the Bolsheviks had destroyed historical Russia. “By its very nature, socialism is envious, totalitarian, and involves terrorism; and communism differs from it only in that it manifests these features openly, shamelessly, and ferociously”, he wrote shortly before his death.

When the Nazis came to power in January 1933, Ilyin received a visit from the Gestapo. This was followed by several arrests and searches. In the spring of 1934, Ilyin refused to participate in the anti-Semitic campaigns of the Nazis, and as a result lost his job. He then tried to earn a living working as a part-time lecturer but was once again called up by the Gestapo after his writings were deemed unacceptable since they did not contain anti-Semitic statements, and promoted Christian values. Realising that it was too dangerous to remain in Germany, Ilyin emigrated to Switzerland in 1938. There we as able to settle thanks to the efforts and financial support of the great Russian composer Sergey Rachmaninoff.

Ilyin was a conservative monarchist who believed that “Russia can be restored only by serving faithfully and substantively, which must be felt and understand as serving the Cause of God on Earth. We must be guided by religiously meaningful patriotism and religiously inspired nationalism”. “True nationalism”, according to him, “opens a person’s eyes to the national identity of peoples: it teaches one not to despise other peoples, but to honour their spiritual achievements and their national feeling, because they too have received the gifts of God, and they put them to use in their own way , according to their ability”.

Above all, Ilyin unconditionally loved Russia and the Russian people. He despised the Soviet government and the Stalinist regime, considering its leader Joseph Stalin “an enemy of Russia and the Russian people”. He dreamed of a strong, free and capitalist Russia. “Whoever loves Russia must wish it freedom; first of all, freedom for Russia itself, its national independence and freedom; then freedom for Russia as the unity of Russians and all other national cultures; and, finally, freedom for Russian people, freedom for all of us; freedom of faith, freedom in the search for truth, creativity, labour, and the possession of property”, he wrote. According to Maxim Semenov, a Russian journalist,

“[Ilyin] was a nationalist, but felt no aggression or hatred towards other nations. Christianity was very important for him … While he was a strong supporter of Russian nationalism, Ilyin was also open to dialogue. He favoured freedom and criticized the Bolsheviks for establishing a dictatorship … Ilyin’s only mistake was the sincere how that Western democracies could save Russia from communism. That they would not identify Russia with communism and would not want Russia to be humiliated and dismembered. But history turned out to be different”. 

Ivan Ilyin died in Switzerland in 1954, and never had a chance to return to his beloved homeland. In 2005, his remains were returned to Russia and he was reburied at the Donsky Monastery cemetery. President Putin installed a tombstone at his own personal expense. Throughout his presidency, he has often quoted the philosopher and said he regularly reads his works. “Ivan Ilyin is not only one of the most brilliant Russians thinkers whose works have been extensively reprinted, but also, in fact, the only Russian philosopher who wrote about the post-Soviet system. That is why he is so relevant for the current government,” stated an unnamed source in the Putin administration.

Putin believes that Ilyin’s political philosophy is a means of linking Russia to its pre-revolutionary past. This new-old Russia rejects communism as well as the "democracy" of the West, proclaiming a Eurasian identity that brings together the nation’s multiple religions and ethnicities under the banner of Russian Christian Orthodoxy. Beginning in 2005, Putin began often quoting Ilyin's writings in his speeches. The fact that the Russian President frequently cites Ilyin on his speeches underlies the role that he assigns to this political philosopher. A senior official commented: "The demand for his ideas in today's Russia is so strong that sometimes there is a feeling that Ivan Ilyin is our contemporary."

Of course, another anti-communist patriot that Putin expresses his deep admiration is Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the celebrated Soviet dissident who helped to raise global awareness of political repression in the Soviet Union, especially the Gulag prison system. Solzhenitsyn passed away on 3 August 2008 and he was a great admirer of Putin’s policies, praising the Russian President for his “resurrection of Russia”. In today’s Russia, books like Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, a history and memoir of life in Stalin’s prison camp, is compulsory reading to every student in every single school across Russia. The Russian government has placed the book in the high-school history teaching list for all the students.

As can be seen, Putin is helping his country to rewrite its past as many countries have done but it is not like a complete whitewash, or the sort of historical revisionism that is imposed by the illiberal woke elites of so-called Western democracies. Unfortunately, however, many Westerners still know very little about Russia and so they assume that this country still is, and its leader is, communist. No, Russia is no longer communist and anyone who believes its current leader is a communist simply doesn’t know what he is talking about. 


 Does it matter if Putin is not a Communist? Tell us in the comments box. 


Augusto Zimmermann PhD, LLM, LLB, CIArb, DipEd is Professor and Head of Law at Sheridan Institute of Higher Education. He is a former Associate Dean, Research, at Murdoch Law School. During his time at Murdoch, Dr Zimmermann was awarded the University’s Vice Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research in 2012. He is also a former Commissioner with the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia (2012-2017). Dr Zimmermann has been included in “Policy Experts” – the Heritage Foundation’s directory for locating knowledgeable authorities and leading policy institutes actively involved in a broad range of public policy issues, both in the United States and worldwide.

Image credits: Bigstock


 

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  • John Joseph
    commented 2024-06-28 09:46:12 +1000
    I stopped believing Putin was a communist long ago. If you search hard enough you can find many videos wherein Putin decries the moral collapse of the west. He has assiduously cultivated the strengthening of the Russian Orthodox church and its place in Russian culture. The cynics say he does that to shore up his power, but to the discerning student of Russian politics, the blooming of Russian Orthodoxy as soon as the yoke of communism was lifted was a sign of a massive undercurrent of Russian culture that could not be stopped. Putin’s innate nationalist tendencies recognised the bedrock of Russian culture and built on it. Putin is still a tyrant though. He has to be, because Russia has never known anything other than generations of autocrats and oligarchs. If Putin’s obvious desire for the resurrection of Russian culture is to succeed, then he must be the strongest of all oligarchs. The pity of it all is that there have been western ‘leaders’ who have continually painted Putin as a communist dictator for their own nefarious purposes. The result is a Russia not only frozen out of the west, but a Russia mistrustful of the west. And who can blame her?
  • Maryse Usher
    commented 2024-06-27 10:15:28 +1000
    Dr Zimmerman and Michael Cook, my profound thanks for writing/publishing this vital article., I have been searching for years for anything resembling an analysis of Putin and Russia as she is emerging. This is the mirage in the desert. It is a condemnation of mainstream journalism which has utterly failed to investigate and report on Russia as she is emerging today. A communistic media accusing Russia of fascism is beyond a joke. Tucker Carlton’s interview with Putin; Carlton wearing an expression of baffled amazement, showcased Putin’s genius. Especially significant was his claim of sheltering opposing religious groups under the umbrella principles of Orthodoxy. He is clearly a believer. Are we witnessing the beginning of this prediction by the Theotokos of Fatima in 1917: “If people do not convert, Russia will spread her errors throughout the world and entire nations will be annihilated”? Yes, we didn’t and she did, and we in Australia are a little Soviet satellite still and getting worse by the day .

    The irony and the hope lies in what the Holy Virgin said later, “In the end My Immaculate Heart will triumph. Russia will be converted and there will be a period of peace in the world.”

    This is such an inspiring article, but listening to Putin in The Interview convinced me this man will make Russia the most powerful actor on the world stage and an instrument of Christian revival, He is Christian and trying to bring about a new kind of polity which has already begun in Hungary, Italy, Poland and Spain.

    Oh, and thank you, Frank Daley for giving us another source of the truth.
  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2024-06-26 15:10:39 +1000
    I would also like to recommend Judge Napolitano’s channel “judging freedom” for what I find a reasonable view on this and other issues.
  • Frank Daley
    commented 2024-06-26 12:07:39 +1000
    Finally an article from Mercator that seeks to understand Vladimir Putin’s perspective on Russia and its battle against Western Government’s interference in the peace and security of Russia.

    On the more recent conflict between Ukraine and Russia, Jeffrey Sachs continues to provide masterful explanations about the lies and deceits from the West that played the major role in this present conflict. For example this 5 minute video in which he educates Piers Morgan about some key aspects of the history leading up to the conflict

    https://x.com/ricwe123/status/1803806214679056386
  • Daniel O'connell
    commented 2024-06-26 11:08:25 +1000
    Reading this I get the impression (only) that Putin launched the Ukraine war with nationalistic fervour but without realising what a disaster it would turn out to be for Russia and Ukraine. Surely this is the time for Western governments, and NATO in particular, to seize the offer of talks made publicly by Putin recently and try to negotiate an end to this war.
  • mrscracker
    John, you must be the very first person I’ve ever heard accuse Putin of being “trustworthy.”
    :)
  • Susan Rohrbach
    commented 2024-06-25 20:27:27 +1000
    Missing here is the story of Anatoly Golitsyn, a defector who accurately predicted the planned, faked death of communism. Such would be consistent with the choice of a 24 year president Putin. Throwing open the Soviet “venona papers” archive for research might help to shed light.

    But don’t worry, USA has it’s own (fake GOP) president warp speed who goes by the name of most prolife president ever but has recently admitted he would not sign an abolition bill brought to him on a platter.
  • John
    commented 2024-06-25 18:25:21 +1000
    Putin may not be the perfect national leader but is more trustworthy than Zelensky. The latter pretends to be a democratic leader despite banning his opposition.
    The West has baited Putin into attacking Ukraine simply out of dislike for Russia.
  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2024-06-25 15:47:10 +1000
    Are the US and the UK democracies governed by the rule of law?

    The rule of law protects the common man from the arbitrary rule of tyrants.

    Yesterday, Julian Assange, who is politivally and morally what one could describe a lefty, accepted a plea deal with the US and UK authorities: in return for accepting his guilt and a sentence of 5 years, he can now return to his home in Australia.

    Assange has already spent many years in prison, and not a nice one in the UK, without a trial, and more years in a nicer prison, the embassy of Ecuador. In total about 15 years.

    Note:

    What they did to Mr Assange, they can do to all of you, even more as you are not a public person.

    I can understand why Mr Assange accepted, but he should not have.

    To the citizens of all our western democracies: where faith disappears, the love of truth disappears, and the rule of law disappears, step by step by step.
  • mrscracker
    Yes, thank you Mr. Jurgen. I have family in the UK & follow their news. I’m pretty sure that the West by their actions did help trigger the Ukraine invasion. That doesn’t absolve Putin but it does shed light on the back story. No one’s hands are clean in this.
  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2024-06-25 03:02:32 +1000
    Dear Mrscracker, this “easy error” has been used to cover the truth.

    You may want to check what the British politician Nigel Frage just recently said about the war in Ukraine. His comments have caused a little storm in the British teapot.

    Acknowledging the truth about the facts that Farage is pointing out, is necessary to finding and negotiating a sustainable peace in Ukraine.
  • mrscracker
    Thank you for this article. I suppose we’ve connected Russia with the Soviet Union for so many decades that calling Mr. Putin a Soviet leader is an easy error.

    I don’t think it’s the type of Russian government that Putin leads but more his methods and allies that worry people.
  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2024-06-24 18:45:52 +1000
    Dear Mr Zimmermann and dear Mercatornet-team, thank you very much for this article. I hope it will be read by many.

    I might add an information about Putin’s mother, that I have mentioned before. Her mother, Maria, had him baptized at the age of appr. 6 weeks in a church in St.Petersburg, secretly, without the knowledge of his father. I suppose the church building was half a ruine at that time. When Putin later visited Israel for the first time, his mother gave his birth-cross to him and asked him to get it blessed in Jerusalem. He took it on and kept wearing it since then.

    The prayers of a mother, see how powerful they can be.
  • David Page
    commented 2024-06-24 09:33:06 +1000
    I smell the odor or whitewash. Putin is a hero now? A defender of Russia, and of Christianity? And here I was thinking he was just a thug. And the so-called Western Democracies are now the bad guys? Bless my soul. Y’all are inching ever closer to admitting that in a democracy “conservative Christians” will never get the lock-step society that they crave. Do you really believe Putin is a Christian?
  • Augusto Zimmermann
    published this page in The Latest 2024-06-24 08:54:42 +1000