Around 2015, Putin ordered the destruction of all food originating from countries that had imposed economic sanctions on Russia. At the time, there were already food shortages in Russia. For Putin, destroying food was a show of national pride to sanctioning countries and hungry people did not weigh into the equation.
Gessen, the author of The Future is History, calls Putin's crazy stunt a form of national suicide. It isn't the only example she gives but definitely the most bizarre. Gessen's thesis is that a totalitarian government thrives on the failure of the society it rules. North Korea comes to mind.
What is even more bizarre is that Putin's popularity soared at the time he made this decree. Gessen attributes his rise in popularity to his "Make Russia Great Again!" publicity campaign. On the international stage it was premised on territorial expansion into Crimea and Ukraine as well as a recharacterization of America as an "Evil Empire" (recalling Reagan's reference of the USSR as an evil empire). On the national front, Putin's government singled out the LGBT community as the internal enemy bent on destroying Russia and the violence against LGBT was widespread and brutal (note that the LGBT community had experienced a period of acceptance prior to that). The fabrication of enemies is a common tactic used by totalitarian governments to prop themselves up.
Putin's unhinged world view was evident early on. He had been a low-level KGB agent in East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell. At the time, a reporter asked him how he felt about the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Putin stated that he felt humiliated. Humiliation is a strong word and was completely out of step with the international community's rejoicing. Fear of national humiliation seems to be a theme throughout Putin's rule.
Gessen describes different markers that define a totalitarian government generally, including,
1. governmental rules change drastically at a moment's notice;
2. state violence becomes increasingly arbitrary;
3. military build-up and aggression as the emblem of greatness;
4. marginalization of social groups;
5. a rigged voting mechanism.
The point of each of these is to keep people off balance, unsure of what they can and can't do.
It is worth considering what totalitarian markers we are seeing in the United States today. Admittedly America does not have the history of totalitarian rule that Russia does and our psyche has not been damaged by this experience, but that does not make us totally immune. Our growing obsession with conjuring enemies - internal and external - is not a promising sign. Nor is the fact that criticism of military action has become a societal taboo. The "Make Russia Great Again" and "Make America Great Again" parallel is chilling.