How Putin Is Introducing a New Generation to the Horrors of Dictatorship

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In a dictatorship, one person holds near-absolute power over the government and its functions. A dictator rules virtually at will, unchecked by constitutional limitations. The ruler’s elite group of officials or oligarchs caters to his every whim, regardless of the results of the cruelty to ordinary citizens. Often, the cruelty itself becomes the point, as it instills terror, fear of the unknown, and a sense of wanting to conform to expectations, all instituted as a means of control. 

Most people are familiar with the dictators and tyrants of history, from Caligula of ancient Rome to the 20th century’s long list (Italy’s Mussolini, Germany’s Hitler, Cambodia’s Pol Pot, Uganda’s Idi Amin, and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi). Today’s most notorious dictators include Kim Jong Un in North Korea, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and Vladimir Putin in Russia. 

Putin’s brutality didn’t start yesterday 

Ukrainians have suffered horrific losses at the hands of Putin’s ill-trained, undisciplined, and violent military, highlighting what results from the unrestrained actions of a dictator. With more than 4 million Ukrainians having fled their country, more than 6 million others internally displaced, and thousands of civilians killed, Putin’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine has produced irreparable tragedies, large and small, and trauma that will linger for generations.  

However, Putin has been flexing his power for decades. Russia’s actions supporting Assad’s dictatorship in Syria have made that conflict even more untenable for civilians since 2015. He has staged brutal interventions in Georgia and Chechnya as well as previous actions against Ukraine.  

Due to censorship and threat of arrest or worse, the Russian people are even more limited in their ability to get accurate news about the situation in the rest of the world and express anything but support for the war. Hundreds of thousands fled Russia following the invasion of Ukraine.  

Rethinking how we see the world 

While Putin is cut to order from the catalog of dictators in terms of his personality, goals, and policies, he stands out in one way: With about 93 percent of living Americans born after 1945, he is largely the only dictator this generation of Americans has seen as a constant presence on their TV screens—and as a constant menace to the safety and security of the entire world.  

For many Westerners, especially those brought up in the last decades of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st, the horrific events of the Second World War were behind us. As we are learning, however, they can happen again at any time. 

Remembrance and awareness 

To be clear, there’s no comparing any contemporary dictator to Hitler, whose genocidal regime systematically killed 6 million Jews across Eastern Europe, along with millions of Roma and Sinti people, people from Slavic countries, and religious and sexual minorities.  

It’s also important not to forget the ongoing killing of innocent civilians caught in, for example, the civil wars in Yemen and Syria, or Myanmar’s genocidal persecution of its Rohingya minority. Authoritarians, dictators, and would-be dictators, individually and collectively, are responsible for these atrocities.  

Yet the status of Putin as a dictator is new to this generation in several respects. 

Putin gathers power for himself alone 

Putin’s careful cultivation of Russian oligarchs beholden to him for their wealth and his ability as a former KGB agent to use his sophisticated security services as a tool of repression and terror allows him to rule almost unchecked within Russia’s borders.  

Technology enables rule by chaos 

Russia’s command of 21st-century communications technologies, coupled with its deep generational experience in creating and spreading disinformation, enables it to reach ordinary citizens of other countries worldwide, influencing opinions and public policy.  

A turning point for the world 

And now Putin alone has broken the carefully balanced world order that was established after the defeat of Hitler in the Second World War. Putin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine—a sovereign nation recognized by every credible international organization—as a means of conquest and control has been accompanied by heartbreaking reports of gratuitous violence toward civilians. His actions affect not only Ukrainians, but all of us, thanks to long-range reverberations through global markets and political systems. 

Clarity via cell phones and attention 

We also see this dictator more clearly due to circumstance. With Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, where the mass of mobile communications technology far exceeds that of the other nations mentioned, this generation of Westerners is seeing atrocities documented in real time. And yes, Western media outlets are paying more attention to this particular conflict in “civilized” Europe, where they often neglect the brutality seen every day in other parts of the world. 

Personal rule 

Exiled Russian oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky has publicly called for other billionaires and government officials who have fled the country to break with Putin once and for all. However, he also sees little chance of these billionaires being able to change Putin’s mind.  

“Russian power is not an oligarchy,” he told CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria on April 3, 2022. “It’s a dictatorship.” The powerful men we in the West call oligarchs are simply agents of Putin, he said, “amassing wealth and worldwide influence at his pleasure, in ways that serve his interests.”  

There is no practical way in which these members of his inner circle can hold sway over Putin, but according to Khodorkovsky, denouncing him is the only way these influential figures can demonstrate they do not support him.  

Khodorkovsky and a handful of other highly successful businessmen earned their “oligarch” reputation in the 1990s. They made their fortunes after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the privatization of formerly state-run enterprises, gaining influence over President Boris Yeltsin. But that was when Russia was a more pluralistic society. Now, Putin has scrapped the notion of any sort of mutually beneficial relationship between the ruler and his court. He has emerged as a dictator who will brook no contradiction.  

Caught in his own trap 

If there are a few rays of hope—besides the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people against his tyranny—it’s that Putin, in the words of University College London professor Brian Klaas, has succumbed to “the dictator trap.” Writing in the Atlantic on March 16, 2022, Klaas said that dictators eventually fall victim to the same systems of repression, terror, and distrust they create to aid their hold on power.  

Most dictators, far from being all-powerful strongmen with long-range plans, often make colossal strategic errors of the type usually corrected in well-functioning democracies. The fear the dictator instills in his enablers and citizens means he doesn’t receive honest assessments of problems and solutions. He can’t trust anyone around him, so he isolates himself more and more. And when he’s that alone, his ego and his “vision” for the future only grow more gargantuan. In the end, there’s no one to save him from the consequences of his arrogance. 

We might also take comfort in the thought that, if Putin is the worst dictator our generation has seen, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine is by far the best leader, statesman, and inspirational speaker. Both seem to be made—and matched—for their time.  

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