Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

18 April 2014

Understanding Vladimir Putin

[For a recent post on how more accurate weapons can confine the scope of future conflicts—preferably not in Ukraine—click here.]

“Dictatorship of the proletariat”
People as property
Stalin and Mao
Why China is different
A new species of autocrat?
Putin’s speech on Crimea
Conclusion: exploiting Putin’s “flaw”


To say that Vladimir Putin is a riddle would be an understatement of Obamanian proportions. No one in the West even claims to understand him. The brighter and more transparent a Western leader is, the more he or she sees Putin as an enigma. Angela Merkel, Putin’s closest friend in the West, recently threw up her hands.

Why is that? Except for Fidel Castro (now retired) and Robert Mugabe (still dictating), no incumbent leader in the world has held the reigns of power as long as Putin has, let alone in a major power like Russia. For all of its faults, China has term limits just like us Yanks: two terms for its top leaders. The only difference is that China’s two terms are five years each instead of four like ours, to match China’s five-year plans.

So except for pathological societies like Cuba, North Korea, and Zimbabwe—and except for Russia—the whole world has term limits. Regular rotation of leaders, i.e., routine “regime change,” seems a good thing worldwide. It avoids ossification, discourages autocracy, allows a society to renew itself periodically, and makes room for new, younger leadership with new ideas. Term limits are much more important to good government than “democracy,” whatever that word may mean in a world of increasingly busy people and increasingly pervasive mass media.

Russia stands alone among Earth’s major powers, and nearly alone among the Earth’s nations, in having no effective term limits. First as Prime Minister and then as President of Russia, Putin has been Russia’s supreme leader since December 1999, when Boris Yeltsin appointed him.

That’s over fourteen years: more than half again as long as any Yankee president can serve, and even longer than FDR’s unprecedented and never-repeated thirteen years in office. It’s almost half as long again as any supreme Chinese leader can serve.

Russians don’t seem to mind. They like Putin. He continues to poll in the high sixties and low seventies of Russian voter approval—a level that any Western pol could only view with envy. And his recent exploit in grabbing Crimea, virtually bloodlessly, is hardly going to hurt his popularity inside Russia.

So Vladimir Putin, it seems, is going nowhere. He likes being Russia’s supreme leader, and Russians like him. You would think the rest of the world—or at least its leaders—would have gotten to know him by now. But not so much.

In order to understand a man, you have to understand his environment. That’s the purpose of this essay.

“Dictatorship of the Proletariat”

Ever since I first read Karl Marx’ verbal invention, “dictatorship of the proletariat,” I found it bizarre in the extreme. It’s a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron.

How so? Well, “dictatorship” is a form of autocracy. It’s rule by a single person, so far always a man. Ancient Rome invented the term “dictator,” which it used for a military leader appointed to rule by fiat temporarily during a time of national emergency—something akin to our modern notion of martial law. The current notion of permanent dictatorship is a modern invention.

But “proletariat” is a fancy term for a whole class of people: those who labor for a living. In modern productive consumer societies that class comprises tens or hundreds of millions of people.

So “dictatorship” means rule by a single man, and the “proletariat” encompasses tens of millions. Therefore the ambiguous preposition “of” becomes awfully important. Does it mean “over,” or does it mean “by”? Is the working class to be governed by a single dictator, such as Stalin? Or is it to govern itself (and everyone else) with the single-mindedness of an individual dictator?

If “of” really means “over,” you get Louis XIV by another name. And since hereditary monarchy doesn’t seem like the best way to pick a leader for the modern working class, you have a big question: how do all those laborers pick their dictator? If “of” really means “by,” you have another essential conundrum: what if all those working people don’t agree? How do they decide on anything? How do they “dictate” collectively?

So Marx’ term “dictatorship of the proletariat” raises far more questions than it answers. As a mere matter of linguistics and common sense, the onion gets stinkier and stinkier as you peel its layers.

It gets stinkier still when you think of consequences. Once the dictator settles into the stirrups, how do you get him off the horse? Mostly, you don’t.

In its Soviet guise, Russia suffered Stalin, his paranoia, his inept wartime rule and his Terror from the time of Lenin’s death in 1924 to Stalin’s own in 1953. That’s 29 years. After unifying China with his own Communist revolution, Mao ruled China absolutely from the founding of the PRC on October 1, 1949, until his death on September 9, 1976. That’s nearly 27 years.

So if the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is any guide, and if Stalin and Mao are good models, we’d all better get used to Putin. He’s an active and vibrant 61-year-old, and he could be with us for another fifteen years.

How likely is that? Well, Russia has thrown off Communism on its own initiative—a feat in which Putin himself was a principal actor. But unlike China, Russia had it for 74 years, from 1917 to 1991. That’s almost four generations, long enough for the bizarre notion of “dictatorship of the proletariat” to become part of Russian culture. No wonder we all saw the hammer and sickle flying again, not just in Crimea, but recently in Red Square.

People as property

Before you dismiss the notion that dictatorship over the proletariat is still part of Russian culture, consider the question of people as property. We Yanks are quite familiar with the concept. It was the essence of our own original sin of slavery.

But as horrible as slavery was here, we had nothing on Russia. Today the descendants of our slaves comprise about one-eighth of our population. And our slave era lasted about two and a half centuries, from the first importation of slaves into British colonies in 1619 until the emancipation proclamation in 1863.

Russia’s people-as-property culture lasted much longer. It began during the middle of the last millennium and didn’t stop until Russia abolished serfdom in 1861, just about the same time we freed our slaves. It was also much more deeply rooted in Russia’s culture than slavery in ours, in two respects.

First, Russia subjugated the vast majority of its people. Its peasants and workers were “souls” (души), who came with the land and were part of the owner’s property. Second, unlike our own slaves, who were imported and belonged to a different race and multiple foreign cultures, Russia’s serfs were Russians in every respect except education, wealth and power. Russian culture didn’t even have the pretext of presumed racial superiority to justify their subjugation—a fact that Lev Tolstoy noted in his late-life egalitarian tract “I can’t shut up!” (Не могу молчать).

So the absolutism and even the bestiality of Stalin’s rule were hardly departures from Russia’s culture. They were continuations of it and in its mainstream. Ordinary people, in their status as property, passed from the Tsar and the noble landowners to an all-powerful State.

As it turned out, the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” was a diabolically clever deception. Ordinary people thought “of” meant “by.” But that simply couldn’t be. Russia had (and still has) no established cultural mechanism for ordinary people to decide anything, let alone to rule. So “of” really meant “over,” and the General Secretary (an innocuous title that Stalin assumed to consolidate his absolute power) became a new Tsar.

Mere linguistic analysis of Marx’ self-contradictory phrase could have predicted all of this. But a knowledge of Russia’s history and culture were and are even better guides.

When Putin tells us that the West doesn’t understand Russia’s penchant for authoritarian rule, he knows whereof he speaks. Russians and Russia confuse us by sharing the same Caucasian race as our Yankee majority (for a short while yet), but having a completely different history and culture. Despite their deceptive racial characteristics, Russians are in fact, far more foreign to us than, for example, our own African-Americans, free now for seven generations, or the native peoples of the Americas, who were conquered, decimated, deported and marginalized but never made property.

Stalin and Mao

Now we can understand why Stalin and Mao ruled so long and so disastrously. They called themselves differently—“General Secretary” and “Chairman”—but they were, in facts, successors to the Tsar and Emperor, respectively. They had changed their titles, but their cultures, practices and types of government had not changed much.

If you doubt this, I would cite just two facts. Stalin’s forced industrialization of Russia involved tens of millions of imprisonments, executions, deportations, and condemnations to forced labor. Even the Pharaohs, in building the Pyramids, never coerced on such a vast scale.

As for Mao, the evidence of his imperial status is more personal. His own physician, in his autobiography, recounted how he treated Mao for syphilis and gently chided Mao for giving a dose of it to a loyal female cadre. Mao replied that the young lady should be honored to have been inoculated with syphilis by the Chairman. The tides of history and Communist atheism had ostensibly erased the Emperor’s claim to divine status, but the practical result of absolute rule was much the same.

Why China is different

Yet China had a cultural peculiarity that made all the difference: the Mandarins. With their strict entrance examinations, their high level of literacy, and their administrative skill, this wide social stratum from Imperial China morphed easily into the Communist Party’s technocracy of today.

Again, names and appearances are deceptive. China’s Communist Party today has eighty million members—more people than the entire populations of many of the world’s nations. Externally, it looks like a closed ruling clique. Internally, it is a technocratic meritocracy much like the Mandarins’, in which good leaders rise to the top in a decades-long struggle of ambition and talent, despite corruption and favor.

More than that. China’s is a term-limited bureaucratic state, in which top leaders serve an “apprenticeship” for at least five years on the seven-member committee (once nine-member) that makes all key national decisions. Not only is this a stable, rational, predictable structure, in which experience gets handed down in the best possible way, by working together. It is also a government based on collective decision making, in a way that copies and may exceed the benefits of our or England’s Executive Cabinet.

So there is nothing is the least surprising about China leaving Russia in the dust economically and organizationally. Stark differences in history and culture foreordained this result. China always had a huge class of highly educated and skilled administrators. In Russia’s traditional culture, the vast majority of people were soldiers or peasants and, not too long ago, others’ property. You don’t throw off a culture like that in just a couple of generations, let alone the single generation since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

A new species of autocrat?

So who and what is Putin? Is he a modern Tsar like Stalin? Is he an emperor of Russia as Mao was the last of China? Or is he something else?

Stalin was rotten from the moment he first got his hands on real power. If he hadn’t been one already, he became a monster when he beat General Kirov for leadership, by stuffing the ballot boxes, and then had him executed the next day. The Terror and gulags followed as night the day, for the simple reason that Russia had no tradition or culture of holding its leaders accountable.

Putin is not like that. He’s been elected three times now, in what appear to have been the freest, fairest elections that Russia has ever known. His first thoughts as leader were to establish a peaceful free-trade zone from the Atlantic to the Urals and to ameliorate poverty in Russia. Almost single-handedly, he abolished Communism in Russia, and he changed the name of Leningrad back to “St. Petersburg” to prove the point. Early in his rule, he held a national telethon over all of Russia’s eleven time zones, explaining to his people what he was doing and why.

I don’t mean to whitewash Putin. He’s certainly an authoritarian. Unexplained and unprosecuted murders of journalists—good and courageous journalists!—have occurred on his watch. So have prosecutions and imprisonments of political rivals, even relatively harmless ones like the blogger Navalny. Putin’s deep contacts in the “special services” and the vagueness and flexibility of many Russian laws make it hard not to assign him some blame for all this. So do the tradition and culture of “telephone justice,” in which (during the Communist era) political commissars used to instruct judges by telephone how cases before them should come out.

So we should never mistake Putin for just another Western pol. He’s nothing of the kind. But he’s also no Stalin. If he kills or imprisons at all (and the jury is still out on his direct involvement), he does so at retail and at small scale, whereas Stalin did it wholesale and on a gigantic scale.

Control for Putin seems a means to an end, not an end in itself, as it appears to have been for the paranoid Stalin. For all the shock it caused to Kiev and the West, his virtually bloodless annexation of Crimea was a political masterstroke: decisive, clever, quick and successful, if a bit nineteenth century. In his lamentations about the Soviet Union’s fall, Putin seems far less concerned with Russia’s alleged imperial ambitions, let alone the resurrection of Communism, than with the plight of Russian people. As he put it, many of them went to sleep in the Soviet Union and woke up the next day in multiple countries not their own.

Several years ago, Putin stopped Russians from electing regional governors and began appointing them. He did so by decree. The West saw a power grab by a new self-appointed Tsar.

More careful observers, including me, saw an attempt to wrest local power from criminal mafias and from remnants of the Communist Party, including local and industrial bosses with even less experience and understanding of democracy than Putin himself. The jury is still out on whether this appointive regime will be better for the regions than spastically unpredictable incipient local democracy. The jury is also still out on whether and when Putin will establish more democratic means of electing local leaders.

Putin’s speech on Crimea

An important window into Putin’s character was his recent speech on the annexation of Crimea. I wish every decision-maker in the West and China could watch it, in the original Russian, complete with idioms and nuances of Russian speech, plus synchronized facial expressions and gestures, as I did.

It simply doesn’t come across well in translation. It suffers especially when Western, non-Russian speakers pull excerpts out of context to illustrate things that most surprised or dismayed them, or to make “news” of portions they found most sensational.

In retrospect, there are three things about that speech that Western leaders need to know.

First, it was as carefully crafted a speech as any given by the best Western leaders. It attempted to explain, historically and logically, why Russia was annexing Crimea, with special emphasis on peculiar Russian interests. It covered all the bases—historical, cultural, legal, and practical—in depth and in a rational sequence. It was the speech of a rational man explaining his actions, not a monster like Stalin or Hitler. “Might makes right” was not even remotely among its themes.

Second, Putin made some valid points, which few Western reporters even noticed, let alone emphasized. He complained of an alleged “double standard,” under which we Yanks intervened militarily in Bosnia, with an extensive and deadly bombing campaign, to protect the lives and rights of Bosnian Muslims.

Putin likened the Bosnian Muslims to Russians in Crimea. His analogy was not without force, although he ignored the fact that Bosnian Muslims were being slaughtered, while Russians in Crimea merely faced the risk of potential political marginalization. The analogy was plausible, but annexation seemed an overreaction under the circumstances.

Putin also noted that Crimea had had a referendum and had voted overwhelmingly to join Russia. He neglected to note that the referendum had been hastily and sloppily conducted, and had offered no option to stay in Ukraine.

Even if weak, these were legitimate rational arguments. The certainly differentiated Russia’s annexation of Crimea, with its lack of bloodshed and clear and decisive majority of ethnic Russians, from the bloody but necessary beatback of Serbs in Bosnia, let alone a bloody military conquest of a foreign culture.

Putin also noted something seldom considered in the West. Russia is a major power whose strategic national interests the West (and every power) must consider and respect. This point would seem to be as self-evident as the vital strategic interest that Russia has in Crimea and its Black Sea Fleet.

The third point that non-Russian speaking Westerners should know about Putin’s speed relates to shrugs. Shrugs are not quite as common in Russia as they are in France, but they are a hardy and sometimes endearing aspect of Russian culture. They express irony, mild disapproval or reproach, or sometimes bemusement. They are indicative and expressive, but seldom hostile.

There were many shrugs in Putin’s speech. With them, Putin commented on things that made little sense to him or to the Russian part of his audience. Some of the shrugs were directed toward us Yanks, whom Putin invariably described as “our American partners,” not as enemies or rivals.

All in all, this was a speech of Russia’s “Great Communicator,” in full command of his language, his material, the Russian leaders before him, and his international and global audience. Every leader who wants to know and understand Putin should read it, at least in translation, from beginning to end, not just the “juicy parts.”

That task alone would convince readers that Putin is no Stalin or Hitler. Rather, he is a modern leader in complete rapport with his own culture and striving diligently, and sometimes bemusedly, to fit that culture into a larger context.

Conclusion: exploiting Putin’s “flaw”

If Putin has a dangerous flaw, it’s his own brains. Even when he speaks to the assembled Duma, Russian judiciary and other Russian leaders, he’s most likely the smartest guy in the room. Russia probably hasn’t had a leader this smart in over a century.

It’s not just his native intelligence, which is high. It’s also his political and social experience. As a high operative in the KGB, he had unlimited access to information about foreigners, as well as secret information about Russia, while most of his peers were gorging themselves during their formative years on a steady diet of useless Soviet propaganda.

Putin’s formal education was not unusual for a Russian leader. But he’s a bit like Harry Truman, who did also did not excel in formal education. Truman had read every book in the public library of his hometown of Independence, Missouri. He had been a superb auto-didact. Those who underestimated Truman’s brains, knowledge, experience or memory lived to regret doing so. The same may be true of Putin.

Yet when Putin steps across Russia’s borders—whether physically, electronically or figuratively—he’s no longer the smartest person in the room. He’s with his peers. He’s like the high-school valedictorian who goes away to college and suddenly finds, to his delight and dismay, that there are lots of other smart people just like him.

In my view, Putin knows this. Part of being smart is recognizing when others are as smart or even smarter than you.

We have every evidence that Putin understands. He helped us with our war in Afghanistan, allowing overflights by our Air Force and even paying their air-traffic-controller fees. He did so despite the obvious political liabilities of helping us in Afghanistan just decades after our Stingers had driven the Soviet Union out.

He has cooperated assiduously with us in our common fight against terrorists. He is helping us make peace in our prolonged Little Cold War with Iran, and at the same time reduce nuclear proliferation. He has cooperated in making Russia a part of global economy and WTO, although his understanding of markets is tenuous as best, in part because Russia’s traditional culture has little basis in markets.

When Putin hears good ideas, he’s quick to seize on them. The speed with which he took up the idea of ridding Syria of chemical weapons astonished many.

Now Putin is coming to understand that having paramilitary forces capture buildings in Eastern Ukraine is not going to change its politics, at least in Russia’s favor. Only a full-blown, peaceful electoral campaign will. That’s apparently why Putin agreed so readily to contain and remove the paramilitary forces. He’s smart enough to see, as we ourselves have, that there’s no military “solution” to the “nationalities problem” in Ukraine—at least none that can bear the light of day in the twenty-first century.

Ukrainians, Russians, Tatars, and other ethnic groups are going to have to get along. That requires a political solution and no other. Any military conflict, no matter how slight or brief, would just make the job harder.

Putin has to be ashamed of what Russia, with Iran’s aid, has done to Syria. He does not want that to happen to Ukraine. He has to know that any real solution will have to start with this May’s elections.

Putin personally is a fierce competitor. He competes vigorously in flying and (when his sore back doesn’t prevent) judo and skiing. Now that he knows there’s no military solution in Ukraine, the next step in international competition is obvious: can Russian-annexed Crimea treat ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars there better than Kiev treats ethnic Russians and Tatars in Eastern Ukraine? That’s the kind of peaceful competition both sides can enthusiastically support.

To switch metaphors, the West and Russia are going to have to play the parts of ardent suitors, bestowing gifts on the blushing maiden without thought of self, except for the future blessings of peace, prosperity and security. Ukraine is going to have to play the part of the sought-after beauty, enjoying the blandishments of both suitors, without favor. What better role for the once and future economic crossroads of Eastern Europe?

As for Neo-Nazis, they do exist inside Ukraine. But the notion that they formed (or stole) the heart of the Maidan revolution, or that we Yanks knowingly and willingly support them, is (to quote Mark Twain on reports of his premature death) greatly exaggerated.

Putin is a smart and practical man. Sooner or later, he will understand that he’s been played, by Assad, who claims everyone opposing him is a terrorist, and by Yanukovych, who claims everyone opposing him is a Nazi, anarchist, or hooligan.

Sooner or later, Putin will understand that the local spooks on whom he naturally relies (as an ex-KGB agent) have divided loyalties. Sooner or later, he will remember that we Yanks and his Russians fought on the same side in World War II, and that neither of our two cultures has much love for fascism.

We can help speed his process of awakening by opening our intelligence files to Putin. Insofar as we know it, we can give him hard evidence of what is happening in Ukraine, and of initiatives in Ukraine itself toward even-handed government and autonomy for the provinces. We can work with him toward a common end of peace, harmony and security.

But to do that, we must first convince him that our aim is not to stymie, “contain” or defeat Russia, as long as its motives are benign. Our aim must be to serve genuinely as the “American partners” that Putin and his colleagues continue to call us, despite their rising doubt and disappointment in recent years.

One promising option is to make Ukraine neutral, like Switzerland. Already it’s practically neutral from a military standpoint: it gave up its nuclear arsenal, and it doesn’t have much of a conventional army. All we have to do is convince Putin that Ukraine will never become a NATO member, even if it joins the EU, but will remain a neutral bridge between Europea and Russia, as has been its traditional role.

With military alliances set aside, Russia and the West can compete to see which parts of Ukraine, over which they each have influence, they can bring into modernity, peace and prosperity quickest. That’s a productive, peaceful competition that Putin, the consummate competitor, ought to enjoy.



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