Magazine article World Affairs

Inside Vladimir Putin's Mind: Looking Back in Anger

Magazine article World Affairs

Inside Vladimir Putin's Mind: Looking Back in Anger

Article excerpt

"Civilians are dying ... in South Ossetia ... the majority of them are citizens of the Russian federation.... We will not leave unpunished the deaths of our compatriots. The guilty parties have brought upon themselves the punishment they deserved." This announcement about the invasion of Georgia's territory came from then Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in August 2008. Medvedev was firm, citing the Russian Constitution and federal law, but while it was his lips moving, the words were clearly those of Vladimir Putin.

Medvedev, just installed in the Kremlin as a trusted flunky, was fighting Putin's war on a personal as well as a political level. Mikheil Saakashvili, the tall and flamboyant pro-Western president of Georgia, had once called Putin a "LilliPutin," an insult that the five-foot-seven Russian strongman never forgave.

At the risk of sounding simplistic, one comparison still cannot be overlooked in addressing Putin's vindictiveness, and that is to Joseph Stalin. No one cherished a vendetta more than he; no one inspired more terror in the hearts of those who feared they had offended him. But Putin, while not quite in Stalin's league in this regard, is also hands-on in the fate of his political opponents. Mikhail Khodorkovsky of the now defunct oil company Yukos, who challenged Putin's presidential ambitions in the early 2000s, and Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of the band Pussy Riot, who in 2012 sang an anti-Putin punk prayer, all spent time in prison as a result.

Ukraine is also an example of how the political is personal for Putin. In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev, my great-grandfather, transferred its jurisdiction from Russia to Ukraine, both republics within the USSR. Many Russians have been upset about it ever since. Yet Putin did something about it not only to right what his fellow citizens consider a historical wrong but also because he felt the Ukrainian people had insulted him personally. In February, they dared to oust President Viktor Yanukovich, his man in Kyiv.

Never mind that already some half a century ago, in his 1956 Secret Speech, Khrushchev unmasked Stalin's paranoid version of communism--a prison state with sealed international borders, driven by militant industrialization. All these years, Putin has managed to employ similarly extreme Stalinesque tactics to build Putinism. As Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Lilia Shevtsova wrote in the American Interest in April, "Russia's actions with respect to Ukraine are part of the Kremlin's preventive doctrine, which seeks to ensure the survival of autocratic rule by restoring militarism and a fortress mentality in Russia."

However, Marx's dictum that history repeats first as tragedy and then as farce is not quite true today. Putin's Russia is tragedy and farce all at once. And while a leader who parades his naked man-boobs in the Siberian wilderness can barely be taken seriously, the man who starts wars only to halt them when convenient, and who sends opponents to prison and unexpectedly pardons them years later, must unfortunately be watched quite seriously.

Putin is not, Stalin of course. Not only because Stalin was incomparably more brutal and deadly in his tactics, but also because his goal, as perverse as it may appear today, was to better the future. In Putin's case, there is nothing visionary in his approach. It is all about the past.

When Pussy Riot's Alekhina and Tolokonnikova went to the Sochi Olympics in February to speak against the Kremlin human rights abuses, they were attacked by the Cossacks, the unofficial nationalist army, who also claim that to bring Ukraine, the whole Ukraine, into the Russian fold by any means possible is their patriotic duty.

These Cossacks, fanatical descendants of Catherine the Great's ruthless watchmen, stand for the outdated feudal traditions of the eighteenth century in which Putinism has sought its legitimacy. They may seem similar to the colorful Swiss Guard of the Vatican or the red-and-black Beefeaters protecting the Tower of London, but the Cossacks, in their black capes and tall lamb-fur hats, administer beatings and start violent clashes rather than merely provide a ceremonial presence. …

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