Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin

From Professor Michael Curtis, at the New English Review:
Are the Tsars out tonight? High in the sky the Tsars climb. For policy makers in Washington it is useful to compare two individuals who have risen in the Russian sky. On May  7, 2018 the 65 year old Vladimir V. Putin was sworn in as President of Russia for another six year term, his fourth term of office, having been elected with 77% of the vote.  He was not crowned Tsar in a relatively low key ceremomy that was attended by about 6,000 including sundry personalities, Gerhard Schroeder, former German Chancellor and critic of sanctions against Russia, Steven Seagal, Hollywood black belt in aikido and citizen of Russia since November 2016, and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill who gave Putin an 18th century icon. After the inauguration ceremony the secular Putin attended a prayer service at the Cathedral of the Annunciation.

 Vladimir Putin has been in power, as president or as prime minister since the last day of 1999. According to polls conducted by the independent Moscow Levanda Center in 2017, his popularity remains high, partly because there is no obvious alternative, no candidate from political parties, or social organizations, or trade unions, who can be regarded as a possible alternative.

Yet, Putin is not the most renowned or revered Russian. A poll in June 2017 on which Russian was the national symbol and biggest hero revealed that Joseph Stalin was the "most outstanding person in history." Stalin got 38% approval, while Putin tied with writer Alexander Pushkin at 34%. Stalin, probably seen as the hero of World War II rather than a cruel ruler, was even much more favorably regarded than Lenin, Bolshevik founder of the Soviet Union.

For the U.S. and indeed the rest of the democratic world a vital question is raised. Can Putin be seen as the heir of Stalin and the continuator of his policies? First, how to define Stalinism? Was it a perversion of the Bolshevism launched by Lenin, or was it the Revolution betrayed, or was it the embodiment of historic Russian nationalism using palatable language?

The showing recently of the black comedy film The Death of Stalin is a reminder of the crimes, the power struggles, counter plots, cult of personality, rewriting of history, the shifting truths in the Soviet Union. Central to most of that regime is the story of Stalin's reign of terror, a "total river of blood" in Leon Trotsky's words, during which more than 1.6 million party officials, military officers, intelligence agents, were murdered on fake charges of treason. In one year 1937-38, more than 700,000 were executed and millions of others were exiled or imprisoned.

It is arguable whether Stalin's brutality towards Ukraine 1932-3 can be called Holodomor, the deliberate attempt at genocide, the death of  millions, some estimates go as high as seven million, of Ukrainians on ethnic grounds, and the elimination of the Ukraininan independence movement, or whether the catastophe was an act of nature, a  genuine result of crop failure. Either way, it was a state engineered mass murder of the peasantry. It was part of Stalin's emphasis on the collectivization of agriculture. Every action of Stalin, other than the maintenance of his own power, was subordinated to "socialism in one country" and thus to a near permanent state of emergency. For Stalin, the Soviet Union was encircled by external enemies, and therefore a massive security organization was vital.

But Stalin's paranoia embodied internal enemies for which the main instruments were the political police and the Gulag system of forced labor camps...