We continue from Putin Wins; Russian Politics & Novichok Part 1.
Much of what follows was originally written as the unpublished part 7 of Advice to a New Secretary of State. It is re-purposed here as continuation of Putin Wins; Russian Politics & Novichok Part 1, on the road to developing a comparison of Russia with the old Soviet Union.
Part and parcel with the national identity of all nations is national narcissism, ignoring the existence of trace elements or features, or more than traces, of that which we abhor. In the U.S., respect for human rights and individual liberties has been subject to wide gyrations. The U.S. ranks near the top in acceptance, learning, and reform from self criticism of past and current national tragedies. It is a process that must continue indefinitely. What follows is not intended to narrow the moral disparity between the U.S. and Russia. We debate and learn; the Russians deny and lie.
It is nevertheless the case that trace elements of due legal process, and respect for rights of individuals, while limited in scope, existed in limited contexts in the Soviet Union. The existence, disappearance, and reappearance of trace elements of a society can be important markers of social evolution. What follows was written before the March 4 poisonings of the Skripals with Novichok. Don’t forget the attempts to poison Fidel Castro. Although the U.S. death-by-poison body count may be zero or close to it, it’s nevertheless important to the analytical mindset to acknowledge. It is a trace feature of our society. I leave it to you to make the appropriate insertions.
To us, Russian subversion of democracies is unethical, while a counter strategy based operant conditioning (the Skinner Box) is ethically beyond reproach. But there is always a chance that the Russians might eventually open up a little, as during Perestroika. As dim as the outlook is, as suggested by current events, let’s not completely negate the possibility. Vladimir Putin still seems a combination of a modern man with a nationalist in the historical mold. People who are combinations contain the possibility of change. But note, Vladimir Putin is not synonymous with Russia.
Let’s consider what forms the external image of the U.S., and circle back to Nikki Haley’s “…that is warfare.”
Between 1920 and 1950, reservoirs of romantic sympathy in the West for Bolshevik revolution gradually faded away, replaced by a true appreciation of the horrors. Six years later, on February 2, 1956, the first official denunciation within the Soviet Union came in Khrushchev’s secret speech. This was really the first “perestroika.” But starting from the base of an historic brutality, it was only an increment. Three generations have passed since that speech, enough time for Western Europe to abandon the nationalism of conflict dating to the Treaty of Westphalia.
With three generations, the salt of Russia’s earth still have one foot in the past. That foot threatens to drag us all back to the conflicts of centuries. This is why we are so unnerved by Russian subversion. But perhaps the Russians don’t appreciate the value of what they are trying to destroy.
Historical comparisons can be made between human rights violations in Soviet Russia, and in the West. There is the appearance of qualitative overlap, but this neglects the numbers. Russia had Stalin’s purges. The U.S. had racial lynching. Russia had extrajudicial capital punishment, via the infamous NKVD “troika.” In the U.S., capital punishment is inconsistently applied, in some cases, to innocents. Neither society is perfect, but numbers tell the story.
- While 20+ millions died in Stalin’s purges, the Tuskegee Institute documents a total of 4,733 lynchings since 1882.
- According to a study cited by Newsweek, U.S. miscarriage of justice in cases involving capital punishment since 1973 has been about 4.1%. Since 1973, 144 people on death row have been exonerated.
- Estimates of the Gulag population in the 1990’s vary, the lowest cited in Wikipedia as 4.5 million. In the U.S., people have gone to jail for political reasons, for participation in the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War movements, and some as almost purely as prisoners of conscience. Let the Russians come up with a list and we’ll do numbers.
- Soviet psychiatric hospitals, used during the Brezhnev era for political control, analogize (though with no relation to politics) to the abuses of U.S. mental institutions in the same time frame.
- U.S. and Russian covert activities in the Third World during the Cold War have significant symmetry. Manipulations of print and broadcast media correspond to social media manipulations. A good picture of this is given in the books by C.I.A. plank owner Miles Copeland. This epoch was swept away by the Church Committee, the Pike Committee, and so forth. Since then, concerns illuminated by legislative and public scrutiny, and leaks, have alternated in importance with the exigencies of 9/11.
- The Russians may compare the former U.S. dominance in Latin America, interventions there, and the general attitude of the Monroe Doctrine, to the Iron Curtain of Eastern Europe. We don’t.
The current propaganda drumbeat of Russian government media is unrelated to the specifics of the list, but the mindset that engenders the propaganda endures.
The list implies varying shades of gray, with occasional marks of black. The blackest mark on our record is the Vietnam War. Can we exonerate our fathers by saying, “We were fighting communism”? This is not to argue with you if you think we can, but the Russians, and many others, do not share the thought.
As Americans, we are free to vigorously defend the above, to be shamed, or accept them as bygone attitudes engendered by the Soviet threat. The purpose of this recapitulation is to understand Russian attitudes, particularly of the overhang of older individuals in the Russian government.
Now we have developed moral relativism, not to blur the moral disparity between the U.S. and Russia, but for the sake of the analytical mindset. To be continued shortly.