Is Putin drawing inspiration from Stalin’s military purge? Despite parallels, probably not.

May 2024 was a noteworthy month for Russia’s military. Russian President Vladimir Putin replaced Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu with economist Andrey Belousov. Several military leaders were also arrested by the FSB, the Russian successor to the Soviet KGB.

Recent reports suggest these orders came directly from the top levels of the Russian government and have Putin’s blessing.

Insiders believe the purges are just beginning, pointing to Putin’s recent replacement of several defence ministry deputies with his cousin’s daughter.

This article is the opinion of the author Oleksa Drachewych, Western University and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.

Naturally, Putin’s military purge brings to mind another notable military purge — when Josef Stalin discharged approximately 35,000 army leaders from the ranks and ordered tens of thousands of officers arrested.

Although tempting to make this comparison, there are limits to how much Putin draws from Stalin.

Comparing to the past

Since Russia escalated its war against Ukraine in February 2022, there has been extensive commentary, much of it involving historical comparison. Some have argued Russia’s war in Ukraine is akin to Adolf Hitler’s aggression in the late 1930s. Ukrainians have often drawn parallels between Russia’s weaponization of food and the historical memory of the Holodomor.

Repression in Putin’s Russia since February 2022 has parallels to Stalinist terror. My research, stemming from a 2022 analysis, looks at parallels between Soviet atrocities during the Second World War and Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine today. Some of these parallels are instructive.

For example, a comparison of Red Army sexual violence against civilians during the Second World War to Russian atrocities against Ukrainians today helps us understand the potential long-term consequences. There are other direct inspirations in modern-day Russia from its Soviet past, such as the country’s current use of filtration camps or sending criminals to the front lines to allow them to atone for their crimes “with blood.

Putin weaponizes history for his own purposes, and the Second World War looms large in Russian national identity. Many Russians view Stalin positively, so it’s tempting to view Putin as emulating Stalin in the decisions he makes. So what about Putin’s recent military purges?

The shocking Soviet military purge

By 1937, Stalin and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had embroiled the country in the infamous Great Terror. It targeted those believed to be undermining Soviet goals and led to an extensive purge of the party, affecting citizens across the Soviet Union.

In June of 1937, Stalin agreed to a purge of the Red Army. Eight military leaders, including Mikhail Tukhachevsky, were given a military trial and promptly executed after being accused of forming a “military-fascist plot” inside the Soviet military.

The military purge has often been regarded as the most puzzling of the purges that took place during the Great Terror.

Traditionally, the Great Terror is viewed by many historians as the Soviet leadership rooting out real or imagined spies and anti-Soviet elements. Additionally, Soviet leadership feared an impending world war.

Purging military leadership was therefore a questionable decision. Tens of thousands of Red Army officers were targeted in the Great Terror. Many were discharged and some killed.

Recent research on the 1937 military purges argues that Stalin and Soviet leaders feared spies had infiltrated the Red Army; fearing the impending war, they acted decisively because they believed it was best for Soviet security interests. They acted from a position of weakness. In reality, those targeted were not part of any plot and Stalin’s rule was in no real danger. Yet, Stalin and Soviet leaders feared the worst.

Putin’s purge

Although the rebellion by Yevgeny Prigozhin in the summer of 2023 may have represented a threat to Putin’s rule, the Russian leader has since appeared to strengthen his power and escalated repression. Any speculation that Putin is concerned about security or a military coup therefore seems misplaced.

Many reporters and analysts view Shoigu’s removal in favour of Belousov as Putin signalling he wants to streamline the Russian economy and orient it fully to military production. If so, any comparisons to Stalin’s military purges also seem misguided.

In fact, only one aspect of Stalin’s military purges truly has parallels to Putin’s purge today — the role of the FSB is akin to that of Stalin’s NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, in the current Russian leader’s actions today.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said the military purges are related to corruption charges. While this could be subterfuge, there is reason to believe his claims are legitimate.

Corruption has long been a major issue for the Russian military. With Russia unable to defeat Ukraine militarily, Putin is using this purge to remove those close to Shoigu and pave the way for a more efficient relationship between the government and military planning for a longer, protracted war. It could also provide a convenient explanation for Russia’s military failures to the Russian public.

In many facets of Russia’s War against Ukraine and in Russian society today, one can find parallels between Putin and Stalin.

Yet not all historical comparisons are helpful. Putin may be influenced by his Soviet upbringing, and future research may find a direct inspiration for this decision from the Stalinist past. But more likely, these military purges are just another example of Putin’s autocratic rule and consolidation of power and not a replay of the past.The Conversation

Oleksa Drachewych, Assistant Professor in History, Western University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license and as part of our efforts to promote open journalism. Read the original article.

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Lonpfrb (@guest_832536)
13 days ago

Stains legacy of ruzzification of the Soviet Republics has enabled vladolf putler to claim that ruzzians in sovereign nations are being repressed to justify his hybrid war in Ukraine. The DPR and LPR are attempts to annex territory of a sovereign nation so not recognised internationally. Self determination may be reasonable but still requires free elections with open and transparent processes that wasn’t the case.. In my opinion the defeat of RF in Ukraine also requires repatriation to deliver sustainable peace. So Ukrainian POW and abducted children back to Ukraine and ruzzians back to the motherland. Only then will Ukraine… Read more »

simon alexander
simon alexander (@guest_832688)
13 days ago

russia is willing to shell nuclear power stations and put their own troops into the meat grinder. life has always been cheap.

Angus (@guest_832979)
12 days ago

For the Russian people as for most of us, life has to go on, they have no choice in politics as those currently in power fear opposition of any kind, so they are weak. Both sides are suffering for NO gain to the people it affects day to day. The loss of the young men in Russia (a state with a lower percentage of males to females) is hurting more than we see and the people have NO love for this administration really and just want it to end. Life has always been cheap to those in power but not… Read more »

Mark B
Mark B (@guest_833049)
11 days ago

Purges in Soviet Russia go back to 1918 (The Red Terror) which was an attempt by Lenin to eliminate everyone who wasn’t a worker and might conceivably play an educated part in Soviet society. Even if it meant that everyone starved to death because the workers couldn’t run the country effectively then that was too bad. The workers would learn. I suspect that Stalin felt the same. The workers were the soldiers but not perhaps the Officers. It was necessary to eliminate the Officers and replace them with workers. Officers were trained and educated – not very Soviet. Putin’s strategy… Read more »