Simon Sebag Montefiore in New Statesman:
When guests used to visit Vladimir Putin in his office in the Kremlin’s Senate Palace, he’d point at the bookshelves and ask them to choose a book from Joseph Stalin’s library. Half of Stalin’s books – usually marked up by the Soviet leader himself with red or green crayons – remain in Putin’s office. As one of his ministers told me, Putin would ask the visitor to open the book and they would look together at whatever marginalia Stalin had written: sometimes it was a grim laugh: “xa-xa-xa!”; sometimes a snort of disdain: “green steam!”; at others it was just a word: “teacher” was written on the biography of Ivan the Terrible.
Across the world today, people are asking if Putin is a new Stalin. Karl Marx joked that “history repeats itself twice, first as tragedy then as farce”. It doesn’t, but any ruler of the Russian state faces some of the same issues as earlier Romanov tsars and Communist general secretaries. Most Russian leaders have aspired to emulate the achievements of the two pre-eminent modern rulers, Peter the Great and Stalin, both revolutionary tsars, both brutal killers. One day, hopefully, Russia will be governed by someone who admires neither. Yet Putin is not Stalin. Stalin was a Marxist; Putin is a 21st-century tyrant, who, while co-opting elements of Romanov and Soviet imperialism, is a populist and nationalist, a practitioner of 21st-century identity politics who deploys both old-fashioned military heavy metal and the new hi-tech weaponry of social media.
Yet Stalin could not be more relevant. Stalin’s influence is imprinted everywhere in the state structure of Russia; he remains omnipresent. Putin’s repression at home increasingly resembles Stalinist tyranny – in its cult of fear, rallying of patriotic displays, crushing of protests, brazen lies and total control of media – although without the mass deportations and mass shootings. So far.