Nostalgia is on the rise for the Soviet Union in Putin's Russia
I... don't even know how to caption this...
I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country. And I appreciated so very much the frank dialogue.
--George Bush, on meeting with Vladimir Putin
You looked into his eyes and saw his soul? George, the man was a KGB agent. He leads a neo-KGB state. If he even has a soul, it's as black as two feet down a wolf's gullet. What, I wonder, did he see behind your eyes?
The cells of the smaller prison at the Lubyanka were full to overflowing. The new arrivals were shoved out into the corridor, where a crowd had been standing for several days. It was so jammed that if you took your hand out of your pocket, you couldn't get it back in. There were two children here as well, girls of twelve and thirteen. The prisoners took turns resting. Among those lying on the floor was an Italian Communist. Young and attractive.
She said in French, "You've had a fascist coup."
"That's not right," they answered her.
"What else if they're arresting Communists?"
"What are you saying? The Communist Party is still in power."
The Italian woman turned up her almond-shaped eyes. "Why are you trying to trick me? This is a fascist coup for certain. I know what one looks like."
--The Lubyanka Prison, Moscow 1936 (from Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko's The Time of Stalin: Portait of a Tyranny)
In the heady days of the late 80s and early 90s, I recall the sunny optimism held by everyone, from the one-hit-wonder band Jesus Jones to the philosopher Francis Fukuyama speaking of "the world waking up from history", and our witnessing "the end of history". Democracy had won, and totalitarian systems were being relegated to the trash-heap of history once and for all.
By this time, we had as a nation rather thoroughly bought into the neo-con (perhaps more properly called neo-liberal, or classically-liberal) notion that free markets mean freedom, period. The dogma taught that once people tasted the freedom associated with a free market enterprise system, that it would be impossible for an authoritarian regime to keep the lid on the demand for political freedom on behalf of that economically-emancipated population, and that democratic institutions would naturally evolve as those authoritarian regimes collapsed under the pressure.
It might be true to a certain extent, but we've seen great disappointments in the aftermath. As I've stated here previously, we've seen that free markets do not necessarily need political freedom in order to work. It appears that all they may need is some form of stability. Russia and China are cases in point. Historians may wind up saying that the manner in which the West handled the break-up of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc may turn out to represent a colossal failure in both policy and imagination.
Using economic shock therapy techniques, those who engaged Russia in the early years after the breakup advised draconian methods of privatization and the wholsale sell-off of state industries before Russia had developed the rule of law and an efficiently functioning parliamentary system. I won't even get into the topic of whether or not nuclear stockpiles were adequately safeguarded. In addition, on the international stage, Russia was often treated as a marginalized power. They started to feel surrounded again.
The result of this was that the cadre who ran the Communist system merely became the new masters of business and industry in Russia. The nomenklatura, the apparatchiks who had been priviliged Communist Party members before, merely continued in their old ways of theft and Russia became a sort of mafia-run state. An oligarchy evolved into a outright kleptocracy. It was too much chaos for the population to handle, especially one that had never been encouraged to be self-sufficient. The natural reaction of people oppressed under such as system is to retreat back into totalitarianism and the spell of fascistic demagogues. People look for a strong-man to curb the chaos and to set matters right.
When I was young, we thought that progress was inevitable and irreversible. Seriously. Growing up in the 60s, we were brought up to believe, despite the existence of war, nuclear weapons and difficult social problems, that with faith, freedom, science and good will, the fate of all mankind would eventually improve. In the decades since, we see that the evolution of civilizations is not always going to move in a forward direction. There will be some regression at times. There will be times of devolution and a return to primitivism. Progress can't be taken for granted.
As the cradle-to-grave security net (however meager it was) was shredded in Russia, and promised pensions weren't getting paid reliably, the nostalgia for the days of the old Soviet Union arose. Today's impotence in international affairs is contrasted unfavorably to what they consider the greatest achievement in Russian history, their victory in "The Great Patriotic War" against the Nazis in world War II.
Polonium-poisoned Alexander Litvinenko.
So what is Putin up to in Russia? Is Russia governed by industrialists, political parties, the Russian Mafia, or a club of ex-KGB officers? Putin is on record calling the collapse of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." Worse than World War I? Worse than the famine under Lenin, the mass-starvation of Ukrainian Kulaks, and the miseries caused by forced collectivization and the purges of the "Great Terror"? Worse than World War II? Worse than the creation of the Soviet Union itself? Newly approved school textbooks describe Joseph Stalin as "the most successful Soviet leader ever." Former Soviet premier and ex-KGB chief Yuri Andropov's statue has been re-installed at the Lubyanka, and Andropov's birthday has been officially celebrated. Add in... The absolute crushing of Grozny and large parts of Chechnya... Ham-handed rescue attempts at Beslan and the Moscow Opera House killing scores of civilians, showing blatant disregard... The shutting off of oil pipelines to Russia's neighbors... The polonium poisoning of the dissident and Putin-opponent Alexander Litvinenko... The dioxin poisoning of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko... Hints that Putin might stay past the end of his presidential term...
Viktor Yushchenko... Before, and after
In her long and tragic history, has Russia come to need Tsars?
Joseph Stalin thought so. Here is an excerpt from a passionate and riveting book by Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko (whose father was a Bolshevik who led the storming of the Tsar's Winter Palace), The Time of Stalin: Portrait of a Tyranny:
In 1904 the young Bolshevik Sergei Basist was carrying on agitation among the sailors of Sebastopol. One of them asked him: "You say that under socialism everyone will be equal. But what if some bigwig like Tolstoy or someone even bigger decides he wants to take all the power for himself? What then?"
Basist hadn't expected a question like that, but he had no trouble answering it. Under socialism, he explained, leaders would be chosen in nationwide public elections. Therefore a personal dictatorship could not arise. Besides, who would let it happen? "Here you are, navy men, for example, the sons of workers and peasants. You're not about to saddle yourselves with a new tsar, are you?" The sailors laughed.
Thirty years later Alyosha Svanidze, brother of Stalin's first wife, was working as a deputy to the director of the State Bank. On Sundays it was the Gensek's (Stalin’s) habit to play billiards with Svanidze. One Monday Alyosha arrived at his office on Neglinnaya Street in a very depressed mood.
"What's wrong, did you lose at billiards yesterday?" an old friend asked him.
"What sort of monster do you think I am? If I won one game, he'd take it out on innocent people for the whole next week."
Svanidze was silent for a while, then spoke further.
"I just can't get over it. I couldn't sleep all night. Do you know what the Boss came out with? He chalked the tip of his cue and set it on the table. Then he said: `You know the Russian people is a tsarist people. It needs a tsar.' That remark unnerved me completely. I couldn't finish the game. I just left. I'm not going to set foot in his presence again. I think that, without meaning to, he spoke his innermost, secret thought just then. Watch and see, he's got something in the works."
Two hundred years earlier, Russian peasants who dreamed of having a just lord and master over them proclaimed Yemelyan Pugachov tsar. They called him "Little Father," and later "Emperor."
"All that he does is just, like the deeds of a deity, for the Russians are convinced that the Great Prince of Moscow performs the Will of Heaven." Quoting this observation of Herberstein's, the Marquis de Custine added his own comment: "I do not know whether the character of the Russian people produced rulers like this, or whether such rulers produced the character of the people."' The author of Nikolaevan Russia thought like a dialectician.
The first part of this formulation was brilliantly confirmed in the second quarter of the twentieth century, when the Soviet people began to deify a being with hardly more than an inch of forehead, and a pipe, always lit, held between two rows of black teeth. A little earlier, just before the revolution, wasn't Russia ready to see the reincarnation of Jesus Christ in a former horsethief, Grigory Rasputin? Wasn't Stalin of the same stock?
In studying the Gensek's gloomy interior, we cannot overlook Erich Fromm's contention that the lust for power is the most typical manifestation of sadism. For Stalin this wasn't some sort of irrational lust, some desire to become the richest man on earth. He needed power as a means of subjugating or crushing other people...
Among the innumerable figures of prominence in history it is hard to find one that so single-mindedly pursued personal power. In Stalin's hands power became a means of sadistic satisfaction and diabolic abuse of his subordinates, the party, and the people. Power meant omnipotence to him. As long as he had power, the rest-ideas (which were all phony to him) and both ends and means (for him any means were permissible)-all of that was secondary. As soon as he got his first taste of power, during the revolution, he could no longer stop himself. "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." This saying does not apply to Stalin; he was absolutely corrupt even before he seized power.
--The Time of Stalin: Portait of a Tyranny
Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581, by Ilya Repin (1885)