The Devil and Mr. Putin

File Photo of Vladimir Putin at Podium with United Russia Logo, Gesturing

Subject: The Devil and Mr. Putin
Date: Tue, 21 Apr 2020
From: Norman Pereira <9ngop6@gmail.com>

The Devil and Mr. Putin
By Norman Pereira
Professor Emeritus, Department of History, Dalhousie University

The post-Soviet era presents new challenges for the student of Russian history. It is not difficult to find fault with the USSR over the course of its seventy plus years’ existence. There was nothing pretty about the Russian Civil War, the ordeal of collectivization and the war against the peasantry, the terror of the 1930s and the GULAG, the massive sacrifices and horrendous losses of the Great Patriotic War (World War II), and the policies of repression and unmitigated hardships under Stalinism. But the Soviet period was by no means all bad for the industrial proletariat and especially for its numerous “vanguard” party members who supported and were the chief beneficiaries of the Communist system.

My views on the Soviet Union/Russia have changed over the years and become more critical. But the one consistency has been my fondness for the country, her language, culture, and people. I have tried to convey that appreciation to my students, and anyone else who cared to listen, without whitewashing the mistakes, crimes, and contradictions of imperial, Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. I was born in Shanghai, China as part of the third generation of the Russian diaspora following the Bolshevik seizure of power. I moved at the age of eight to New York City with my mother and stepfather in 1950. My maternal grandfather Mikhail I. Gurevich emigrated from Russia in 1919 and was a lifelong anti-Communist. He probably had me accurately pegged as an armchair Menshevik, notwithstanding my early flirtation with Trotskyism during my university years at Berkeley in California. I think he would be pleased to see how closely I have evolved (retreated) to his own liberal Kadet Party position.

There are many ironies in the shifts and changes that have occurred over the past three decades. As Russia moved away from the enforced political correctness of the Party Line, in the West we have been gradually abandoning the great pillars of classical liberalism, including free speech and unrestricted debate, in favor of identity politics. This is evident in the social science and arts departments of our universities, where the open exchange of ideas — including offensive ones — has been replaced by a political correctness (a Stalinist term in its origins).

Boris N. Yeltsin’s two terms in office were disastrous for the Russian people. Under his gross mismanagement, the 1990s saw nepotism and corruption, selling off national resources at sharp discounts, and currying favor with Western leaders. The highly-touted economic and financial reforms, largely designed by American advisors with little or no knowledge of Russian history and society, created chaos and hardships for millions of ordinary citizens. Yeltsin’s unreciprocated concessions to NATO were seen by domestic critics as unseemly, even treasonous, surrendering of Russia’s status as a great power. Yeltsin’s decision in 1999 to step down did not come as a great shock, but the choice of successor most certainly did. Vladimir Putin was Yeltsin’s surprising choice. No one expected this obscure, heretofore unimpressive figure to dominate Russian life for the next two decades and counting.

Putin elicits strong reactions both in Russia and abroad, especially in the USA and Canada, where he is routinely demonized. While it is fair to criticize him on several major issues – including harsh measures against his political enemies, suppression of civil liberties and due process, nationalism that at times borders on aggressive xenophobia (especially with regard to Ukraine), ruthless repressions in Chechnya, corruption and nepotism – there is another, more positive side to the story, especially from the Russian perspective.

First, I should state my belief that we in the West have much more in common than in conflict with Russia. Among these are our Judeo-Christian heritage, diplomatic and cultural ties over several centuries, our great allied victory over fascism in World War II (at enormous and disproportionate cost to the peoples of the USSR), and secular rather than theocratic government. Second, what is to be gained by isolating, threatening and antagonizing Russia, as opposed to encouraging her to integrate into the European community of democratic states? As far as I can see, the only beneficiaries of this ongoing enmity are “Russiagate” pundits, arms manufacturers, neo-con/neo-liberal politicians and their academic surrogates; but the average person would be more secure and happier with an easing of unnecessary tensions.

Putin began life very modestly in the grim surroundings of one of Leningrad’s rough and tumble neighborhoods. After several rejections, he realized his dream of joining the KGB, the Russian spy agency, and was posted to East Germany, where he witnessed the unravelling of the Soviet empire. It may help to explain his determination to reassert Russia’s standing as a world power as well as his deep and not unreasonable distrust of the West. Remarkably, throughout this entire period (1999-present) Putin’s popularity in Russia, according to the internationally respected Levada polling group, has hovered around 70%, much more than any Western leader enjoys and as a comparison approximately double what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau received in the 2019 Canadian federal election.

There are some good reasons for this. Living standards in Russia have risen significantly under Putin. While corruption and nepotism continue, and the gap between the wealthy and the poor has increased, a wide range of creature comforts as well as leisure travel abroad have become accessible to large numbers of ordinary citizens. If these gains came at the cost of curtailment of civil liberties, political pluralism, and dissent (still mild by comparison to Soviet times), it was a price most people were prepared to pay.

The foreign policy picture is more complicated and controversial. In the Russian view, it has been the West – the United States and NATO in particular – that were the aggressors. In Ukraine, the 2014 Maidan overthrow of Viktor Yanukovich’s corrupt, unpopular, pro-Russian government was neither legal nor entirely spontaneous. Overt Western involvements, particularly American and Canadian, have been well-documented. Neo-Nazi groups were prominent among Maidan protesters and Russian immediately lost its status as an official language in Ukraine (that decision was quickly reversed in the face of international outrage). These developments gave Putin the pretext, and perhaps incentive, for annexing Crimea.

Historically Russia’s involvement in the Middle East has been less intrusive and far less extensive than America’s. Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war on the side of Bashar al-Assad has elicited harsh Western criticism. To be sure, Assad is a ruthless dictator who has murdered countless numbers of his own people, yet he may be better than those who oppose him. He is an Alawite, a minority of a minority, an offshoot of Shia Islam in a country that is majority Sunni. But Assad also is a secularist, who guarantees the rights of Christians and Jews, allows women considerable autonomy, and promotes modernization, while his main opponents are Wahabi and Salafist extremists who would eliminate everyone except Sunni Muslims. Moreover, the successful campaign against the Islamic State could not have been achieved without Assad’s army, Iranian-backed Shia militias, strategic Russian military support, and the heroic, harshly persecuted Kurds.

If Putin had refrained from returning to the presidency in 2012, his historical reputation would have rested on significant accomplishments, and he would forever be seen by his countrymen as a good reforming tsar in the tradition of Alexander II. Unfortunately, he has convinced himself that he is indispensable and that has led to ever diminishing returns, especially domestically, with the consequence that his overlong tenure in power will instead be viewed in a negative light by a majority of Russians, to say nothing of his many critics abroad.