Deconstructing Putin's speech
Robin Shepherd of UPI
handily deconstructs Putin's State of the Nation speech recently, in which he referred to the demise of the Soviet Union as one of the greatest geopolitical catastrophes of the 20th century.
Funny -- I guess Putin missed all those people demonstrating and celebrating in the streets over the fact that they were "free at last" of Soviet tyranny, and he conveniently forgot all those tens of millions murdered by Leninist/Stalinist communism -- a mere technicality.
The problem with Russia is that they have no history to look back on that is not a history of domination, oppression of others, dictatorship, murder, corruption and colonial imperialism of the worst sort. But yet they are obliged to see that very bloody history as their time of greatness and glory.
To them, at least so far, and to their rulers like Putin, it is only brute power that has any meaning. Words like democracy, freedom, equality -- these are merely code words that they use to fool the world into believing that they aspire to the same goals of liberty and democracy as other western nations do. So far, their history shows that they do not.
There have been brave Russians who strove towards those noble goals -- the Sakharovs, the Pasternaks, the dissidents and refuseniks of the 60's and 70's who tried to show Russia the way to the light. And they almost achieved it -- but at the last moment it seems not to be enough for the Russian character -- yet -- to seek those goals in and of themselves.
Because it has never been in the nature of Russia to value the individual -- the individual has always been just a cog -- a serf during the time of the Tsars -- and a nameless proletarian to be used, abused, arrested, or worked to death in a labor camp or collective farm, or simply shot and executed during communist times. How about the 7 million Ukrainians starved to death in an engineered artificial famine.
Until Russia learns this lesson -- that its glory and salvation lie in the empowerment of the individual -- and not in the power of the state -- it will be doomed to seek its glory in the present self-defeating pursuit of dubious deals with rogue regimes and bullying tactics of empty swagger and saber rattling.
It's a pity really, and in some ways a harder legacy to overcome than the legacy of the countries which Russia has historically dominated and oppressed -- countries such as Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics. Because these countries had noble histories they could look back on, and as in Ukraine's case, a history of a people who could never be completely subjugated nor exterminated nor repressed, they were able to carve out their chosen path toward freedom and democracy once they won their independence. Ukraine will eventually emerge all the stronger, because Ukrainians have thirsted for freedom for hundreds of years.
But because Russia has always been the dominator and not the dominated, Russia has confused the issue of state power and individual freedom -- and so far has always chosen the former. The Russian people who aspire to true freedom and democracy are going to have to wait, and new leaders -- new inspiring voices -- are going to have to emerge in order to capture the imagination of the people, and seize on something in Russia's history to look to -- perhaps its great literature -- Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol and others. It was they who pointed the way to true human dignity and the potential greatness inherent in the Russian people, and not the cheap thugs who have swaggered onto the world stage and bullied their way to "greatness".
Consider the following statement that comes close to the beginning of the speech: "The ideals of freedom, human rights, justice and democracy," said Putin, "have for many centuries been our society's determining values."
. . . Putin, one presumes, does at least have a cursory knowledge of the history of his own country. For several centuries prior to the Russian Revolution in 1917, that country was ruled by the most illiberal autocracy in Europe. For seven decades after that revolution, it formed the core of the most repressive system of government of the modern era. So completely did Soviet rulers try to extinguish the spirit of freedom and democracy that analysts had to invent the term "totalitarian" to get to grips with a system for which shorthand descriptions such as "authoritarian" or "despotic" were simply inadequate.
We thus have our first clear pointer to what Putin really means when he refers to concepts such as "freedom" and "democracy." In his eyes, they are perfectly compatible with fiercely repressive government. Indeed, they are more than just compatible: they actually define the determining values of Tsarist autocracy and Soviet totalitarianism.
A little later in the speech, he attempts to create equivalence between the Russian and the Western path to freedom.
"For three centuries, we -- together with the other European nations -- passed hand-in-hand through reforms of education, the difficulties of emerging parliamentarism, municipal and judiciary branches, and the establishment of similar legal systems."
It was a "step by step" process, he said. Sometimes Russia was behind. Sometimes she was ahead. At his summit with President Bush in Bratislava in February, Putin joked to the media he was not "the minister of Propaganda". He has clearly missed his vocation.
. . .Concluding his speech, he referred proudly to the Soviet contribution to the defeat of Hitler. Russian soldiers he said: "Saved the world from an ideology of hatred and tyranny"; a fair description of the Third Reich but one equally fitting for the regime which helped defeat it.
So, any reference to the tens of millions who died at the hands of Lenin, Stalin and their cohorts? Not on your life, or theirs. They don't count. And neither, frankly, does anything that Putin says about freedom and democracy.
Robin Shepherd is an adjunct fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.