Give me a sec to count. In my lifetime, the USSR and latterly the Russian Federation had nine leaders. Stalin’s death elevated Malenkov, and then Khrushchyov, and the banishing of Khrushchyov led to Brezhnev. Then, came a pair of forgettables, then, Gorbachyov, and on to the ever-inebriated Yeltsin (whom one wants dearly to forget). For 15 years, counting the D A Medvedev interval, V V Putin held the wheel of the Russian bus. Of all these figures the West only vilified Stalin, and that only in his post-“Uncle Joe” years, to the extent of the current Russian leader. The question is obvious and I hope not too complicated… why?
There are always plenty of answers floating around. I take almost all of them to lie somewhere between misguided and malevolent by intent, but I’ll get to this in a minute. In as few words as I can manage, here’s my thought… Putin fell drastically afoul of Washington… his war is with Washington more than the Europeans… because those in deep slumber don’t like being awakened. It’s an irresistible time to consider this problem for two reasons. Firstly, in history, two sure signs of imperial decline are deafness and blindness in the imperial capital, and as of the past year or so Washington exhibits seriously deteriorating symptoms. The wilful refusal of our foreign policy cliques to look squarely at our world and listen to those in it is getting dangerous.
Secondly, Putin just delivered a speech every American deserves to hear and consider. Few will have done so for the simple reason that our media declined to tell you about the Russian leader’s presentation to an annual gathering of leaders and thinkers called the Valdai International Discussion Club, a Davos variant. Here’s the Kremlin transcript, and now readers have two things to decide… what they think of the speech and what they think of the American media for not reporting it. The theme at Valdai this year was “The World Order: NewRules, or a Game Without Rules”. With the Ukrainian crisis bumbling along toward a conclusion (or not) and the horrifically pointless mess America made of the Middle East now worsens daily, the either/or title is just about right… we can’t continue on in the post-Cold War era as we have until now.
A Russian commentator named Dmitri Orlov, whom I don’t know of, said of Putin’s contribution, “This is probably the most important political speech since Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech of 5 March 1946”. I have no archive of political speeches and can’t cast a vote, but Putin’s remarks certainly have an amplitude that makes ignoring them unforgivable. Paying-attention readers can compare them with the speech that Putin gave as the Crimea rejoined Russia last March. Churchillian or no, this is once again big stuff. Putin began, “Let me say I‘ll speak directly and frankly, some of what I say might seem a bit too harsh, but if we don’t speak directly and honestly about what we really think, then, there’s little point in even meeting in this way. We need to be direct and blunt today not to trade barbs, but to attempt to get to the bottom of what’s actually happening in the world, try to understand why the world is becoming less safe and more unpredictable, and why the risks are increasing everywhere around us”. Right away, clear language, shorn of obfuscation. No wonder no one from Washington of any rank attended this talkfest. Plain speaking is no longer in the American repertoire. Guess what else Putin marshalled… historical reference. Out, out, out of the question for the American policy cliques.
I was tempted to read this speech as a post-mortem of the Ukrainian crisis, a looking back. There’s something to this, but not overmuch. Putin has a point to make about the Ukraine and the Crimea, “We didn’t start this”. In reply to a question from Dominique de Villepin, a former French premier, Putin noted, “I believe Dominique referred to the Ukrainian crisis as the reason for the deterioration in international relations. Naturally, this crisis is a cause, but this isn’t the principal cause. The crisis in the Ukraine is itself a result of an imbalance in international relations”. Not Kosovo, not Iraq, not Libya, not Syria, not the Ukraine… one can best understand them less as causes than as symptoms. These are America’s “follies”, as Putin called them, Washington’s “theory of controlled chaos” at work. In essence… the speech is long, carefully phrased, and difficult to summarise… Putin argues that the New World Order the Bush I administration declared as the USSR collapsed was a fundamental misreading of the moment. It’s now a 20-odd-year failure that hacks such as Tom Friedman compulsively term the successful spread of neoliberalism in the face of abundant evidence otherwise.
Putin asserted, “A unilateral diktat and imposing one’s own models produces the opposite result. Instead of settling conflicts, it leads to their escalation, instead of sovereign and stable states, we see the growing spread of chaos, and instead of democracy, there’s support for a very dubious public ranging from open neo-fascists to Islamic radicals”. Such is Putin’s take on how we got here. His view of where we have to go now is yet more compelling. Our systems of global security are more or less destroyed… in Putin’s words, “weakened, fragmented, and deformed”. In the face of this reality, multipolar coöperation in the service of substantial reconstruction agreements, which honour the interests of all sides, is mandatory. Putin continued, “Given the global situation, it’s time to start agreeing on fundamental things. What could be the legal, political, and economic basis for a new world order that’d allow for stability and security, whilst encouraging healthy competition, not allowing the formation of new monopolies that hinder development? It’s unlikely that someone could provide absolutely exhaustive, ready-made solutions right now. We’d need extensive work with participation by a wdide range of governments, global businesses, civil society, and such expert platforms as ours. However, it’s obvious that success and real results are only possible if key participants in international affairs can agree on harmonising basic interests, on reasonable self-restraint, and set the example of positive and responsible leadership. We must clearly identify where unilateral actions end and we need to apply multilateral mechanisms”.
It‘s essential to read this as an attack on the USA… it is one. However, there’s a follow-on recognition that one shouldn’t miss… this isn’t the speech of some kind of nostalgic empire builder… Putin dismisses the charge persuasively… but of a man genuinely afraid that the planet is close to tipping into some version of primitive disorder. Absent less-adversarial international relations, we reach a moment of immense peril. Before I explain my view of the Putin presentation, I urge readers to try a simple exercise. In your mind’s eye, strip all names and identifiers out of the webpage where you read the speech. Read the words for the words alone. Then, make up your minds as to the wisdom or otherwise of the thinking. OK… now, I feel a little safer relating my perspective.
Putin’s speech is so many magnitudes more sensible and credible than anything that we’ve heard from Washington in who can say how long that one must either laugh or do the other thing. To me, Putin has always seemed to honour history, and here, he speaks with its authority. This is where the world is now, these mistakes made it this way, and this is how we can correct them. Since it‘s “all oars in the water”, wake from your slumber, Americans. This is precisely what Washington can’t bear the thought of. It must ignore or actively extinguish any idea of global history that suggests a diminution of American power and prerogative. As to the man who delivered these remarks, there ought to have been no need for me to propose the above experiment… reading the speech whilst forgetting the speaker. Nevertheless, this is where America’s childish undignified name-calling and demonisation, as awful as anything in The Lord of the Flies, lands us.
“What about Putin’s human rights record? What about the oligarchs? What about the fervent nationalism (Russian nationalism always being fervent when described by American hacks)? What about “autocracy? What about Putin’s Christian fundamentalism? What about the Russian press, and the judges, the well-meaning NGOs taking American funding and …?” These aren’t bad questions. They aren’t simply the germane questions, and Russians could best answer them in any case. The question for us is, “What are dissenters from the orthodoxy to do as they recognise that Putin stands for the right of non-Western nations to be non-Western, to escape imitation, to create and solve their problems themselves?” Putin insists this right must be part of a truly new world order… that is what singles him out in the long list of Russia’s postwar leaders. Don’t ask why a leader as evil as Beelzebub by our reckoning enjoys an approval rating of nearly 90 percent. I just told you why.
Even the Financial Times correspondent in Sochi, where the Valdai gathering was held, acknowledged the significance of Putin’s presentation. Neil Buckley wrote, “The speech was one of Mr Putin’s most important foreign policy statements since he surprised the West in München in 2007 by accusing the USA of ‘overstepping its boundaries in every way’ and creating new dividing lines in Europe”. Well done, Neil Buckley. I’d say that your coverage was standout except that almost no one else covered it, so cheap thrills thus. On our side of the pond, recognition is due Alex Jones, the slightly paranoid conspiracy theorist, who at least put the speech and a commentary across to Americans by reprinting the Dmitri Orlov item cited above. The New York Times coverage was notable, as in being notably bad, even by its poor standards of objectivity. So let’s end noting it, briefly. The news piece was brief, buried, and written by Neil MacFarquhar, a correspondent in the Moscow bureau whose habit of slanting coverage has been a topic in this space previously. MacFarquhar missed the point entirely… he had to, as the Times can hardly be expected to render an account that actually got to what Putin said and meant.
The taker of the cake for me, however, was an opinion piece by Serge Schmemann. For the record, I must state that I was briefly a colleague of Schmemann’s during the International Herald Tribune’s final years. Read it… you’ll see a classic case of Times-style innuendo and the use of language as instruction in what to think. Moreover, you‘ll understand, if you don’t already, why I think American responses to Putin can fairly be called childish. Putin’s appearance at Sochi was “his chance to sound off on a global stage”, we have to know in the first sentence, insinuating him into the tin-pot dictator file. Then, Schmemann inserted a quotation from the speech… “‘It looks like the so-called ‘winners’ of the Cold War are determined to have it all and reshape the world into a place that could better serve their interests alone’”. This wasn’t simply an observation, we must understand… it was “one notable riff”. Does anyone have any idea what a notable riff would be in this case?
Here is Schmemann on the Ukrainian passages of the presentation… “In Mr Putin’s version of the Ukrainian crisis, the USA was the instigator of the protests in Kiev that led to a ‘coup’ against President Viktor Yanukovich and the subsequent fighting. One American participant told Mr Putin she was hard put to recognise her country as the one he was describing”. Well, confused American participant, you make an interesting point. Washington has created a version of events in the Ukraine that amounts to a parallel reality, and people such as Schmemann receive a salary to perpetuate it. If it’s of any help… there was a coup, there were neo-fascists among its leaders, the US State Department backed it, and the evidence of all this is indisputable. Schmemann wrote, “What’s hard to gauge listening to Mr Putin is whether he really means to put the blame for all things wrong on the USA, or whether he’s cynically using the old Soviet gimmick of projecting onto America and the West all the faults of which the USSR itself was accused”. Hmm… the thought never occurred to me. I suppose it’s a strange idea to some of us, but I think that even Russians can mean what they say, I think Putin did, and we’re better off for his having said it.
7 November 2014
Patrick L Smith
A Note to Orthodox People:
S A Schmemann, who wrote the mendacious NYT op-ed piece referenced, was the son of the late Fr A D Schmemann (the famous partner-in-crime of the late Fr I F von Meyendorff at SVS in Yonkers). Does it surprise you that Sergei Aleksandrovich eased the way into the IHT for Lyonyo’s daughter, S L Kishkovskaya? I’ll say this… it shows that the SVS/Syosset apparat has thrust a knife full-force into the Motherland’s back. That’s treachery and treason. Remember… the OCA is a dependent client of the Centre (its “autocephaly” is more formal than real, and everyone knows it) and depends upon it for its canonicity, regularity, and legitimacy. This isn’t a wise move on their part. Just sayin’…