I know that some people think of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin as the reincarnation of Stalin. Others on the right idolize him because, well, he persecutes gays. The truth is actually to be found elsewhere.
He definitely is a bad dude. Instead of killing people by the millions in Siberian gulags, he uses very targeted assassinations to eliminate some of his more outspoken enemies. In November 1998, soon after he took over the KGB, he had opposition Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova murdered for her pro-democracy advocacy. As soon as Yeltsin named him Prime Minister a year later, he initiated a bombing campaign in Chechnya which led to hundreds of civilian deaths.
One outspoken critic of the Chechen war was Anna Politkovskaya, whose dispatches on the conflict I have read (and recommend: they are published under the name of A Small Corner of Hell). She paid dearly for her upstanding journalism: She was shot by KGB operatives at the door of her apartment in October 2006.
For a considerably longer list of his targets, click here.
What makes Putin radically different from his Communist forebears is that he is an oligarch in personal control of billions of rubles worth of assets, alone or with a small number of co-conspirators with whom he feels comfortable. There is an excellent review by Anne Applebaum in the December 18, 2014 issue of The New York Review of Books which is a review of Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?
No fool, Putin knew that Communism was on the skids while he was still a KGB officer in Dresden, East Germany, and he prepared for the demise of the Soviet empire by beginning to gather people whom he could trust. In St. Petersburg in 1991, he entered in numerous “legally flawed contracts” in which he exported millions of dollars worth of commodities in return for food that never seems to have been delivered. He was in on the rise to power of Bank Rossiya, which he used for his financial and criminal deals. Putin-controlled entities include Ozero Dacha Consumer Cooperative; St. Petersburg Real Estate Holding Company (SPAG), which was involved in Russian and Colombian drug money laundering; the construction company Twentieth Trust; and probably biggest of all—Gazprom.
It is as if an American president controlled Morgan Stanley, Exxon, Cargill, and numerous other massive corporations which combined to do whatever legal or illegal he or she wished to accomplish.
And yet Putin’s popularity is still high among Russian voters at this time. He pays careful attention to cultural and foreign policy choices that are in tune with the Russian man in the street. This includes his support of the Russian Orthodox Church and its hierarchy, and his ham-fisted attempts to support the Russian population of industrialized East Ukraine.