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‘It’s a remarkable feat.’ In power since 1999,
how Vladimir Putin became a Russian leader rivaled only by Josef Stalin

Vladimir Putin gesturing as he makes a speech.
Russia President Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999 and is poised to lead the country until at least 2030. AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

With Vladimir Putin recently winning another six-year term in an election deemed undemocratic by outside observers, the Russian president may become the longest-serving leader in the last 200 years of Russian history — even outlasting the 29-year reign of Josef Stalin.

A Northeastern University expert says it’s something that wouldn’t have been predicted 20 years ago.

“It’s a remarkable feat, and obviously far from ideal,” says Pablo Calderón Martínez, associate professor of politics and international relations at Northeastern University. “Nobody would have necessarily guessed in the early 2000s that Putin was going to become the dictator he’s been becoming.”

Putin became president of Russia in 1999, retained power as its prime minister from 2008 to 2012, and then returned to the presidency, where he has remained since. On Monday, he recorded a post-Soviet record 87.5% of the vote in the latest election — meaning his term will extend until at least 2030, 31 years. He faced no real opposition and the election was widely seen as a sham.

Stalin, meanwhile, led the country for 29 years, from 1924 until his death in 1953.

Calderón Martínez says a lot has changed since Putin, a former KGB officer, first entered the international scene.

“It’s almost a drastic change in fortunes from the early 2000s,” Calderón Martínez says. “There was all this talk about Putin as a modernizing force, he seemed to be warm to the idea of reconciliation to the West.”

But Calderón Martínez says that the American hegemony — “there was really no challenge to the consensus on capitalism and democracy,” he says — that followed the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 has been “recalibrated.”

Events such as 9/11, the Iraq war, the 2008-2009 financial crisis, even the inward-focused election of Donald Trump, shook faith in Western ideals on the international stage, Calderón Martínez says, and coincided with the rise of China and other countries in the east. 

While the U.S. remains the largest economic and military power in the world, Calderón Martínez says, other countries have begun to “flex their muscles — if you will.” 

“I think Putin was emboldened by this recalibration,” Calderón Martínez says. “He’s not hitching his wagon to the West anymore but has gone toward authoritarianism and embraced a revisionist history.”

And Calderón Martínez says he sees this international recalibration continuing.

“Things are changing and it’s a shift not just on the international stage, but in society, technology, culture — I think we’re just in a place of flux,” Calderón Martínez says. “I think we’re in an era of more contested American power.”

While that may mean instability for the United States — and Russia’s neighbor Ukraine — it is probably the opposite in Russia.

“We thought war in Ukraine could destabilize his position, but it seems to have done the opposite,” says Calderón Martínez. “There is dissent in Russia about the war, but I don’t think it’s enough to lead to any meaningful opposition to Vladimir Putin.”

After all, Calderón Martínez notes, Putin’s opponents tend to end up dead, most recently Alexi Navalny. 

“I can’t see any particular threat to Putin at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not there,” Calderón Martínez says. 

Calderón Martínez notes that we’ve been surprised by Russia before. 

“Nobody foresaw such a rapid collapse of the Soviet Union,” Calderon Martinez says. “It was a collection of little things, very quickly, but it wasn’t a coup, nobody died, it wasn’t a war.”

“These things, throughout history, can happen suddenly,” Calderón Martínez continues. “Hopefully something will happen. What that will be, though, is anybody’s guess.”