Psychoanalyzing Putin, Part 2

CNN: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says the West wants Putin out. Quoting, “As for the concept behind the use of coercive measures, the West is making it clear it does not want to try to change the policy of the Russian Federation … they want to change the regime — practically no one denies this,” Lavrov said at a meeting of a foreign and domestic policy council in Moscow.”  Putin also reiterated his fear of “color revolution”, as used to denote revolts in several former Soviet states that resulted in regime change.

With social stress impending from financial collapse that is not far off, this fear of Putin and Lavrov may be genuine. But it’s not real. Without Putin at the helm, Russia would deteriorate into a gigantic criminal enterprise, feeding vast amounts of cash into both the underworld and terror, with the additional horrible possibility of smuggled nuclear weapons. Mr. Putin, we actually need you. We just want you to be good.

World leaders would like Putin to forget his unfriendly notions of Western intentions, and return to the apparent amicability prior to…when? Angus Roxborough, in his book The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, offers the experience of  P.R. firm Ketchum, who  in 2006 contracted with the Russian government for press representation in the West.  Subsequent to the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya  in Moscow on October 7, 2006, Roxborough observes that Putin’s inner circle stopped engaging the press. After that [citation missing], they just didn’t seem to care.

It’s hard to like someone who is responsible for the deaths of 4300+ people. But this should not deter us from an unbiased look at the large part the West has played  in the creation of the current Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia, like the other components, was a tabula rasa, an almost unique ideological vacuum. It had neither communism, democracy,  Platonism, Confucianism, or the divine right of kings. Democracy comes in various grades, but Russia didn’t even have “vote banks” representing popular constituencies. Instead, everything was for sale. There is even the story that, in those lawless days, one Russian, owed a debt, was paid off with a hydrogen bomb, which he kept in his garage.

In a letter dated January 1, 1989,  Ayatollah Khomeini offered Gorbachev a cure for the vacuum. Quoting, “In conclusion, I declare outright that the Islamic Republic of Iran as the greatest and most powerful base of the Islamic world can easily fill the vacuum of religious faith in your society.”   With what we can assume was a polite decline, Russia turned toward the West. This seems too obvious an outcome, but in reviving a state religion, with the aim of conservative cultural values, Putin may have given Khomeini’s letter some consideration.

So the West ended up in “loco parentis“, attempting to rear a modern democracy from nothing. It has been done, but rarely. While George Marshall saved Europe, and Douglas MacArthur authored democracy in Japan, there was lacking, for Russia, a supreme authority of unimpeachable intent. In particular, the economic consultants assumed too much sophistication on the part of the general public, with privatization resulting in the creation of an oligarchy that frustrated the growth of civil government. Simultaneously, the Western trade zones declined to include Russia, with Europe fearful that the large, low cost labor force would swamp their economies in a way that China is doing now. China got in the door, while Russia was excluded, because, at the time, the Russian and Ukrainian industrial bases were much closer to technological parity with the West than China’s. Today the situation is reversed.

These are the errors and considerations that came of the moment. But there were also historical attitudes, still vital and poisonous. Consider this quote:

“The Government of…Russia, arrogating to itself the supreme power to torment and slaughter the bodies of its subjects like a God-sent scourge, has been most cruel to those whom it allowed to live under the shadow of its dispensation. The worst crime against humanity of that system we behold now crouching at bay behind vast heaps of mangled corpses is the destruction of innumerable minds. The greatest horror of the world–madness–walked faithfully in its train. Some of the best intellects of Russia, after struggling in vain against the spell, ended by throwing themselves at the feet of that hopeless despotism as a giddy man leaps into an abyss. An attentive survey of Russia’s literature…of her administration and the cross-currents of her thought, must end in the verdict that the Russia of today has not the right to give…voice on the single question touching the future of humanity, because from the very inception of her being the brutal destruction of dignity, of truth, of rectitude, of all that is faithful to human nature has been made the imperative condition of her existence.”

Relative to the above indictment, Vladimir Putin reasonably considers himself enlightened and benign. Does it read like a reaction to Stalin’s purges? It’s from a 1905 essay by Joseph Conrad, “Autocracy and War”,  where the elisions hide a few words that would date the piece. Fear and suspicion of Russia predate our time. In the New World, this is dim history. In the EU, it is culturally alive. The briefly “new” Russians were astonished and offended that they were not welcomed into the bosom of Western love, while simultaneously enduring a brief, misguided, and very painful parentage.

The emotional factor is significant because, unlike previous convulsions in Europe, the ideological gap yearned to be filled with love and understanding. It was a brief moment, occasionally depicted in Hollywood feel-good flicks in which a natural disaster, plague, or alien invasion breaks down the barriers to what, in the imaginative  mind of the scriptwriter, is the natural human state of goodness.

One can blame, or think of avoidable causes, but a better situation would have been an exceptional historical outcome. That the response of the West to aggression in Ukraine has eschewed violence, relying on economic pressure, is itself an innovation in conflict resolution. But in the formative days, the West could have offered a more inspiring and practical approach to democracy and economic reform. The Russians could have tried harder to transcend their heritage as described by Joseph Conrad. That neither happened is part of the tendency of humans to make bad history.

For the Russians, the picture was completed by military and geopolitical moves, which we, confident of our kind and generous nature, could not conceive as threatening. That’s next.