Our cretinous Putinistas (names available on request) cite the KGB colonel as the archetypal strong leader Britain desperately needs.
My stock reply to such longings is that we don’t need a strong leader. We need a strong society.
The two concepts are inversely proportionate: the weaker a society, the greater its need for a strong leader. A strong society will tick along nicely, and few people would even wonder whether their leader is weak or strong.
For example, I doubt that many Victorian Englishmen would even have been able to name their prime minister, never mind assessing his fortitude. Retrospectively, only professional historians would be able to judge today the relative strength of, say the Earl of Derby and the Earl of Aberdeen.
My guess is that few of today’s Englishmen have even heard of those two gentlemen. Yet most Russian schoolchildren know quite a bit about the two tsars reigning during the same period, Nicholas I and Alexander II.
They’d probably even tell you that Nicholas, who suppressed the December uprising, was stronger than Alexander because the latter was a weak-kneed liberal who loosened the reins and pushed the button for the revolution half a century later.
This isn’t because Russian children are better-taught than their English counterparts. The reason for the educational gap is that the personalities of Victorian PMs mattered much less than those of the Russian tsars. The English society was strong; the Russian one wasn’t.
If you accept this premise, then the Russian society today is as weak as it gets. Hence the growing public yearning for a strong leader, although the adulation of the present one is noticeably subsiding.
Pari passu, the nostalgia for strong leaders of the past is growing. For example, the typical assessment of Nicholas I and Alexander II above is strictly a new phenomenon. In my day, the former was regarded as the devil incarnate, while the latter was seen as marginally less evil than most other tsars.
The closer to our own time, the more revisionist do Russian homespun historians become. Thus Stalin is making a strong come-back in popular mythology. Rather than a monster who murdered tens of millions, Stalin is now seen as a Strong Leader (always implicitly capitalised).
He was a father to his people and, as such, sometimes had to spank them when they got out of line. But that was necessary, for without a strong hand on the tiller Russia couldn’t have stayed the course to imperial greatness. Other than that, Stalin was an administrator of genius and, above all, He Won the War (initial caps are again de rigueur).
Statues of Stalin, kept in warehouses until recently, are beginning to see the light of day all over the country, though as far as I know not yet in Moscow. Moscow is playing catch-up, but it’s about to narrow the gap.
The Duma is debating the possibility of restoring the Dzerjinski statue to its erstwhile place in Lubyanka Square, in front of the KGB/FSB headquarters. The Pole was the founder of that organisation’s precursor, the VCheKa.
In that capacity he was the architect of Lenin’s Red Terror, when the number of victims went into seven digits first, eight later. In addition to being a blood-thirsty ghoul, Dzerjinski was also corrupt: he took vast bribes to let some aristocrats, even a few minor members of the royal family, escape to Finland.
This combination of monstrosity and corruption formed a fine tradition that’s maintained by today’s heirs to Dzerjinski, emphatically including those in the government. Thus their posthumous affection for the Pole is understandable.
Stalin and Dzerjinski were the Strong Leaders Russia couldn’t do without – such is the official line. That’s more or less par for the course. However, the longing for such figures is now beginning to extend to Hitler and Mussolini.
Now that’s odd, in a country that lost the better part of 30 million people fighting the Nazis and the fascists. It’s even odder in a country that uses victory in that war as its redemptive ideology, superseding all others.
Hubris leads me to think I know all there is to know about Russia, and nothing that happens there can possibly surprise me. However, I must admit to being caught off-guard by some of the noises emanating from Putin’s principal propagandists.
Thus Vladimir Soloviov, whose talk show has monopolised the prime time on Russia’s main TV channel, recently praised Hitler for his bravery during the First World War, which just may offset some of the things he did in the Second.
Another major political commentator explained that: “We must distinguish the Hitler of before and after 1939. Had he stopped at the Anschluss of Austria, Sudetenland and Memel, he would have gone down in his country’s history as a top-class politician.”
This is consonant with the official reassessment of the Soviet-Nazi Pact, which until a few years ago was seen as rather embarrassing for Russia. Now it’s being portrayed as a great coup of Stalin’s diplomacy, buying the Soviet Union an extra two years to prepare for war.
Actually, time was on Hitler’s side, and the gap in armaments between Germany and the USSR narrowed dramatically between 1939 and 1941. Had Stalin bought another couple of years, and continued to supply Germany with vast quantities of strategic materials, the Nazis would have had an overwhelming technological superiority, probably including the atom bomb.
But the technicalities are now a moot point: the Pact has acquired a moral dimension. If Hitler was nothing but a great politician until 1939, then a treaty with him was indeed a masterstroke. Conveniently forgotten are little things like concentration camps, suppression of civil liberties, eugenics, Kristallnacht and the Nuremberg laws, but then who can remember such trifles.
Mussolini is faring even better. The same Vladimir Soloviov has made a film about the fascist dictator in which Il Duce emerges as, well, the Strong Leader Russia needs.
A review of the film pointed out that “Mussolini was a brilliant man who gave the world a third way, which Russia is partly following”. This last part can’t be faulted for factual accuracy – Russia indeed is following the fascist path, with an extra money-laundering aspect.
One might, however, argue with the moral assessment of that fact, but preferably not in Russia. Today’s heirs to the Strong Leaders of yesteryear take a dim view of dissent.