Putin and the History and Future of Russia

President of Russia

I’m sitting high over a sunny Siberia – on my way from from Beijing to Vilnius – reading the speech that Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered to the Federal Assembly in Moscow April 25. It was his annual policy address – rather like the State of the Union speech in the United States.

It is – as usual – an interesting document. It contains much that is both good and sensible and needed. In important respects, it is undeniably a reform document.

But the problem is that the credibility of what’s good in the speech is undermined by a number of statements that just flies in the face of the truth, and others which reveal a mind-set that has too many Soviet remains to be entirely comfortable.

He sets out by saying that “we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.”

Well, others certainly see that somewhat different.

Ask the Poles or the Lithuanians or the Georgians or the Ukrainians or the Germans or – for that matter – all those Russians that had to do imperial service in countries were they were not welcome.

Somewhat later in the speech, he naturally addresses the upcoming celebration of the 60th anniversary of the final defeat of Hitler’s Germany.

That this defeat was a result to a very large degree of an enormous sacrifice by the people of Russia is a clear a fact as it is that Hitler was able to launch his war on the rest of Europe due to his infamous Pact with Stalin in August of 1939.

Putin describes what happened 60 years ago like this:

“Very soon, on May 9, we shall celebrate the 60th anniversary of victory. This day can deservedly be called the day of civilisations triumph over fascism. Our common victory enabled us to defend the principles of freedom, independence and equality between all peoples and nations.”

This is a bit rich, to put it mildly.

The Soviet armies that rolled into Tallinn, Warsaw, Budapest or Berlin certainly drove the armies of Hitler away and ended Nazi tyranny. But they were certainly not the armies of the principles of freedom, independence and equality between all peoples and nations.

For these nations and other nations, these armies represented the transition from one nightmare to another. One regime of repression and occupation was replaced by another regime of repression and occupation.

It is when one reads phrases like this that one understands the debate that the question of participation in the May 9th celebrations have caused, for example in the Baltic countries.

They don’t want to see their own painful history violated. And it is surprising that Vladimir Putin and his staff isn’t more sensitive to both historical truth and national feelings among peoples that did suffer gravely under the booth of Soviet power.

The incomprehension that I’m certain will meet these parts of the speech might be magnified by another attempt by Putin to do a rather major rewriting of Russian history:

“Above all else Russia is and will, of course, be a major European power. Achieved through much suffering by European culture, the ideals of freedom, human rights, justice sand democracy have for many centuries between our society’s determining values.”

Freedom? For many centuries? Russia’s determining value?

Wasn’t there this Joseph Stalin? And for all the achievements of the Imperial Russia under the Tsar’s, to say that freedom and human rights were the determining value of Russia under them flies in the face of almost everything.

The Russian peasants laboured with hardly even the right to their own lives for centuries. Serfdom was the reality for much of Russian even through most of the 19th century.

And even a great reformer and great European like Peter the Great is extremely difficult to describe in terms of democracy and human rights.

One might say that it doesn’t make much of a difference what Putin has to say – everyone knows what history was really like.

But what’s disturbing with phrases like this is that they indicate that words that for us have a very real meaning have nothing of the sort for the Kremlin.

And when Putin then says that he considers “the development of Russia as a free and democratic state to be the main political and economic goal”, it is unavoidable that his use of important words like freedom and democracy here is judged in the light of how he uses them in relation to history.

He reduces – even eliminates, I’m sure some would say – his credibility.

Of some contemporary significance is also a phrase that follows shortly after his radical reinterpretation of centuries of Russian history:

“Also certain is that Russia should continue its civilizing mission on the Eurasian continent. This mission consists in ensuring that democratic values, combined with national interests, enrich and strengthen our historic community.”

Now, here some clarifications would clearly be in order.

Who is it that today needs to be civilized by Russia on the Eurasian continent? And which are the steps have the Putin regime taken in this direction?

Could the blatant and failed attempts to manipulate the Ukrainian election be part of this civilizing mission? Is the effort to share up the Lukashenko dictatorship in Belarus part of it? Or is it just the war in Chechnya that should be seen as an expression of this civilizing mission?

In other sections of the speech, Putin shows real awareness of the challenges Russia is facing and the policies that are necessary in order to address them.

That concerns in particular the need to rein in a tax police that is actively harassing many businessmen and to necessity of creating a climate in which also foreign investment can contribute to the necessary development of the country in the decades ahead.

As I’m passing over the low mountain ridge over the Urals, thus leaving Asia, I’m certainly agreeing with Putin when he’s sating that Russia has always been and remains an important part of Europe.

We Europeans all have an enormous interest in the success of its reforms and its integration with the rest of the world.

Then it’s a pity that a speech as important as this is so loaded with phrases and thoughts that are leading away in completely different directions.

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