To paraphrase Lord Acton ever so slightly, power attracts; and absolute power attracts absolutely.
It has to. For otherwise I struggle to explain why Russia’s once and future president Putin appeals to so many Western intellectuals, including quite a few who write for our main newspapers.
Some of it has to be good, old-fashioned ignorance. The drooling admirers simply may not know that Putin’s regime isn’t just corrupt (we have enough of those in the West) but downright criminal (we haven’t many of those). Putin’s pathway from 2000 to 2012, via Polonium 210, is strewn with political murders, racketeering, extortion, beatings and maimings, vote rigging, money laundering and every other number from the repertoire of felony.
Moreover, he is a proud and unrepentant veteran of the KGB, which beats the SS to the honour of being the most evil organisation in history. Applying the Nuremberg logic, a member of a criminal organisation is himself a criminal; a proud member, doubly so. Putin’s sponsoring organisation, and therefore Putin himself, are covered with the blood of 60 million murdered people — and that’s just in Russia. Those kind of numbers normally suffice to qualify for the appelation ‘criminal’, with room to spare.
But let’s suppose some people don’t know any of this, though such ignorance raises serious questions about the hiring policies of our academe and media. And, stretching the benefit of the doubt to snapping point, neither are they aware that Putin’s KGB camarilla, securely fused with the criminal underworld, has been stealing Russia blind, richly meriting their nickname ‘the party of thieves and crooks’. Outside Moscow, Petersburg and places where raw materials are produced or processed, ordinary Russians starve, while Putin’s cronies launder billions through various Western institutions. And being a Putin crony is a sine qua non of enrichment in Russia — one can no more become wealthy there while at loggerheads with Putin than one can run a Las Vegas casino without being in cahoots with the mafia.
And yet one would think that halfway intelligent people, even if they are ignorant of Russia, must be able to smell a rat. Even if impervious to the substance of the Putin regime, they have to be sensitive to its style. All those naked torsos, bulging muscles, crude and obscene language, cheap populism, mass rallies that thousands are coerced to attend, sabre rattling, support for every terrorist regime under the sun — surely people must be able to see the unmistakeable parallels with the livery of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany? And if they do, how can they find a kind word for Putin in spite of all that?
I asked myself that question, and then realised that the answer is buried within it. Our intellectuals like Putin not in spite of all that but because of it. Like a weedy campus nerd enviously observing a muscular athlete thrust his hand under the skirt of a compliant girl — the same girl with whom the nerd has just discussed Sartre and Marcuse — our culturati must feel the vibes emanating from Putin and his gang.
There’s nothing new about that. The Bolsheviks and the Nazis had the same appeal in the West, and for exactly the same reasons. All those Lloyd Georges and George Bernard Shaws didn’t even discriminate; they liked both the brown and red varieties of the nightmare.
Just like Hilary Clinton gasping girlishly about ‘the alpha dog’ Putin, Western intellectuals from the 1920s and 30s got that funny feeling down there at the sight of all those leather jerkins and silvery skulls with crossed bones underneath. There was something, well, manly about pumping bullets into priests’ heads or gassing Jews. The culturati couldn’t do that themselves of course, they lacked the nerve. Then so much more did they admire those who didn’t: Lenin, who murdered about 10 million in the seven years he was in power; Stalin, who added 50 million or so; Trotsky, who felt the other two were too soft; Hitler, who knew whom he loved and especially whom he hated.
It’s supposed to be de rigeur for a Western intellectual to go through a leftie phase, be it Leninist, Trotskyist or Maoist, when young, only to settle into a more palatable set of ideas later in life. But I question the innocence of such youthful afflictions. God forbid I start waxing Freudian, but there must be a deep psychological need deep down somewhere to worship muscular murderers. And, though people’s minds undoubtedly develop with age, I doubt their psychology can do an about-face. Given a strong enough stimulus, the dormant cravings can wake up with a jolt, driving an ex-leftie Tory or Gaullist into the embrace of today’s Lenins, Trotskys and Maos.
All that’s required is self-vindication and self-absolution: protecting oneself from guilt. This can come from the post-rationalisation of something already felt intuitively, and the tricks are never in short supply. Take your pick: Putin may be rough around the edges, but he’s a true patriot; he’s good for Russia; he’s a man of principle, unlike our own self-serving bunch; he is leading Russia to true democracy, albeit in a roundabout way; there’s no alternative to be found among 150 million Russians; those who dislike Putin secretly hate Russia. But underneath it all bubbles the undercurrent of sensual attraction to brawn.
Nowt as queer as folk, as they say upcountry. Except that these folk have access to public forums, and so can cause untold harm. I hope we don’t let them.