At the annual “Valdai Club” gathering of Russia experts at Sochi on Russia’s Black Sea coast a month ago, an earnest Western journalist asked Russian President Vladimir Putin whether Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in Ukraine’s Donbass could be explained by fear of “democracy moving closer to [Russia’s borders].”
Putin’s reply got to the heart of problem: “What kind of democracy is this [i.e., in Russia]?”
The obvious answer to that question in much of the Western world is that Putin wants Russia to be anything but a democracy. Though the situation is in fact far more complex, mainstream Western reporting depicts Russia as a dictatorship or a police state—or worse.
Writing in The New York Times two weeks ago, for example, Masha Gessen (author of a widely cited biography of Putin), asserting a view taken by many US commentators, alleged that recent events confirmed that Russia was on the road to becoming a “totalitarian” state and, pointedly, one addicted to war. “A totalitarian society seeks to be mobilized,” she writes: “The more Russia reverts to its totalitarian habits, the more comfort it will derive from a constant state of war.”
In one form or another, Putin has ruled Russia for 15 years. Russia fought its first foreign war since the break-up of the Soviet Union seven years ago (while Putin was prime minister rather than president), when in 2008 the Georgian army launched a surprise attack on Russian “peacekeepers” in the break-away Georgian province of South Ossetia.
Not quite six years later, Russia annexed Crimea—bloodlessly—in March 2014. Though the Kremlin denies direct involvement, Russia has at the very least helped sustain an armed rebellion in eastern Ukraine against the US-backed Kiev government since May of that year. Russia is now carrying out an air campaign against terrorist forces in Syria—at the invitation of that country’s government.
Gessen explains all this by arguing that Putin and the system he heads cannot survive without war: “The strategic purpose of his wars is war itself.… Both conflicts [Ukraine and Syria] are wars with no end in sight because, in Mr. Putin’s view, only at war can Russia feel at peace.”
Now, Gessen is a Russian living in the United States. That she could title her essay “Putin’s forever wars” and publish it with a straight face in a country that has been constantly at war—in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and, yes, also in Syria—for well over a decade and, to the great frustration of many foreign policy commentators in the United States itself, still with no end in sight, says something about her sense of proportion, or perhaps political bias.
Though she has lampooned Putin’s reading of history, her own is open to serious question. (“For its part in defeating Hitler,” Gessen once sniffed, “the Soviet Union’s reward was becoming a superpower,” implying that the USSR’s rise to superpower status was due to Stalin’s bamboozling of Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta rather than the Red Army’s defeat of German Nazism. In any case, the real “reward” was surely the survival of Europe and its peoples?)
Gessen quotes with astonishment Putin’s statement that “peace as a state of world politics has never been stable,” but seems unaware that he is expressing a scholarly political theory (it’s called realism, and its practitioners usually counsel against unnecessary, open-ended, ideologically driven wars) based on the study of the world’s real history with many distinguished practitioners in US universities.
Instead, she seems herself to believe world history—outside Russia—a tale of undisturbed Elysian innocence before Putin arrived in the Kremlin in Boris Yeltsin’s slipstream on New Year’s Eve 1999: “In other words, peace is an anomaly, a fragile state of equilibrium,” she gasps. (Would you like a reading list for that, Masha?)
Gessen is a journalist, and her work is deeply imbued with an awareness of the power of words. (Her book on the Russian punk band Pussy Riot is called Words Will Break Cement.) But why is she so casual in the use of them herself?
After the murder of Boris Nemtsov in Red Square earlier this year, she wondered aloud whether Russia stood on the brink of a wave of mass political repression, a repeat of Stalin’s Red Terror. “Is it 1937 yet?” she asked. The humble “yet” is telling, suggesting as it does Gessen’s determination to strain her interpretation of every event to equate Putin with Stalin and Russia with a totalitarian state.
Admittedly, having posed the question, “Is Mr. Putin as bad as Stalin?,” Gessen then runs through a list of reasons that leads her to the conclusion: “so, no, Mr. Putin isn’t as bad as Stalin.” But again, what she seems to mean is “yet.” “While Mr. Putin has done much to restore the ideological mechanisms of the totalitarian system, Russia is not run by means of total terror,” she writes: “At least until the next…trial, deportation or murder happens.” (There are other things, too, Gessen seems not to know—or care to mention: the approval in August by the Presidential Council for Human Rights of a bill for a new law on remembering the victims of political repression; the opening in Moscow last month of a massive new State Museum and Monument to the GULAG; and the announced construction in Moscow’s Garden Ring of a permanent “Wall of Grief” by sculptor Georgy Frangulyan dedicated to Stalin’s victims—all projects Putin has backed or decreed.)
Interestingly, Gessen doesn’t believe the Kremlin ordered Nemtsov’s killing. Rather, she thinks it was a case of eager henchmen trying to please their boss’s unexpressed wishes.
True, Stalin didn’t personally order all of the murders that took place during the Terror either. But there’s still something irresponsibly careless with the analogy. According to conservative estimates, in 1937 and 1938 some 750,000 people were shot to appease Stalin’s paranoia and strengthen his grip on—or more correctly, destroy—the Communist Party and command of the Soviet Union. Post-Soviet Russia, by contrast, has not executed anyone since 1996.
Though the death penalty exists in theory, a moratorium forbids its use in practice. This was again upheld by Russia’s Constitutional Court in 2009. This moratorium on the death penalty is something Putin is on record as supporting (and despite the fact that polls suggest that a majority of Russians would welcome the return of capital punishment). A long list of zeros appears next to “Executions” and “Number of individuals currently held under sentence of death” on the Russian page of Cornell’s World Death Penalty database. (In Gessen’s adopted country, on the other hand, between 2001 and 2014 the State killed 683 people and so far in 2015 a further 25 executions have taken place—with another 3,000 on death row—though, as courts hand down more death penalties, this figure is constantly growing. In fact, the United States executes around 1 in nine million of its citizens every year by all manner of “legal” methods: lethal injection, electrocution, gas chamber, hanging, firing squad.)
Consider, too, Russia’s prison population.
In 1953, the year Stalin died, around 2.5 million Soviet citizens were “living” (barely) in the prison camps of the GULAG. In 2000, the year Boris Yeltsin resigned as president, Stalin’s GULAG was gone and Russian prisons housed around a million inmates. Remarkably, according to the World Prison Brief published by the University of London’s Institute for Criminal Policy Research, by September 2015 that figure had dropped to somewhat fewer than 645,000. (In 2014, around 1.5 million Americans are in prison.)
As a proportion of the population, then, Russia has never imprisoned so few of its citizens as it has under Putin. Those wanting to label Russia a police state or a revived totalitarianism have to explain how the rate of imprisonment has almost halved (from 729 to 446 per hundred thousand) during Putin’s “dictatorship.” In the United States, the figure is 698 per hundred thousand.)
Then, of course, there are all the other freedoms today’s Russians possess that Soviet citizens could only dream of—including the right to own property, travel overseas, and read pretty much whatever they like whether in print or on the Internet.
Gessen is not alone in her recourse to overblown rhetoric.
To take another prolific example, writing in Foreign Affairs last month, Gregory Feifer pulled out all the stops to portray Putin’s Russia as an aggressive, expansionist, ideologically driven empire on a par with Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1946 when Soviet troops stood on the Elbe across from the beating heart of Western Europe. (Today, NATO troops rotate through an Estonia that used to be part of Stalin’s Soviet Union, two hours’ drive from what used to be known as Leningrad: To ascertain whose empire-building is to blame for the “New Cold War,” a lot depends on where you’re standing.)
Truly remarkable, however, is that Feifer contrives to twist George Kennan’s famous “long telegram” as both evidence for his thesis—since Syria, “Moscow’s first significant military offensive beyond the old borders of the Soviet Union,” proves that Putin’s Russia “poses a growing threat to global security” in just the same way, we are to believe, the descent of the Iron Curtain across Eastern Europe did in the late 1940s—and as a template for a Western policy response designed around sanctions, sending weapons to Ukraine, and increasing NATO’s troop presence on Russia’s borders.
This is despite the fact that Kennan in the 1990s publicly opposed the post–Cold War expansion of NATO as a provocative affront to Russia’s legitimate and entirely knowable interests, and despite the fact that, had Kennan’s advice been followed, none of the countries where Feifer would currently like to see NATO escalating war games would even be members of the alliance.
Balance, proportion, a sense of perspective—all seem to have fallen by the wayside in Western and particularly American reporting on Russia. This may help sell newspapers. Russia is not a democracy either in the proper sense of that word or in the way that idea is practiced in North America or Europe. But what appears to amount to a deliberate campaign by the Western press to present Russia in as bad a light as possible by way of careless historical analogies and lazy caricature is dangerous, for many reasons.
Of these, the most important is that if Putin or any future Russian leader really were to wind the clock back to 1937, if Russia really were to become either a one-party dictatorship or a totalitarian state and its leader a real autocrat like the historical Stalin, even as millions eventually perished by bullet to the back of the head and the earth thrown over their limp bodies in thousands of ditches, or worked to death in the GULAG, we would have no words left to describe it.
The words we would use to describe that exceedingly unlikely possibility have already been emptied of meaning by the very people—journalists and other commentators—whose sacred duty it is to protect them.