Putin's Ukraine incursion brings back the bad old bear

Besides sending a chill up the spine of the international community, Vladimir Putin has accomplished one other thing by seizing Crimea and threatening the rest of Ukraine: Putin has brought back the bear. 

Like Uncle Sam, the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey, the Russian bear was a stock character in decades of political cartoons drawn by pretty much every caricaturist in the business, including me. The dissertation I wrote for my master's degree in international relations was titled “Visions of the Bear” and surveyed British and American political cartoons to track Western perceptions of the Soviets during the Cold War. In those cartoons, bears abounded. The animal seemed a perfect personification of the USSR -- big, brutish, shambling and dangerous.

One day not long after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, I drew a cartoon that retired the bear as the symbol of the new Russia in my commentary. The beast had become toothless and it was time to find a new way to portray a country that seemed profoundly changed. I hoped the beast was gone forever. 

When Putin rose to power at the start of the new century, nobody expected the ex-KGB agent to be a perfect democrat. Still, he seemed to be a non-ideological 21stcentury man. He appeared serious and competent, unlike his drunken, buffoonish predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. There was speculation that his KGB background was actually a good thing because Russia’s spies understood global realities better than the dull apparatchiks who spent their lives cloistered in the Kremlin. 

Putin was smooth. He wore decent suits. He was authoritarian, of course, but more in the corporate style of Singapore, not in the cruel manner of Stalin. It was Putin’s good fortune to take charge just as his country was enjoying an oil boom. As the fortunes of his countrymen rose, so did his popularity. Optimists hoped Putin’s Russia -- no longer an economic basket case -- would find its way toward a place among the world’s developed, democratic nations.

That was wishful thinking. Russia was, instead, becoming a kleptocracy. Putin’s oligarch allies were raking in billions while his foes were going to prison. The fledgling independent media was stifled. Opposition politicians and parties were held in check. Putin kept himself at the top by changing hats from president to prime minister and back again while accruing more and more power to himself.

This regression to old ways was partially masked by Putin’s great PR skills. His greatest triumph of happy image over grim reality, his grand Potemkin village, was this year’s Winter Olympic Games. On TV screens, the people of the world saw a new, appealing Russia broadcast from Sochi. But only days after the Games closed, the old Russia brought down its fist on Ukraine.

Not much has changed, after all. The bear was not gone; he was only hibernating. And now he is back.

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