OpinionMeister

Friday, March 04, 2005

Putin-Stalin Comparison

Nikita Khrushchev's great-granddaughter writes in the Wall Street Journal that the Russian people value stability over rights and support Putin's return to Stalinism. Link.
Vladimir Putin's presidency proves that Stalinism will never end in Russia. Emerging from the past, Russian dictatorship continues into the future almost without pause, changing only in name: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Koba the Dread. Fourteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia's people discovered that their lives fare better with dictators. Hence the readiness with which we came to like "Vova" Putin's firm hand. We support his jailing the "dishonest" oligarchs, his clamping down on the "irresponsible" press and promoting a dictatorship of order over transparent laws. We are eager to sing his praises -- a hit pop song goes, "I want one like Putin" -- and make chocolate statues of this, oh, so pleasantly sweet modern autocrat.

In fact, many Russians believe that clampdowns are necessary given the president's agenda: bring the Kremlin back to the center of politics and economy; reduce the influence of the "oligarchs"; ensure the president's "vertical power," necessary to strengthen sovereignty and security; secure for the state Russia's vast energy production; return to Russia its international prestige. And while some of his successes are questionable, 72% of the public trusts him nonetheless. As a people relatively new to democracy, Russians still believe in "czars," not peasants. We hate rulers who look and act like us: Khrushchev with his energetic fists and Ukrainian shirt, Gorbachev with a birthmark on his bald head, Yeltsin with his mujik drunkenness.

Stalin, on the other hand, cautiously built himself an official image that concealed from the demos that he was squat and pockmarked. Mr. Putin, too, carefully constructs his enigma: Despite many public appearances we are still guessing what lies beneath his "soul": new technocrat or old spy? The historian Richard Pipes has consistently warned of a challenge to democratize Russia. People need, even want, protection from themselves, and so crave a stately strong hand. The current rise of Stalinism (in the polls Koba -- Stalin -- takes second place after Vova the Quiet), is not entirely Mr. Putin's fault. When Yeltsin stood on the tank in 1991, Russia, with its history of oppression, didn't know that democracy required individual contributions, whether or not there was Yeltsin leading the way. We haven't yet come to grips with the democratic/free market idea that there is no one but yourself to blame if things don't work out.

After the freedoms of perestroika and the anarchy of post-socialism, it turns out that without control from above, we don't like our poor, dishonest selves. The new autocracy has discovered it doesn't need a mausoleum to protect itself from the people: The fear of freedom makes us good volunteers, wanting a ruler who provides a sense of orderly life. So what if Stalin ruled by a different kind of fear, fear for one's life, we now say. That fear wasn't as threatening as having to live with decisions we take on our own. To a typical Russian question -- Who is to blame? -- there is now an answer: the reformers, Khrushchev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin. To another typical question -- What is to be done? -- the answer is also ready: back to Stalin, to the great statehood. Back then, we may have been killed and imprisoned, but how grand were our victories and parades!

I believe she is right when talking of the present, but I think she is too pessimistic in stating, "Stalinism will never end in Russia." Nearly everyone accepted the "fact" that Arabs did not want democracy and were incapable of it, but we are seeing a new reality. True, we still have not tested how Arabs will react when they have to live their lives in a world where they must make decisions for themselves, as the Russians were doing. However the culture in Russia has changed enough that we should soon see a generational split, with those who lived under communism wanting stability and neo-Stalinism, but those born in the post-Soviet era, valuing rights and being willing to face making their own decisions.

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