Putin by Any Other Name

Andrei Piontkovsky
The Moscow Times

Vladimir Putin's rise to the throne came about thanks largely to fortuitous circumstances. Were it not for Boris Berezovsky's energetic backing of Putin, Russia's current ruler might well be Yury Luzhkov or Yevgeny Primakov.

More importantly, Putin is a man on a historical mission to modernize Russia, allowing our country to draw level with the world's leading powers. Should he succeed, Russia could overtake not just Portugal but -- dare to dream -- even the far more prosperous Luxembourg.

For several centuries now, a single plot has been repeated in Russian history -- something like what Hegel called a wrong or negative infinity. Over and over again, modernizing rulers declare that Russia has fallen 50 years behind the leading Western nations. If we don't close this gap in 10 to 15 years, they warn, we will be crushed.

These words could come from the mouth of Peter the Great or Josef Stalin; the logic is always the same.

By mobilizing the populace and eliminating those who question his wisdom, the modernizer drives the country forward and as a rule achieves his goals at the price of enormous human sacrifice. He catches up with the eternally alluring and despised West in the per capita production of cannons and frigates, or cast iron and steel.

These achievements are far from frivolous. They allowed us to defeat the Swedes at Poltava, the Germans at Stalingrad, to march into Paris and Berlin and to be the first nation in space.

But for some reason, once the latest modernizer has rallied the country to yet another triumph, we always end up back where we started. And another ruler comes to the fore singing the same old song about lagging behind the West, overtaking Portugal, doubling GDP and so on and so forth.

Clearly some sort of systemic error has crept into the bold plans of our modernizers, something fundamental about the West that they fail to perceive. And this failure once more allows the West to leave us behind with our mountains of cast iron, steel, rusting missiles and submarines, our dreams of a Third Rome and a Separate Path.

When the young Peter Romanov visited Amsterdam, he was charmed by Europe. He was impressed with everything from the marvelous wharves to the clean sidewalks to the entrancing cafes. Naturally, the reformist emperor wanted to transplant all of this to Russia -- but in such a way that he could carry on lopping off the heads of the Streltsy and unwinding from the affairs of state by popping down to the cellar and giving the heir to the throne a good stretch on the rack for having unauthorized contacts with foreigners.

Three hundred years later, a young KGB officer arrived in Dresden. After the triumphs of Russia's latest modernizers the city was no longer exactly Western, but it was still Western enough to make the spy from the East feel as though he had passed through a time warp.

Where Peter, fascinated from childhood with ships and seafaring, had been most struck by the wharves of the West, Vladimir applied himself to German beer, the subject of the only vivid, emotionally charged moments in an otherwise rather dull volume of interviews, "Conversations With Vladimir Putin." As he quaffed this tempting but utterly bourgeois beverage, the young officer apparently experienced a radical change of worldview, coming to see the Soviet Communist system as doomed.

Once installed in the Kremlin, Putin therefore sincerely set about building a flourishing market society in Russia, just like they have in the West. But in such a way that Vladislav Surkov could carry on

managing "democracy," Igor Sechin could further hone the executive chain of command, and Vladimir Ustinov could continue to impose the dictatorship of law with a human face. He would also be loathe to give up the practice of tossing uncooperative oligarchs into prison, where they pen penitential letters, while friendly oligarchs lay golden eggs by the dozen, liberal ministers stand at attention and act the fool for the television cameras, and governors behave like loyal pets.

For Russia's governors, the new order is best expressed by the slogan "back in the 1580s," not "back in the U.S.S.R." The political philosophy of today's Russian elite is summed up by the phrase, "I am but your wretched cur, my lord."

Herein, apparently, lies the systemic mistake of our august modernizers, repeated century after century. Entranced by the fruits of Western society and greedily longing to possess them, our Scythian rulers haughtily reject the roots of Western civilization, its hated air of freedom and human dignity. This is why, while the names may change, we will always have a Putin in the Kremlin.

Andrei Piontkovsky, an independent political analyst, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.