Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Two Faces of Putin

On the Project Syndicate website, Nina L. Khrushcheva reflects on what she sees as Russia's split personality, as exemplified in its current president:
Indeed, Putin’s signature characteristic is to be all men for all Russia’s people. By blending the Soviet past with the Tsarist past and a few shards of Yeltsin-era democracy, Putin seems to think that he can neutralize the extremes of Russian history. Instead, the extremes seem to be squeezing out the desire for modernization.

High oil prices now seem to be the only factor allowing Putin to keep the reform charade going. The nineteenth-century czar Alexander III once said: “Russia has only two true allies – its army and its navy.” Oil is Putin’s army and navy, allowing him to build and maintain the image of a strong, but also an internationalist, state.

Alexander's formula is also popular today with Putin’s nationalists in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In his pro-imperial Russia film “The Barber of Siberia,” the Oscar-winning director Nikita Mikhalkov – whose father composed the Stalin-era national anthem that Putin recently revived – used the coronation of Alexander III as the symbolic centerpiece of Russia’s greatness, inviting Russian leaders to walk in his footsteps.

This strong-willed monarch, while ruling the Russian empire autocratically, managed to bring stability and prosperity, allowing capitalism to take root. He worked to strengthen and modernize Russia’s armed forces while avoiding armed conflict. He became known as “The Peasants’ Tsar,” though he didn’t tolerate any opposition thinking contrary to his own.

Putin sees his own crusade to save Russia from disintegration and separatism as similar to Alexander’s. But how forward-looking is it to model a twenty-first-century country on the absolutist example of the past?

Stalin is yet another cherished role model. Here, too, Putin tries to walk on both sides of the street, calling Koba a tyrant to sooth the wounded feelings the Baltic leaders, yet instantly qualifying his remarks by saying that Stalin was no Hitler. Can we really compare the degree of evil of these two men?

Despite his insistence on rubbing shoulders with world leaders and portraying himself as a modernizer, Putin, like his predecessors, is in fact a ruler who believes that only authoritarian rule can protect his country from anarchy and disintegration. But the old ideas, the mimicry and symbols Putin employs to achieve his goals, no longer correspond to today’s realities or Russia’s present capabilities.

Previously, it was Russia’s Western mission that was pure Potemkin village. Now Russianness itself seems to lack a secure foundation, for it is but a hollow shell of discarded state symbols. Like a bad driver, a nation that looks left and right but never ahead is bound to crash.
Hat tip: Marius

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