In this age of sensitivity to feelings, few are the group identities that may be reduced to cartoon evil without drawing derision in return. The great exception is the Russians. The reputation is quite unfair, but Vladimir Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine, and the sense that the move is popular at home, is cementing it.
The Myanmar military junta and the lunatic regime in North Korea also take it on the chin, as does the government in China, but among major governments Russia’s stands alone in being universally depicted in popular culture as complete cynics, connivers and contrivers. Its reputation as uniquely excellent in these areas is totally secure.
For a recent reflection of this, consult the Norwegian TV series “Occupied.” Under spoiler alert, I’ll reveal that Russia invades Norway at the behest of the European Union because of a dispute over energy. That’s about as nice as Russia gets. It kidnaps the Norwegian prime minister and kills its own soldiers in a staged “terrorist attack” to justify more aggressions. A Russian mafioso has his own henchmen shot and tortured and is then himself killed by a government minister.
Russian authorities assure the compliance of their ambassador to Norway by holding hostage her pregnant girlfriend and later planting a remote-controlled poison ampule in her body after poisoning her. They kill a journalist bent on exposing them and ally with a Norwegian nationalist terrorizing Russians in the country in order to destabilize it — then manipulate the Norwegian election with fake news and collect “kompromat” on all sides. Russian nationals — including representatives of the regime — want mostly to stay the hell out of Russia and advise all others to do the same.
Holy mackerel! If Israel’s handling of the Palestinians (after 55 years of occupation) were presented this way there would be charges of anti-Semitism and scoldings from pundits. “Our Cartoon President” about Donald Trump is more nuanced. How does “Occupied” get away with such a portrayal?
It was not always this way. I remember reporting from throughout the communist world, including from Moscow, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. Romance and hope filled the air and freedom and democracy rolled on every tongue. Boris Yeltsin and even Mikhail Gorbachev were Western heroes, in their way.
At the same time, the International Monetary Fund and globetrotting economist Jeffrey Sachs were pressing the post-Soviet authorities to enact shock therapy in the transition to capitalism (Romania, ruled by reformed communists who preferred to go slow, was mocked as insincere in its recantation).
The result of shock therapy was hyperinflation that wiped out savings and pensions, and untrammeled privatization that made millionaires out of corrupt officials and spawned an “oligarch” mafia. It discredited democracy and enabled the rise of KGB veteran Putin.
In his ruthless two-decade reign, Putin has become the global personification of gleeful dirty trickery.
- The regime is widely believed to have people poisoned and killed (building on a tradition that goes back to Rasputin) — from critical journalist Anna Politkovskaya (murdered in an elevator in 2006) to rogue spy Alexander Litvinenko (poisoned in London that same year) to current political opponent Aleksei Navalny (who allegedly had poison sprinkled in his underwear).
- Navalny survived and released a video accusing Putin of building a $1.3 billion palace for himself as the tip of an iceberg of corruption.
- Putin imprisoned one of the less odious (but also less controllable) oligarchs, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, on bogus charges prosecuted in kangaroo court.
- He interferes with elections in the United States and other countries, through digital disinformation campaigns and assorted cyber-tricks.
- His own elections are widely believed to be falsified and he has in effect taken over most of the Russian media.
- He invaded Ukraine and seized Crimea and has been accused of a role in shooting down a Malaysian passenger jet over the country.
- His foreign policy is a maximal case of cynical utilitarianism as witnessed in his alliance of Syria’s Bashar Assad., who has presided over the utter ruination of his country and is credibly accused of using chemical weapons against his people.
- Putin got around presidential term limits by installing Dmitry Medvedev as puppet president, making himself prime minister and then switching roles. He now machinates constitutional changes to stay in power basically for life.
There is essentially zero reason to believe Putin is ever trying to do the right thing for his people or the world. The totality of it is remarkable, and it cannot be ascribed even to the likes of Donald Trump or Xi Jinping, nor the French xenophobe Marine Le Pen or Hungarian problem child Viktor Orban.
Russia, of course, is one of the great civilizations — the land of Chekhov and Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and the Bolshoi. Yet it never attained political maturity, went badly astray with both communism and the exit from it, and received its grim reward. Sow a Stalin and a Yeltsin, and a Putin ye shall reap.
Today Russia is being dragged by Putin into the past, inviting upon itself a crushing pariah status that would wipe out most of the post-Communist efforts at integration with the world community. Russians are expected to get excited about making the world’s largest country by landmass a little bit larger still by seizing Ukraine, or bits of it. It is preposterous, it is only the tip of the iceberg of recklessness, and one can only hope that the Russian people show the courage to rebel.
But the impact goes far beyond Putin and Russia. We are at a pivotal moment for liberal democracy — the system of government that three decades ago, with the collapse of the Russian-led communist empire, was widely thought triumphant on a global-historical level.
Today liberal democracy is on the ropes because the demographic, technological, meteorological and economic disruptions of recent decades have disoriented and damaged masses of people in the West. The agitation this creates blocks informed and rational debate and breeds populism, provincialism and worse.
So great is the cynicism that in some quarters you will hear that all democracy is flawed, freedom is a luxury, truth is an illusion and politics equals bullshit machinations: if you achieve power and play nice, you are a dangerous fool.
This way of looking at things fosters fatalism and disengagement among electorates and helps not only the autocrats but also elected leaders with autocratic tendencies.
The more democracies make idiotic choices — and there has been an epidemic of them in the 21st century — the more people resign themselves to other models, whether Putin’s fake democracy or China’s non-democracy.
Perhaps the only way out of this is an entirely new paradigm that addresses people’s craving for security and certainty, but without the jackboot dystopia.
Until that comes, we’d be wise to contemplate anew the principles of the Renaissance that helped us out of another dark age: secularism, humanism, classicalism, perspective, and individualism. I would welcome a global mass-market refresher drive in this vein, funded by a special tax on social media.
The supporters of Putinism are betting no such thing will occur. They’re betting that progressives will deride these principles as vestiges of entrenched hegemonic interests, in illiberal fellowship with xenophobic zealots of the right.
Proving them wrong is the civilizational challenge of our time.