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Putin's rhetoric is a worrisome reminder of Russia's dark past

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Thousands of Russian soldiers are dead, and the fighting in Ukraine drags on. But President Vladimir Putin is still defending the invasion. During a speech to Russian governors, he made disturbing remarks, including calling for a, quote, "self-purification of society." It is a worrisome reminder of the country's dark past. Here to talk more about this is Anne Applebaum, a staff writer at The Atlantic. Hey. Thanks for being here.

ANNE APPLEBAUM: Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: Anne, let's start with Putin's call for a self-purification of society. You tweeted that this was his attempt to remind Russians of Joseph Stalin and his purges. Do you fear that that history is about to repeat itself?

APPLEBAUM: I don't fear that there will be an exact repetition. But Stalin used that word deliberately. In Russian, it's got the same root as the word purge. It means, you know, cleansing. And it was the word that Stalin used when he carried out mass arrests, particularly of his inner circle. And I think Putin was using it as a way of frightening Russians. I mean, he knew that they would hear it as an echo of Stalinism. And he wants to frighten people. He wants to scare them. He wants to prevent people from protesting. And I think probably he particularly wants to prevent his inner circle from protesting and people in the elite. That was a message to them.

SUMMERS: As you listened to Putin, what else did he say that gave you concern?

APPLEBAUM: When he speaks about his opponents, he talks about them using dehumanizing language. He talked about them as gnats or flies. He talks about, you know, wiping them away. He's been doing this when he speaks about Ukraine as well. You know, he won't acknowledge that Ukraine is a real country. He speaks of its leaders as Nazis, which is absurd. And it's meant to give Russians, and also the people fighting in the army, the feeling that, you know, they can - of course, they can kill these people, or they can wipe them away, or they can swat them like a fly because they aren't worth anything. And dehumanizing language like that is almost always what is used before there is a mass murder or genocide.

SUMMERS: Now, you have also said that when Putin says Russia, he's just talking about himself. Can you tell us a bit about what you mean by that?

APPLEBAUM: So when he talks about the enemies of Russia, you know, what he means is Democrats, political dissidents, people who disagree with him. You know, many of them, of course, are great patriots. And Alexei Navalny, who's the most important opposition leader and who's in prison right now, is an amazing Russian patriot. He believes in his country, and he wants to rebuild it. But for Putin, he's an enemy. He's a traitor. He's evil because he's against Putin. So he's come to see himself as the embodiment of the Russian state. And anything that's opposed to him is also opposed to Russia. And that's also very dangerous language.

SUMMERS: Now, officials in Ukraine claim that thousands of Russian troops have been killed. And while that isn't possible to verify, do you believe Putin's rhetoric is meant to address what could be a growing morale problem at home?

APPLEBAUM: Well, you know, I'm certain there's a growing morale problem at home. And I'm certain it is meant to address that, yes. As I said, I think it's particularly aimed at people in the elite, people in Moscow, you know, people who might be getting some idea that this war was a mistake because it's really people who are the closest to him who know the most about it. And most Russians aren't being told very much about the war. And I think he wants to send them a message, you know, don't think of opposing me because if you do, we'll treat you like a traitor.

SUMMERS: You mentioned that most Russians are not being told much about the war. As you listen to Putin's rhetoric, how much of a concern is that lack of information for you?

APPLEBAUM: Oh, I mean, it's fundamental to - you know, to his propaganda. I mean, it's actually rather extraordinary. I mean, here he is conducting a major war on one of the biggest wars Russia has conducted since the Second World War. And he's not telling ordinary Russians that that's what's happening. He's - you aren't even allowed to use in Russia the expression war or invasion to describe what's happening. You know, he wants you to talk about it as a special military operation. And that's actually - that's an interesting sign because it means that he's not trying to build a huge patriotic wave in defense of the project. You know, he's instead trying to limit what people really hear about it. And I think that's because he's afraid it's not going in the direction that he thought it was going to go.

SUMMERS: Anne, in the about 30 seconds we have left, I'm curious - what are you most worried about happening next, given Putin's rhetoric?

APPLEBAUM: I'm just - I'm worried about mass attacks on Ukrainian cities. I'm worried that he will, in his fury, at his failure, he will kill a lot of people in Ukraine.

SUMMERS: That's Anne Applebaum, staff writer at The Atlantic. Thanks for being here.

APPLEBAUM: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.