Back to the (Soviet) Future
Those of us who correctly predicted years ago that the rise of proud KGB spy Vladimir Putin meant a return in Russia to Soviet-era practices of repression and aggression now find ourselves in a strange position. The overwhelming evidence of our accuracy is satisfying and utterly horrifying at the same time. We wish we had been mistaken.
Even a cursory glance at the news coming out of Russia these days shows a nation hurtling backwards at breakneck speed.
Heavy pressure is being put on Russians not to leave the country, just as in Soviet times, and draconian, neo-Soviet legal restrictions are in the offing. Parents who dare to seek life-saving medical treatment abroad for their desperately ill children are castigated, and those who dare to maintain dual citizenship are branded criminals or even traitors.
Putin has unleashed a “troll army” to deluge free Western media with neo-Soviet propaganda, and he has co-opted the Russian Orthodox Church to launch a heinous campaign of political racism that harkens back to the worst days of the paranoid Josef Stalin. Putin has even gone so far as to launch a war on GPS technology, threatening to shut down Russian broadcasting stations unless the U.S. permits Russia to install stations in on U.S. territory that are capable of far broader eavesdropping.
The seething, bloodthirsty hatred of the USA and her values is just a palpable in Russia today as it ever was in the USSR. In an amazing tweet (link contains vulgar profanity), former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, architect of the spectacularly failed “reset” policy that told us Russians were just misunderstood and only needed a little love and care, was shocked to confront this profane, thuggish hatred in cyberspace, and asked how Russians would react if Americans talked like that about them.
Russia’s direct, reckless military menacing of the U.S. is now ongoing Kremlin policy. And polls clearly show that the people of Russia are actively supporting Putin’s bloodthirsty aggression and furious attempts to revive the USSR. In Soviet times it was possible to believe that the people of Russia were as much the victims of their evil government as we were. Now, we can clearly see they are part of the problem.
Then there’s the embarrassing neo-Soviet failure. Russian military analyst Alexander Golts tells the old Soviet joke about “a man who steals parts at his factory job in order to build the sewing machine he has promised his wife. He manages to smuggle the parts home without any problem, but every time he assembles them, he ends up building a Kalashnikov rifle instead.”
And so it goes in neo-Soviet Russia, which keeps somehow getting guns no matter how hard it tries for butter. Putin’s effort to create a state-sponsored search engine which would out-compete the private models did a spectacular face plant, and Standard & Poors announced that the Russian banking sector is on the verge of implosion. Putin himself admitted as much, announcing that the state would need to make a massive cash infusion in order to stave off disaster. Ominously, the Kremlin has even started talking about raiding the national old-age pension system in order to pay operating expenses and avoid ruinous debt.
Putin actually thinks, just like his Soviet ancestors did, that he can simply order the Russian economy to grow and flourish. This malignant, toxic attitude ignores the reality that the exact opposite is the case: the more Putin clamps down, the more critical oxygen is cut off and the economy begins its neo-Soviet demise. Growth has entirely stopped, the ruble is collapsing and investment capital is fleeing a truly terrifying rate.
Putin has met absolute catastrophe in terms of world opinion of Russia as he has pursued revanchism. Russia now ranks with Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan in a small group of countries whose negative reputation far exceeds its positive. The BBC reports: “Negative views of Russia now average 45% across the countries polled. They largely outweigh positive views (31%), and have gone up four points since 2013.” The billions of rubles that Putin has lavished on English-language propaganda efforts have palpably been wasted.
Even Edward Snowden is starting to look like a Trojan Horse. The U.S. traitor recently appeared on American TV and criticized Putin’s virulent crackdown on the press, and then followed up by stating that, actually, he’d much rather be living in Brazil.
The failure is leading to unintended hilarity, just as it so often did in Soviet times. For instance, weeks after being voted out of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in a truly humiliating international rebuke Russia suddenly announced it was resigning, as if the ejection had never happened, because it was “shocked, shocked” to find PACE was a “russophobic” organization. Of course, it only managed to discovery this, after years of participation seeking international legitimacy, when a democratic vote condemned Russian aggression against Ukraine.
There are even stories about Putin developing an army of killer robots.
Those of us who saw Putin for what he was from the first knew this humiliating failure was coming, too. In the long haul, just as the USSR could not sustain itself Russia will not be able to do so either. It will be eaten away from within by the corruption of unchecked power and it will collapse. But that process took decades in the case of the Soviet Union, and during those decades untold, wretched suffering was wreaked upon the hapless globe. Are we really going to go through that whole process all over again because our craven president is unable to implement policies that would result in a different outcome?
To be sure, the cracks are already showing in Putin’s foundations. His handpicked puppet in Abkhazia, one of the two regions he invaded and seized from Georgia in 2008, was just ousted in a massive popular uprising that Putin was helpless to prevent. And Putin hasn’t been able to stir up the kind of popular tumult in Eastern Ukraine that could be offered to justify armed intervention and further annexation there. With every day that passes, Crimea realizes more and more clearly that becoming part of Russia could be the biggest mistake it’s ever made.
But Putin’s ace in the hole remains Barack Obama, who hasn’t even been able to name a replacement for McFaul in Moscow, much less to do anything at all about Russia’s naked imperialism in Ukraine. Our feeble president is allowing Russian revanchism to poison and smear American honor the same way Jimmy Carter did, and leaving a huge mess for his successor to clean up. We can only pray America is capable of producing another Ronald Reagan.
A fabulous new book on the publication of the famous Russian novel Dr. Zhivago reminds readers of what it was like to live in the former USSR, but really, all you need to do for that is to open a newspaper.
Follow Kim Zigfeld on Twitter @larussophobe.