Bewildered conservatives call Putin a "Soviet dictator" who runs a "communist country"

Former football coach Tommy Tuberville isn't the only Republican who needs a refresher on Russian history

By Jon Skolnik

Staff Writer

Published March 1, 2022 5:15AM (EST)

Vladimir Putin | Soviet Flag (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Vladimir Putin | Soviet Flag (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Republicans are condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine by calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a "Soviet" leader who runs a "communist" country, even though the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, and Putin is decidedly not a communist. 

On Saturday, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, described Putin as a "Soviet dictator," tweeting that "the invasion of Ukraine by Soviet dictator Vladimir Putin cannot stand, and the people of the Commonwealth [of Virginia] are ready to rally in opposition to this senseless attack on a sovereign nation and western ideals."

Youngkin's comments came just a day after similar false statements were made  by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., the former Auburn University football coach, who claimed that Russia is a "communist country."

"He can't feed his people," Tuberville said of Putin, according to 1819 News. "It's a communist country, so he can't feed his people, so they need more farmland."

RELATED: The Ukraine catastrophe and how we got here: Chronicle of a war foretold

It is of course true that the modern nation of Russia was formerly the center of the Soviet Union, a socialist state comprising numerous republics and nationalities that was founded after the Bolshevik Revolution of  1917 and dissolved in 1991. Upon its demise, the Soviet Union disaggregated into 15 independent republics, two of which, Ukraine and Russia, are now making headlines around the world. While Russia has formally been a democracy since the Soviet collapse, Vladimir Putin has been its functional leader, either as president or prime minister, since 2000, facing only token opposition for most of that time.

The now-dismantled Soviet Union was dominated by the Communist Party, which controlled the state's political and economic system and for the most part operated a "command economy," with complete authority to set the prices, production and distribution of goods and services. (In a capitalist economy, such as the United States, marketplace competition, at least in theory, determines those things.) 

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

It is arguably true that Putin is seeking to reconstitute the former scope of the Soviet Union — or of the Russian Empire, which preceded it — but in any event the nuances of this history were apparently lost on many attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which brought together right-wing politicians, pundits and activists in Orlando last weekend. 

On Friday, John James, a perennial Republican candidate in Michigan, warned the audience that "communist power continues to expand abroad," fanning Cold War-era concerns about "creeping" communism.  

"In just one year, leaders in Moscow and Beijing are emboldened by a weakened United States because they see every misstep this administration has taken in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe and elsewhere," James said. "Every American who casts a ballot this November will have the opportunity to take down communism, foreign and domestic."

RELATED: CPAC opens and immediately devolves into GOP dissent over Ukraine

Daniel Schneider, executive vice president of the American Conservative Union, made similar claims, arguing that conservatives "are fighting against the evil forces of communism and socialism in all its forms." 

"Vladimir Putin and his Russian forces, what they're doing is evil, authoritarianism is evil," Schneider told the audience while interviewing a North Korean defector. "China, the Chinese Communist Party, they are suppressing their own people. The people of China deserve better than the communist regime that's been forced on them. North Korea, it's the same."

Whatever some conservatives may believe, 21st-century Russia is not a communist or socialist state. Wealth remains largely in the hands of private oligarchs, and while state control over economic activity has increased under Putin, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the Russian system is perhaps closer to those of Germany, Italy and Spain in the 1930s and '40s. There's a name for such a system, but it isn't "communism."

By Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik was a former staff writer at Salon.

MORE FROM Jon Skolnik

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aggregate Capitalism Communism Fascism Republicans Russia Socialism Tommy Tuberville Vladimir Putin