According to former senior editor Whittaker Chambers, Time magazine was at least as famous in the 1940’s for its self-invented prose style as it was for being a haven for closet Stalinists. The days of apparatchik leader-writers may be long gone, but Time‘s way with euphemism and misdirection about Eastern strongmen are still very much with us.
Here is editor Richard Stengel’s note, titled “Choosing Order Before Freedom,” on why his publication chose Vladimir Putin as its 2007 “Person of the Year”:
“Time‘s Person of the Year is not and never has been an honor. It is not an endorsement. It is not a popularity contest… Putin is not a boy scout. He is not a democrat in any way that the West would define it. He is not a paragon of free speech.”
One can almost picture the editorial meeting that preceded such copy:
“What about the personality cult, the direct appointment of regional governors, the razing of Grozny, the rampant electoral fraud, the irradiation of dissident expatriates, the manipulation of the courts, the chest-thumping on the anniversary of VE Day about U.S. similarities to Nazi Germany?”
“Well, he’s no boy scout.”
“And the state-controlled television networks with round-the-clock coverage of his triumphs, the murder or expulsion of investigative reporters, the random arrests of opposition leaders? Doesn’t that make him an enemy of free speech?”
“Enemy? Excuse me, is this a newsmagazine or a blog?”
There is little news contained in Adi Ignatius’s profile of Putin, wince-makingly titled, “A Tsar is Born.” That the ex-Chekist has pretty but forbidding blue eyes and likes his classical music, which he dubs “tunes” – reminiscent of Stalin’s order to Shostakovich to provide him with some music he could “hum” – is media boilerplate for the anatomy of an inscrutable authoritarian. Actually, Putin isn’t that inscrutable.
A much better profile of him appeared in The Atlantic in 2005, authored by Paul Starobin, who, deprived of the abruptly terminated dacha dinner his subject, took to analyzing Putin’s awkward gait and semi-paralytic movements and suggested he may well have suffered a stroke in his mother’s womb. Could a lifelong physical inadequacy account for the president’s macho posturing and preference for a career of cloak-and-dagger intrigue, both in East Germany and the Kremlin? These are certainly more interesting questions to be left with than what vintage Puligny-Montrachet Putin likes to serve to credulous correspondents.
Ignatius writes that “Putin’s global ambitions seem straightforward” but then judges his statecraft by the following demotic joke: “Stalin’s ghost appears to Putin in a dream, and Putin asks for him help [sic] running the country. Stalin says, ‘Round up and shoot all the democrats, and then paint the inside of the Kremlin blue.’ ‘Why blue?’ Putin asks. ‘Ha!’ says Stalin. ‘I knew you wouldn’t ask me about the first part.'” It may be stretching the limits of gallows humor too far, but does this not indicate on the part of even Putin’s domestic fan base a certain lack of trust in his ability to act in a “straightforward” manner? Time must either soft-soak or bludgeon the reader.
Asked about his jailing of Garry Kasparov, Putin takes the opportunity to assail the chess master’s fluency in English. “Just think about it,” Putin tells Ignatius in the extended Q&A of their discussion, “The whole thrust of this thing [the Dissenters’ Marches, presumably] was directed toward other countries rather than the Russian people, and when a politician works the crowd of other nations rather than the Russian nation, it tells you something. If you aspire to be a leader of your own country, you must speak your own language, for God’s sake.” (This is followed by the non sequitur – unless Putin had in mind George Bush’s verbal infelicities in his native tongue – that the “first election of the current U.S. President wasn’t free of difficulties.”) To this smear, which doesn’t explain why the police-disrupted rallies last month took place not in New York or Los Angeles but in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Kasparov himself has fashioned a witty reply, posted on the Other Russia’s website:
“First, I also spoke in Russian, which oddly enough never makes the Kremlin-controlled newscasts. Second, since opposition statements are almost completely banned in the Russian media the foreign press usually makes up 90% of attending media at opposition events. Lastly, I would be delighted to show Mr. Putin which of us speaks and writes better Russian. Perhaps he will accept my challenge to a debate on national television or allow an editorial of mine to appear in a major newspaper.”
One missed opportunity took the form of what Putin designates as foreign interference in a sovereign nation’s affairs. Time asked him about the forthcoming U.S. election and whom he thought would make a good American president. Rather than the standard evasion of letting the process decide itself, everyone’s impressive, etc., Putin responded: “We don’t allow others to interfere in our politics, but are not prepared to meddle in other people’s affairs.” Note that a mere judgment of a candidate’s viability for office is equal, in his mind, to “interference.” Putin would no doubt characterize NATO’s expansion right up to Russia’s doorstep as a shade more ominous than that, but what would he call poisoning a Western-friendly candidate in a post-Soviet republic, or shutting off another country’s gas supply out of spite? The Kremlin has certainly not been coy about airing its preferences for political leadership in the Caucasus. This reticent live-and-let-live attitude doesn’t apply to anyone foolish enough to challenge Alexander Lukashenko for the presidency of Belarus. Still, “he says he has no intention of trying to rebuild the U.S.S.R. or re-establish military or political blocs,” so I guess that settles that.
Another missed opportunity was the very relevant question of the Orthodox Church’s ever-enlarging role in official state business. Putin has had new hires undergo baptisms to prove their loyalty to him, and Time wisely asked him about the church’s institutional cooperation with the Ministry of Defense, Foreign Office and police. And was it not exceedingly creepy that the military hierarchs of the General Staff commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Russian nuclear weapon at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral? “Well, I would say that if those General Staff were Jews, Muslims or Buddhists and would have chosen to celebrate this wonderful event at other religious shrines, I would welcome that.” (A “wonderful event” it was: Putin recently glorified George Koval, the Soviet spy who worked on the Manhattan Project and gave Stalin his coveted bomb).
I say this was a missed opportunity because Putin’s own Orthodox confessor is one Father Tikhon, an abbot at the Sretensky Monastery on Bolshaya Lubyanka street in Moscow. Apart from offering the expected nostrums about strong central leadership and Putin’s role as a spiritual, as well as political, eminence of the new Russia, Father Tikhon had this to say to Starobin of The Atlantic: “[I]f we look objectively at historical facts, we can see that in the leadership of the gulags were a lot of Jews. After the Revolution the role of Jews in Russia was very special. No one can deny it.”
Coming from a patriarch of a church that for centuries happily endorsed innumerable czarist pogroms and the imperial katorga for social and political undesirables, Tikhon’s Hebrew trope should make everyone question the kind of “faith” the KGB Czar and his yes-men are imbibing.
Putin, “like George W. Bush,” we’re told, views terrorism as the chief threat to Russian national security, but “he is wary of labeling it Islamic. ‘Radicals,’ he says, can be found in any environment.'” No doubt they can. But that hardly explains why, during the Beslan school massacre, state-controlled television networks, which had spent days lying about the number of hostages taken by Chechen separatists – the official estimate was 354 when in fact there were about 1,200 – later broadcast footage of corpses of some of the child-killers, saying they belonged to 10 Arabs and one African. This was a complete fabrication, of course. As Peter Baker and Susan Glasser put it in their excellent book, Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution, the goal was to “make it seem as if [the terrorists] were tied to Al Qaeda instead of Chechnya, even though hostages did not see any Arabs or Africans.” Now it is true that some of the terrorists were chador and hijab-wearing women suicide bombers known as shakhidki, the Russified word for Arab martyrs. The Moscow press terms these distaff agents of death and nihilism “black widows,” and the Kremlin does all it can to associate them with their Wahhabist originals. The Islamic connection to international terror is much greater in Putin’s mind than he lets on to Ignatius.
For instance, asked why he refused to broker a political settlement to the devastating war in Chechnya, a war that helped bolster his approval rating as Yeltsin’s prime minister and thus ease his transition into the presidency, Putin fumed: “Why don’t you meet Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House, engage in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in peace?” When in doubt, revert to moral equivalence.
The mention of Brussels here was not accidental: In November 2002, Putin was asked by a French reporter in that city about his use of landmines in Chechnya and their nasty habit of maiming or killing innocent civilians. His response? “If you want to become an Islamic radical and have a circumcision, I invite you to Moscow, because we are a multi-talented country and have specialists there. I recommend that you have the operation done in such a way that nothing else will grow there.”
This is the rhetoric of a Scarface, not a statesman. And it certainly puts paid to the notion that Putin, as Ignatius phrased it, “projects steely confidence and strength.” Not only can he be antagonized, but he becomes vicious and untethered when this happens.
As for Chechnya’s actual connection to Al Qaeda, readers who revel in the U.S.’s many bungled attempts to nab Bin Laden or capture Zarqawi in a timelier fashion might appreciate the fact that Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s Number 2, once visited Chechnya with an eye toward establishing a base of operations there. He was arrested by Russian security who didn’t know who he was and then released him six months later!
Of course, the linchpin of Putin’s success is Russia’s much-bruited economic vitality. This has been a matter of luck and timing; his inauguration in 2000 was attended by an escalation of oil prices. Indeed, for a man who professes great admiration for Peter the Great, Putin’s dynasty represents less of a Petrine modernization of industry than it get-rich-quick petrol plunder. “Saudi Arabia with rockets” was the Marxist historian and sociologist Perry Anderson’s wry diagnosis for this new energy-reliant Russia, whose continued growth is by no means certain. “Stability” is exactly the wrong word for the Russian economy. Nevertheless, Ignatius concludes:
“A basket case in the 1990s, Russia’s economy has grown an average of 7% a year for the past five years. The country has paid off a foreign debt that once neared $200 billion. Russia’s rich have gotten richer, often obscenely so. But the poor are doing better too: workers’ salaries have more than doubled since 2003. True, this is partly a result of oil at $90 a barrel, and oil is a commodity Russia has in large supply. But Putin has deftly managed the windfall and spread the wealth enough so that people feel hopeful.”
Left out of this rosy picture is any and all context. Real wages have doubled, all right – from about $200 per month to less than $400 per month. This may be ranked an accomplishment given the utter chaos and endemic poverty that persisted through the capitalist “shock therapy” of the 1990’s, yet the increase is still modest, particularly against the gilded flamboyance of the post-oligarchic new class of billionaires. Russia’s gross national income is lower than that of Mexico, while its population – mortality rates remain high, birthrates remain low, you’re lucky if you make it past 52 – is smaller than that of Bangladesh. Moreover, the wealth disparity between the ultra-haves and the have-nots puts any dichotomy of “Two Americas” to shame.
I asked Martin Walker, the Senior Director of the Global Business Policy Council, and formerly the Moscow bureau chief for The Guardian about the oil bonanza upon which Putin’s stature as a popular leader rests.
Walker said money from this direction had plateaued, and just in time for Putin’s lamented exit as the man in charge. (One reason Putin chose not to amend the constitution and seek a third term as president is that any dwindling of the oil windfall come March can be blamed on his anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev.)
“Oil prices are as high now as they’re ever going to be,” Walker said. “They’ve been pumping the stuff quite near the surface. Using technology that the West grew out of in the 50s and 60s.” He laughed when I asked him about the “Person of the Year” distinction, and though he admits Putin has been a prominent figure in 2007, Walker suggested other more exigent alternatives of global importance, such as Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf or Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke.
As for what really characterizes the reawakened “bear,” Walker sees this as Russia’s emerging middle class-a demographic the country has never had before. “The old Soviet Union did produce a well-educated population, that education is paying off. The growing service sector, the non-oil industrial sectors-growth here seems to be genuine. We’re getting a Russian middle-class, and it is not going to put up with an autocratic system of rule if the oil price goes down again – they’ll be worried about their currency, their savings, an honest government, a decent legal system…”
As for the prospect that the Medvedev might defy his old boss and exert a more independent role as Russia’s new president, Walker hinted at telling signs in the otherwise retiring Kremlin flunkie’s curriculum vitae.
Medvedev joined the staff of St. Petersburg’s pro-perestroika Mayor Anatoly Sobchak in 1988, two years before Putin did, at a time when it was still professionally iffy to be aligned so publicly with democratic reform.
Additionally, Medvedev is said to compare himself physically to Czar Nicholas II – hardly a sterling endorsement of his liberal credentials, but an indicator that perhaps he, too, views himself as much of a political force to be reckoned with as the Person of the Year.”