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Hillsdale College’s Imprimis has a great issue this month on “how to think about Putin.” It is a transcript of a talk by Christopher Caldwell at the College’s Leadership Seminar held in Phoenix two months ago.
… Let me stress at the outset that this is not going to be a talk about what to think about Putin, which is something you are all capable of making up your minds on, but rather how to think about him. And on this, there is one basic truth to remember, although it is often forgotten. Our globalist leaders may have deprecated sovereignty since the end of the Cold War, but that does not mean it has ceased for an instant to be the primary subject of politics. …
While Caldwell doesn’t address this directly, his efforts contain a realization of the problems of geography that have dogged Russia throughout its history. To wit, this is a country which is situated on the Great Northern European Plain which stretches from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains and which has provided the country with no natural barriers that could constitute a defensive position.
… if we were to use traditional measures for understanding leaders, which involve the defense of borders and national flourishing, Putin would count as the pre-eminent statesman of our time. On the world stage, who can vie with him? Only perhaps Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey.
When Putin took power in the winter of 1999-2000, his country was defenseless. It was bankrupt. It was being carved up by its new kleptocratic elites, in collusion with its old imperial rivals, the Americans. Putin changed that. In the first decade of this century, he did what Kemal Atatürk had done in Turkey in the 1920s. Out of a crumbling empire, he rescued a nation-state, and gave it coherence and purpose. He disciplined his country’s plutocrats. He restored its military strength. And he refused, with ever blunter rhetoric, to accept for Russia a subservient role in an American-run world system drawn up by foreign politicians and business leaders. His voters credit him with having saved his country. …
Wikipedia lists 156 wars that have involved Russia since the fledgling KievianState began to take shape in 830. That means every seven and a half years during the history of Russia there has been some type of armed conflict; mostly with immediate neighbors. There were 21 wars with Turkey or Byzantium, ten with Sweden, seventeen with Poland, and so on. Is it any wonder Russians value a strong central state?
Our political and philosophical forbearers had different concerns because they inhabited more secure lands with effective barriers against invasion. Great Britain was safe enough to have given much more thought to controlling a strong central state. So the Magna Carta, placing limits on the power of the rulers was created in England. It is impossible to imagine such a document making an appearance in Russia which faced existential threats every decade.
… Putin did not come out of nowhere. Russian people not only tolerate him, they revere him. You can get a better idea of why he has ruled for 17 years if you remember that, within a few years of Communism’s fall, average life expectancy in Russia had fallen below that of Bangladesh. That is an ignominy that falls on Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin’s reckless opportunism made him an indispensable foe of Communism in the late 1980s. But it made him an inadequate founding father for a modern state. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose writings about Communism give him some claim to be considered the greatest man of the twentieth century, believed the post-Communist leaders had made the country even worse. In the year 2000 Solzhenitsyn wrote: “As a result of the Yeltsin era, all the fundamental sectors of our political, economic, cultural, and moral life have been destroyed or looted. Will we continue looting and destroying Russia until nothing is left?” That was the year Putin came to power. He was the answer to Solzhenitsyn’s question.
There are two things Putin did that cemented the loyalty of Solzhenitsyn and other Russians—he restrained the billionaires who were looting the country, and he restored Russia’s standing abroad. Let us take them in turn. …
When last we posted, we closed with an article on the great tragedy that took place in 100 years ago in Russian when the fledgling democratic government was overthrown by Lenin and his bloodthirsty leftists. The circumstances of Lenin arriving in St’ Petersburg one month after the czar abdicated are the subject of a book reviewed by The WSJ.
Of all the weapons deployed in World War I, among the most lethal may have been a train that left Zurich on April 9, 1917. Thirty-two of its passengers—a ragbag of revolutionaries and their family members—were on their way to Russia. At their head was Vladimir Lenin. The czar had just been overthrown, and a new democracy was struggling to be born. But the change in government was less of a revolution than Lenin had in mind. He had been in exile for years, most recently in Switzerland. To put things right, he had to return home.
Switzerland and Russia are not exactly neighbors. Much of the territory lying between them was controlled by states with which Russia was at war, states that wouldn’t be expected to offer free passage to someone who was not only an enemy national but also an individual dedicated to the destruction of their own social systems.
Lenin, however, had cut a deal with the kaiser’s Germany. In “Lenin on the Train,” Catherine Merridale, a distinguished historian of Russia and the Soviet Union, describes Lenin’s journey, the reasons it came about and the events it set in motion. Berlin had realized, she tells us, that supporting foreign insurgents could help destabilize Germany’s enemies from within. With democratic Russia set on continuing the war Lenin opposed, it seemed sensible to transport the veteran revolutionary like (in Winston Churchill’s words) a “plague bacillus” in a “sealed truck” and release him to infect his fragile homeland. And so on that April day began a ride across Europe that led, within months, to catastrophe and, over time, to the loss of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then millions, of lives. …
Rounding out today’s post on Russian subjects, Craig Pirrong reacts to the Susan Rice news of the past few days.
Some 200 theaters around the world are screening 1984 to warn about the dark descending night of fascism under Donald Trump. The timing of this could not be more ironic, given that all the news of late makes it abundantly clear that the former administration, not the current one, deserves to be known as Big Brother.
In particular, after a steady trickle of news about surveillance and unmasking of Trump campaign and transition personnel by the US intelligence community, yesterday the story broke that ex-National Security Advisor and noted f-bomber* Susan Rice–yes, that paragon of honesty, Madam Benghazi Talking Points–had requested the unmasking of numerous Trump personnel picked up in reports of surveillance on foreigners (incidentally, of course! Trust them on this!).
Last month, Ms. Rice played dumb (not a stretch!) by claiming that she had no idea what Devin Nunes was on about. Yesterday, Susie F was unavailable for comment, although one of the Obama creatures working for CNN (but I repeat myself) tweeted: “Just in: ‘The idea that Ambassador Rice improperly sought the identities of Americans is false.’ – person close to Rice tells me.”
Note the presence of the weasel modifier “improperly.” Not a categorical denial of unmasking. I therefore consider this an admission that unmasking did occur. …
Nice group of cartoons today.