Is the Soviet Union back?


Today’s question: To what extent does Vladimir Putin’s Russia resemble the old Soviet Union? Previously, Meier and Moynihan discussed NATO expansion, Russia’s membership in the G-8 and its possible membership in the WTO, U.S. diplomacy in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s and the extent to which Russia wants to exert control over its neighbors.

Three disturbing trends
Point: Andrew Meier

Just how close is Vladimir Putin’s Russia to the old U.S.S.R.? What a great question to close the week. In the decade and a half since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russians, from Kaliningrad to Chukotka, have turned to modernity and, aided by the petroleum trickle-down in the vast majority of cities and towns, even joined the 21st century. Despite the darkest desires of many surrounding Putin, the restoration dream -- the return of the omnipotent totalitarian state -- seems an impossibility. (That said, only fools in Russia dare predict the future: The past, as the locals say, is sufficiently unpredictable.) And yet, Michael, the country does resemble the old empire in at least three pervasive ways.

First, Russia remains a land of doublespeak.

Listen to what Putin’s puppet president, 42-year-old former corporate lawyer Dimitri Medvedev, told the BBC this week: Russia’s invasion of Georgia was spurred by the “genocide” in South Ossetia. Even the most rabidly anti-Georgian reports by Russian state news outlets do not justify the claim. Then there was Medvedev’s paranoid aside that seemed lifted out of an old Soviet script: his claim that the U.S. is bootlegging caches of arms into Georgia: “What the Americans call humanitarian cargoes -- of course, they are bringing in weapons,” he told the BBC. He added graciously, “We’re not trying to prevent it.” And then Putin continued the paranoid thread on CNN, claiming that “someone in the United States created this conflict to stir up the situation and to create an advantage for one of the candidates” running for president. Lord knows what Putin and Medvedev think Cindy McCain, who also dropped by Tbilisi this week, had hidden in her clutch purse.


Second, Russia remains a land where the state is willing to enhance its power through the extrajudicial punishment -- to the point of murder -- of its own citizens.

If the West must contend with the doublespeak of Russian foreign policy, pity the poor souls at home. Remember the fallen oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky? He was no angel, mind you, but he still doesn’t deserve a place on death row (he’s likely to contract multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis) in a Siberian jail. Remember the tragedy of the 2004 Beslan school hostage-taking? Or the theater siege in Moscow in October 2002? Both ended in unconscionably high body counts in large part, of course, thanks to the terrorists who orchestrated the attacks. But as the Beslan mothers and the Moscow theater survivors know, the ineptitude of the Russian security forces also contributed mightily. Then, in both tragedies, there was the coverup -- doublespeak written in blood.

Third, Russia remains a land in which fear of the state -- and its suffocating reach -- prevails.

We do not have sufficient space, Michael, to perform an autopsy on the Boris Yeltsin-era media, nor a proper study of how unbridled and foaming Russian websites are (hint: many of them make the Huffington Post look as insightful and informative as the National Enquirer). But I think we can agree that Putin’s strangulation of Russia’s TV and print media are sufficiently documented. The airwaves have indeed turned neo-Soviet, as Putinites across Russia -- often acting on their own -- have shuttered the arena of free speech and public debate.

Russia this month lost Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who on the eve of his exile in 1974 threw a literary Molotov cocktail at the Soviet leaders, calling on his compatriots to refuse “to live by the lie.” Who in Russia today dares to stand up and make such a demand?

And yet, the contradictions predominate. The Russian state, for all the talk of reviving the “Great Power,” remains at heart, in its institutions from the army to the local courts, a bardak -- a mess. Even Vlad the Impaler cannot restore the Soviet empire. Under Putin, thanks to the rising death rate and the declining birth rate -- “the Russian cross,” as demographers call it -- Russia has lost nearly 1 million citizens a year. Gone are the vast reserves of slave labor and the shackled colonies of Central Asia, the Baltics and, yes, the South Caucasus.


But how “free” are Russians? Many, even among those who have no memory of the U.S.S.R., have settled for that illiberal bargain, forfeiting a short-lived taste of civil liberties for a measure of stability. Therein, Michael, lies the secret of Putinism’s success.

Andrew Meier is a former Moscow correspondent for Time magazine and the author of the new book, “The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service.”

Putin is nostalgic, but Russia isn’t a major threat
Counterpoint: Michael C. Moynihan

It disappoints me terribly, Andrew, to end a week of contretemps on such a convivial note, but I must admit that your three examples of Russian neo-Sovietism are difficult to disagree with. I too noticed that the language emanating from the Kremlin following the Georgia invasion sounded eerily familiar -- the talk of fraternal assistance to Russian citizens bravely staring down the forces of genocide; the orchestrated propaganda campaign, which included Putin’s absurd, evidence-be-damned claim that the whole thing was a John McCain-orchestrated plot to sway American voters. As you well know, there was hardly a foreign adventure undertaken by the Soviet Union that wasn’t framed as a reasonable countermeasure to some bourgeoisie, imperialist -- read: American -- plot.

But that stuff, I think, is small beer when viewed next to some of the more ominous parallels: the rigged elections, the punitive use of the legal system to attack dissent and the increasing strength and prominence of the security services. I found myself nodding in agreement when you wrote, “The airwaves have indeed turned neo-Soviet, as Putinites across Russia -- often acting on their own -- have shuttered the arena of free speech and public debate.”

Take Ekho Moskvy, often pointed to as one of the few truly independent media outlets in the country, which has been harassed, fined and constantly threatened with prosecution under the “extremism law” for daring to report news unfriendly to Putin. Or just look at the yearly reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists, which documents the appalling and threatening conditions under which anti-regime journalists are forced to work. There are few that haven’t heard the name of Anna Politkovskaya, the anti-Kremlin journalist who was gunned down on Putin’s birthday in 2006, but the CPJ reports demonstrate that her situation is hardly unique. And speaking of memories of the Cold War, what was the first thing that popped into your head, Andrew, after you heard of the polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London? Was it, perhaps, the 1978 murder of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, who was killed by the KGB in London using a poison-tipped umbrella?

As you say, Andrew, the individual examples of Putin’s antidemocratic and censorious tendencies are too many to mention, though for those readers interested in a more detailed accounting of the current situation in Moscow, I can heartily recommend two new books that skillfully navigate the sewers of modern Russian politics: Steve LeVine’s “Putin’s Labyrinth” and Edward Lucas’ “The New Cold War.”


Again, all of this is deeply troubling, with distinct echoes of Leninist totalitarianism. But it doesn’t, I think, quite rise to the level of “Soviet.” It is worth noting that Russia has embraced a more open market (calling it a “free market” would be going too far, though, as a libertarian, I can appreciate the introduction of a 13% flat tax) and has little interest in returning to the grinding poverty that invariably accompanies communism. We are not in any danger of Moscow extending its reach into the broader world -- despite Putin’s worrying relationships with the regimes in Venezuela and Iran -- in any way similar to what happened during the Cold War. Indeed, Russia has recently closed military bases in Cuba and Vietnam. Without the unifying feature of ideology, the motivation for strategic relationships with comradely movements in, say, Angola, Nicaragua and South Yemen are almost nonexistent.

But that said, there can be no doubt about Putin’s love for the country in which he was raised. After the tragic deaths at Beslan, Putin spoke to the assembled members of the media and began with this curious bit of nostalgia: “Today, we live in a time that follows the collapse of a vast and great state, a state that, unfortunately, proved unable to survive in a rapidly changing world. But despite all the difficulties, we were able to preserve the core of what was once the vast Soviet Union, and we named this new country the Russian Federation.”

This was hardly a one-off sop to Soviet nostalgics -- those medal-bedecked veterans of the “Great Patriotic War” who consistently rate Josef Stalin as the country’s greatest leader. Remember that, in 2005, Putin explicitly said that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” What logical inference can one draw from such a statement? Perhaps that, under the leadership of Comrade Putin, Russia will attempt to regain the level of power and influence it saw during the Leonid Brezhnev era?

So to those who doubt that echoes of the Soviet past persist, that it lives merely in the fevered imaginations of nostalgic hawks, let me say this: One needn’t read tea leaves to come to such conclusions, but simply listen to unambiguous speeches of Russia’s prime minister and puppet master, Vladimir Putin.

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