Thursday, December 20, 2007

Putin as Man of the Year

Russian President Vladimir Putin has just been chosen Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. Now aside from any quarrel with the idea that he has been the most influential man in the world for 2007 (what about Al Gore?), the selection and the report on Putin on the Lehrer News Hour leaves me seriously concerned for the Russian people. The main concern is this: once again, Russians seem to be placing their faith in a leader who not only rose to power from the secret police, but one who makes no secret of his aspiration to be leader for life. He has selected his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and seems a cinch to become Prime Minister under this hand-picked president. When asked to explain how the Russians feel about the possible recurrence of yet another supreme ruler, one of the pundits on the News Hour explained that most Russians seem to have been willing to give up a “little” freedom in exchange for stability.

All this seems, especially after having read Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope, a terrible case of ‘déjà vu all over again.’ Hope Against Hope is Mandelstam’s account of her years with the poet, Osip Mandelstam, as they struggled to survive the series of purges instituted by Josef Stalin after the Russian Revolution, purges which resulted in the deaths of millions. Though she survived to write her memoir, Osip Mandelstam did not: he was arrested for the second time in 1937 (presumably for a poem he wrote criticizing Stalin, but no one really knows), and perished shortly thereafter (no one really knows when). As Nadezhda Mandelstam writes, in the days of the Stalinist terror, with arrests occurring without notice or reason at any time, arrest meant not simply incarceration for a time, but a literal death sentence. Almost no one returned from the labor camps.

What is most chilling with regard to Putin are Mandelstam’s thoughts about why the Russian people put up with all this. Why did they tolerate a dictator who turned on his own people, his allies, his friends, anyone and everyone? Why did they act like such helpless sheep? Mandelstam attributes their behavior, in the first place, to fear of chaos. Here is what she writes:

"There had been a time when, terrified of chaos, we had all prayed for a strong system, for a powerful hand that would stem the angry human river overflowing its banks. This fear of chaos is perhaps the most permanent of our feelings—we have still not recovered from it, and it is passed on from one generation to another….I remember Herzen’s words about the intelligentsia which so much fears its own people that it prefers to go in chains itself, provided the people, too, remain fettered." (p. 96)

When we think of the economic and social collapse Russia suffered beginning in 1990, we see history repeating itself. Once again, with the memory of the chaos and deprivation of those years of meltdown still fresh, it appears the Russian people have opted for “a powerful hand,” the hand of ex-KGB man Vladimir Putin. For an idea of the type of massive indifference to human suffering this can lead to, consider the story Mandelstam tells of the woman she encountered in a Prosecutor’s Office. The woman was desperate to find out about her son, who had been arrested by mistake: he had the same name as the person supposed to be arrested from the same building, and was therefore hauled off to camp. Still, “though it meant moving mountains,” the woman had actually managed to convince an official of the mistake, and obtained an order for her son’s release. Unfortunately, it was too late, and the woman now heard that her son had been killed in an “accident.” She began to scream and sob, but not only was she yelled at by the Prosecutor, she was also set upon by her fellow supplicants in the office, all trying to get their own cases heard:

“‘What’s the use of crying?’ asked one long suffering woman who was trying to find out about her own son. ‘That won’t bring him back to life, and she’s only holding us up.’ The disturber of the peace was removed, and order was restored.” (p. 285)

Thus does terror involve everyone, make victims of everyone. As Mandelstam puts it, “Anybody who breathes the air of terror is doomed, even if nominally he manages to saves his life.” This is because the reign of terror, the logical consequence of absolute rule, takes its victims beyond fear to what Mandelstam describes as “a paralyzing sense of one’s own helplessness to which we were all prey, not only those who were killed, but the killers themselves as well.”

Now we have Vladimir Putin, the man whose “soul” our insightful President once claimed to have seen as benign, placing himself in position to become yet another leader for life, with all the consequences in power and terror that position implies.

There was a time when we in the United States could contemplate such developments from afar. No longer. Especially since 9/11, what Americans no less than Russians have to fear is the self-same willingness of many of us to put ourselves in the hands of a power-hungry leader, to exchange just a “little” loss of freedom for the promise of security. Given the underlying shakiness of the economy and the U.S. dollar, the fallout from global warming, and much else besides, one can only imagine what further losses we might all be willing to tolerate in exchange for stability. In that regard, we should heed what Nadezhda Mandelstam has written, especially about the need to rage against such losses, to resist.

“If nothing else is left,” she says, “one must scream. Silence is the real crime against humanity.”

Lawrence DiStasi

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