the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2005 May 14


If one can just get past the fact that he is an odious, tyrannical imperialist, Vladimir Putin has the charm of being one of the world’s truly great agents of irony. I fancy myself a connoisseur of the medium; Putin has a genius for it. He demonstrated this yet again in his annual address before the federal assembly.

“First of all, it is necessary to admit that the breakdown of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

By my recollection, the breakdown of the Soviet Union took place in the twentieth century, a time span in which there were a number of geopolitical occurrences that might easily be called catastrophic. More than one of them involved Russia, if we generously (and probably falsely) assume that it was only Russia to which Putin was referring. Putin was making this statement in a formal address, carefully considered, before his own parliament, as his government was preparing a grand memorial to the Soviet Union’s sacrifice during World War II. Leaders from all over the world attended as Russia reminded them of Hitler’s invasion of Russia, and the staggering death toll. Catastrophic, you might say. That death toll owed even more to the peculiar ruler of Russia at the time, Joseph Stalin, than it did to Hitler’s invasion; and Stalin caused death on a comparable scale quite on his own during the rest of his reign. Also catastrophic, you might say. The Cold War with the United States led to forty years of proxy wars around the globe in which death and oppression were common on both sides. Catastrophic again. And yet all of these, in Putin’s view, fell short of the devastating impact of the loss of much of Russia’s former empire. You think the death of tens of millions is bad? Imagine no longer being able to tell the Lithuanians what to do. Inconceivable horror.

“Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and compatriots found themselves beyond the borders of Russian territory.”

Colonization is a hazardous practice. For decades there was a deliberate colonization of the empire by Russians with the ultimate aim of complete cultural and political Russification of its entire territory. Such policies inevitably bring ethnic conflict. It would take, perhaps literally, divine intervention to settle the competing land claims in Palestine alone. Those who colonize must know that their service to the nationalist ideal comes with risk. One day, they are living in relative luxury, exploiting the labor and natural resources of a distant land, feeling privileged by destiny and superior birth; the next day, they “find themselves” in a distant land where they have no special privileges. It is no wonder that, after recovering from the shock of such an unpredictable event, the Russians in the Near Abroad have awakened to the burdensome injustice of their own plight. It is otherwise so unlike Russians to feel sorry for themselves.

“As a sovereign country Russia is capable and independent enough to determine for itself the timeframe and conditions of its movement on this path [of democracy].”

It is no secret that Putin himself has no idea of what democracy really is. He is hoping, with some historical justification, that Russia also has no idea. The idea of a nation deciding on the timeframe and conditions of its movement towards democracy is flabbergasting nonsense of the sort that only a fascist like Putin would give voice to. If a nation is truly making its own decisions, then it is already democratic. There is no way for a nation to determine for itself the timeframe and conditions of its movement if it is not democratic. If a nation is moving towards democracy and some force is determining the timeframe and conditions, then that force is clearly a minority dominion. Putin and his power clique may well want to move slowly towards democracy under the condition that the clique does not lose control, in which case the state becomes democratic only when, and remains democratic only so long as, the clique is genuinely popular. In that sense of democracy, Russia is indeed democratic. Putin is popular and in power at the same time. He has achieved that by stifling any independent viewpoint in the country and feeding the population a diet of propaganda and outright lies; but he is popular. The fact that he would have claimed to win any recent election anyway must be beside the point.

Some day decades from now, some filmmaker will produce a historically-accurate biopic on Vladimir Putin. I can already imagine the audience’s reaction: “I didn’t really mind the exaggerated oppression and killing; after all, you have to take liberties to make a good farce. And it was just so funny.”


Original version


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