“Taming” Vladimir Putin is an impossible task, based on wishful thinking. Western democracies are procedural, contractual, constitutional arrangements. The FSB-controlled Russia is none of those things. Last month I watched the 2021 movie Munich: The Edge of War; Jeremy Irons plays Neville Chamberlain. I thought about the folly of putting trust in gangsters: A gentleman’s agreement with Putka the Bully is a stillborn project, a dead end.
Putka is a godfather, not a gentleman. To understand his “worldview” and modi operandi, read Mario Puzo and a history of the KGB, plus Karen Dawisha’s illuminating anatomy of Putin’s system as an authoritarian kleptocracy. For Putin, the legal person doesn’t exist. More, it should not exist.
In Putin’s Totalitarian Democracy (2020), which I wrote with Kate C. Langdon, we try to understand the origins and dynamics of Putinist political culture—its basic assumptions, conscious and subliminal goals, aspirations, apprehensions, affinities, and ambitions. Putin’s political hero is the late Yuri Andropov, who was the Soviet ambassador to Budapest when the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian Revolution in November 1956. Later, in 1968, Andropov was KGB chairman when Warsaw Pact tanks smashed the Prague Spring.
Putin, when in his early twenties, identified himself with the fictional Soviet spy Max Otto von Stierlitz played by the charismatic Vyacheslav Tikhonov in the legendary 1973 TV series, Seventeen Moments of Spring. Stierlitz was a master of deceit, self-control, and logical deduction. This is most likely how Putin sees himself. But in what the dissident writer Vladimir Voinovich aptly called the “anti-Soviet Soviet Union,” there are many Stierlitz jokes.
Another source of Putin’s worldview can be found in Nikolay Shpanov’s propaganda novels, published in the early 1950s. Shpanov, an immensely popular author of military thrillers, endorsed and enhanced the narrative of World War II’s being the result of a Western conspiracy to destroy the USSR. This political myth endured, espoused by successive generations of party, Komsomol, army, and KGB cadres. For the ultra-nationalists, whenever Russia or the USSR lost a war, it was the result of a “stab in the back.”
Putin claims that he is an anti-fascist. That is absolutely false. I come from an anti-fascist family. My parents fought in the International Brigades. We lost close family members in the Holocaust. To call Volodymyr Zelensky and his supporters “Nazis” is not just moronic but nauseating. We know who the real fascist is—the KGB thug in the Kremlin with his militaristic delirium, Slavophile delusions, and imperial obsessions.
Years ago, I wrote in the journal Orbis about the Pamyat’s “patriotic society.” Putinism is the updated version of the Pamyat’s phobias, neuroses, and hatreds.
My father was born in Soroca, which was then in the Russian Empire, on February 26, 1912. During the Spanish Civil War, he joined the International Brigades. He lost his right arm in a battle on the River Ebro in 1938. His older brother, Abram, his wife, and his two children died, burned alive, in the Odessa massacre, which was ordered, planned, and perpetrated by Nazi Germany’s ally, the Romanian government of dictator Ion Antonescu. When Putin maintains that the invasion of democratic Ukraine is meant to “de-Nazify” a country whose president is a Ukrainian Jew, he commits an obscene infamy. He offends the memory of the Holocaust victims, including members of Zelensky’s family. I take personal offense at this ignominy. The scoundrel Putin is an assassin of memory.
Anti-Putinism is the anti-fascism of our times. My sister Victoria was born in Samara—then Kuybyshev, a city on the River Volga—on November 26, 1941. It was an evacuation site for many Soviet institutions, including Radio Moscow, where my mother was a broadcaster for the Romanian Service. There was famine. As my mother remembered, people ate whatever they could, including tree roots. There was an improvised clinic located in a school, with no heat. My mom delivered my sister on a classroom table.
My mother was a former nurse in the International Brigades hospitals and a medical school student. She knew a lot about human suffering. She died in February 2000 in Haifa. Had she seen Putin’s barbaric war against Ukraine, she would have said, I have no doubt, “Shame on you!”
It’s increasingly clear that Putin miscalculated his Ukrainian adventure. It is a disaster for Russia—a strategic fiasco, an avalanche of tactical blunders, a complete misreading of Ukraine’s willingness to resist, a self-defeating scorn for the Ukrainian president, elites, and culture. When Nikita Khrushchev was ousted in October 1964, the party indictment read by chief ideologue Mikhail Suslov charged him with “adventurism” and “harebrained schemes.” One of those was the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is exactly what Putin has engaged himself and his country in: a huge, criminal, harebrained scheme. No matter what the denouement, Putin has ensured that countless Ukrainians and Russians will never forget or forgive this absurd fratricidal invasion and massacre.
Most likely, Putin is still convinced that he will stay president until 2036. He hopes that over the next fourteen years, Russia will continue to strive toward its fantasy of a messianic predestination, one that in principle has not changed since the 9th century. But the irony is that, so long as Putin, his crony oligarchs and bureaucrats, and their protégés remain in power—and so long as the revolutionary impulse remains dormant—we can maintain with utmost certainty that Russia will never achieve any kind of prominence other than as the epitome of a latter-day authoritarianism. Recently, Hoover Institution director and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice called Putin’s behavior “delusional” and “erratic.” She is right. Putin claims that the goal of the military invasion is to “demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine.” The Ogre always lies. W. H. Auden was right: This is what Ogres always do. The goal is to Russify Ukraine, to enslave and to rape her.
This is also a story of the unintended outcomes of militaristic lunacy: Instead of Finlandizing Ukraine, Putin has managed to awaken the Finns’ interest in joining NATO. As I write these lines, we are witnessing an unprecedented level of transitional solidarity with the Ukrainian freedom fighters; a series of devastating blows to Russia’s financial operations; a growing wave of civic mobilization in Russia, which could culminate in a liberal revolution; the alienation of previously knee-jerk supporters, including the main proponent of “illiberal democracy;” and the coalescence of a robust Ukrainian sense of national pride and European identity.
With the rhetoric of “de-Nazification,” a disingenuous ploy meant to mobilize latent fears, phobias, and neuroses, the KGB Superman has failed in all his openly professed goals. Instead of overthrowing Zelensky, the military invasion transformed the Ukrainian president into the most popular leader the nation ever had. NATO and the EU’s adamant support for Ukraine must have surprised Putin. Like other tyrants, he is hostage to what the intelligence agencies furnish him. On February 28, 2022, President Zelensky signed the official request that his country receive membership in the European Union.
Putin does not want peace with an independent and democratic Ukraine. His goals are the country’s complete defeat, humiliation, and capitulation. He does not know and doesn’t want to know how to negotiate. He thinks of himself as a savior, redeemer, and predestined hero. His vision of politics is completely Manichean—the vicious Them versus the virtuous Us. Putin’s worldview is apocalyptically Messianic.
Volodymyr Zelensky is fully aware of these ideological fantasies. This knowledge explains his skepticism about Russia’s readiness to accept a ceasefire. At this point, I can hardly foresee an armistice. This is Putin’s war. He will fight it ruthlessly, uncompromisingly, and single-mindedly.
Almost seventy years ago, in August 1952, the members of the Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were executed as traitors and spies. Among them, was Yiddish language poet Peretz Markish. Only one defendant, Medical School biochemical physiology professor Lina Stern, the first female member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, was spared the death penalty. During World War II, a delegation of the Anti-Fascist Committee had visited the United States. It included Sergei Eisenstein and Solomon Mikhoels. They implored American Jews to help the Soviet Union resist the Nazi beast. Now, Ukraine’s president, himself born Jewish, implores American Jews to stand by his country, to help her resist the new Nazi evil. Lina Stern’s nephew was renowned Russian pianist Dmitri Bashkirov. His daughter is Daniel Barenboim’s wife.
In June 2015 I visited the French Russia and Soviet scholar Alain Besançon in Paris. “What is the ‘essence’ of Putin’s ideology?”, I asked. His answer was unequivocal: “It is the KGB ideology,” he said.
Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. His numerous books include The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century, which will appear in Ukrainian translation in 2022.
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