Vladimir Putin’s regime has always been authoritarian. But since Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, something has shifted. Putin has completely shut down Russian civil society and criminalized free expression while launching a massive campaign of propaganda and disinformation. Russia is rapidly becoming a totalitarian state. The pieces are all there.
As a historian of the Soviet Union, I do not use the term “totalitarian” lightly. But Western policymakers need to understand what they are looking at in Russia in order to come up with effective policies.
What is totalitarianism? The German-American political philosopher Hannah Arendt saw it as a novel form of authoritarianism based on the total mobilization of society and the isolation of individuals. The British author George Orwell described it as a system of government that thrives on the inversion of truth: “WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”
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