Bibhuti Pati writes, India sings vespers for Vladimir and Putin is a panicle and paean for India. I, Indian venerate to virtuous and virile Vladimir. Vladimir’s visit has brought the vernal verdant for India. Vladimir, the happiness you have spread among Indians, it is really difficult to verbalize in words. All vilification for Vladimir is only mere visionary volition. India sings vespers for Vladimir and forever India will remember Vladimir’s virtue. What about Putin? Prodigious Putin is personage and paragon of India and Putin is pally with every Indians. Putin is a panicle and paean for India.
Clearly, the global Geo-strategic alliances are shifting goalposts, and Putin is a big factor in this paradigm shift. Russia is no longer a push-over. With Putin at helm, it’s like a classical Russian movie from the past which has come back.
Sergei Eisenstein was not only a Great Russian filmmaker, who revolutionized the technique of cinematography in black and white with reasonably primitive technology; he was also a sharp political creature. ‘Battleship Potemkin’, made in 1925, not only celebrated the Russian revolution and the naval uprising, it also marked the beginning of a new and fascinating language of cinema, which turned it into a classical text book film for students of cinema and parallel filmmakers. Indeed, his yet another long and painstaking classic, ‘Ivan the Terrible’, shot in post-war ravaged Russia and Kazhakstan, often without basic resources and electricity, is a history lesson in disguise, complex and camouflaged at many levels, celebrating bravery, nationalism and tyranny, of the past and the present continuous, of Ivan and Stalinism. Made in 1944, this film, shot in a huge scale, anticipated the invasion of Hitler’s forces into the territory of Soviet Russia. It is situated in the backdrop of the Great War against fascism on the bloodied, snowy landscape of the cold and frozen Russian winter with more than 6 million people dead, and with both the legendary and protracted battles of Leningrad and Stalingrad waged by the Russian people against all odds becoming historical epics of unprecedented resistance.
To understand the phenomenon of Vladimir Putin one has to go back to Ivan the Terrible, both the film and the emperor-tyrant who ruled Russia in the 16th century with a bloody iron fist; and also the life and times of Comrade Joseph Stalin. Made in the time of Stalin, the film was a metaphor, of the Terrible Ivan uniting Russia against sinister forces, becoming a terror for his own people as he turns a monarch-dictator, unleashing a terror machine which was only outlived and matched later by Stalin. The victory of Ivan in restoring the great patriotic idea of the imagined ‘nationhood’ gives him an aura which only tyrants and dictators have, fetching thereby collective awe and glory in the eyes of the people, as much as infinite fear, obedience and subservience. This is the two sides of the coin of patriotism when vulnerable people in the grip of multiple social and economic crises pray for a strong leader to restore their vicarious sense of dignity, glory and sanity. Both, Ivan the Terrible and Stalin, did that for Russia, and the country paid a heavy price for that.
Wrote film critic J Hoberman in the ‘Village Voice’ in April 2001,“Among other things, Ivan is a masterpiece of Stalinist architecture. As historian James H. Billington observed in his interpretive chronicle of Russian culture ;The Icon and the Axe’, ‘The mammoth mosaics in the Moscow subway, the unnecessary spires and fantastic frills of civic buildings, the leaden chandeliers and dark foyers of reception chambers — all send the historical imagination back to the somber world of Ivan the Terrible.’ By 1941, the analogy was quasi-official. Not only did Ivan’s terror provide means to legitimize Stalin’s, the 16th-century tsar’s war against Livonia offered historical justification for Stalin’s annexation of the Baltic States.”
Stalin defeated the fascists, conquered Berlin, won the unwinnable battles of Leningrad and Stalingrad which went on endlessly with thousands of Russians dying in the war, stamped the power of Soviet Russia in Europe and across the world, divided Europe with the Warsaw Pact with East Europe completely in control of Moscow, turned Soviet Russia into a military-industrial power in the post Cold War era, and gave the American empire and the mandarins of capitalism a big scare which not only stayed, but turned the American establishment into frenzied bouts of phobia and schizophrenia, popularly called as the ‘Reds under the Bed’ syndrome.
This was pronounced and witnessed during the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee in the Cold War years, led by the equally infamous communist baiter, Joseph McCarthy, who hounded all shades of liberals and dissidents in the garb of eliminating communist from “the land of the free”. Among those hounded were scores of writers, actors and filmmakers in Hollywood, including Charlie Chaplin and Arthur Miller, celebrated writer who once married Marilyn Monroe. The award-winning and acclaimed Hollywood film, ‘Guilty by Suspicion’ made by Irwin Winkler, and starring Robert De Niro, Annette Bening, George Wendt, tells the story of an organized witch-hunt in which an established filmmaker in the 1950s is hounded, isolated and jailed along with others, because he participated in anti-war activities. They are all falsely condemned as ‘communists’ and marginalized and punished due to the frenzy unleashed by the phobia against communists.
Amidst this scenario and the entrenched walls of the iron curtain enacted by the two superpowers in the eastern and western bloc, Stalin’s Gulags and concentration camps, the purges, disappearances and secret police, and the cold-blooded horror stories of Siberia’s death and labour camps, continued to haunt and stalk Soviet Russia, still celebrating the victory against fascism amidst millions of dead and mass starvation in a cruel winter. The story of Marshal Zhukov, therefore, is illuminating.
Outside the room of Marshal Zhukov in Moscow, his war room (visited by this writer some years ago), since he was the commander of the Soviet Russia’s forces which captured Berlin, there is a huge painting with Stalin and his commanders looking at a map of Germany. Stalin is pointing at a particular spot on the map: Berlin. So, the great hero and commander, Marshal Zhukov, perhaps more popular than Stalin due to his great victorious march from Berlin, was felicitated at the famous Red Square in Moscow. He was hailed as the Red Star of Russia. Later, predictably, even he was banished to Siberia. Stalin just could not digest his popularity among the Russian masses and his grip on the Russian army.
Similarly, thousands were killed, purged, tortured, sent to Siberia, including most comrades and party officials of the highest bodies, including legendary communist leaders, by Stalin’s secret police. After Hitler’s holocaust, this was another slow genocide which destroyed the legacy of Stalin’s victory against fascism, and forever destroyed the original ideology of Marxism-Leninism. That is why, when Eisenstein made ‘Ivan the Terrible Part II’, after getting the Stalin Prize for the first part, the film was banned by Stalin. It was banned because behind the metaphor of Ivan the Terrible were the contemporary stories of the secret police, purges and the terror unleashed by Stalin’s regime. Stalin apparently called the filmmaker for an audience and gave him a strict lesson in censorship. He said, no doubt Ivan was cruel, and you must show his cruelty, but you must also show how necessary it is to be cruel to protect the nation.
Indeed, if not in terms of bitter realism, narrative objectivity or a parallel historical identity, the Putin phenomena must be seen within the metaphorical mirror images of both Tzar Ivan and Stalin, as patriots, iron-men, powerful dictators, strong leaders, unifiers and tyrants, though operating in completely different philosophical, political and ideological paradigms. There is something uncanny in the Russian psyche which has strong umbilical links to this narrative continuity and Putin fits into the scheme of things as effortlessly as a metaphorical film with a happy ending.
Both Boris Yeltsin and Putin have had strong ties with the communist party in Soviet Russia before Mikhail Gorbachev unleashed the forces of perestroika and glasnost and the consequent break-up of the country. Both of them had top jobs in the communist system, with Yeltsin promoting Putin as his protégé after he became president of the Russian Federation. Indeed, Putin and KGB, the secret intelligence apparatus of Soviet Russia, had a strong, embryonic relationship; since his youth, he single-mindedly wanted to join the intelligence services.
It has been noted by those who documented his life and times that Putin wanted to work in the intelligence services since he was young. He was born in a humble family in Leningrad, and there is no reason to doubt that he did not ingrain the memories and narratives of the war against fascism, especially the great battle of Leningrad. His higher education was in Leningrad (now St Petersburg). His famous love for Judo and his athletic physique is perhaps dating back to his childhood. “We lived simply — cabbage soup, cutlets, pancakes, but on Sundays and holidays my Mom would bake very delicious stuffed buns with cabbage, meat and rice, and curd tarts,” said Putin, in a documented story on his life. His mother apparently did not like his passion for Judo. “Every time I went to a practice session, she would grumble, ‘He’s off to his fights again.’”
A story goes that he once went to the reception office of the KGB Directorate to find out how to become an intelligence officer. He was apparently informed that he has to do college, perhaps with a law degree, or serve in the army, to aspire to join the intelligence service of Soviet Russia. He was keen and motivated. “And from that moment, I began preparing myself to enter the law department at Leningrad State University,” Putin has noted, in the short biography on his life.
Consequently, his stint with the KGB, secret services inside and outside Soviet Russia, especially the protracted training in Eastern Europe, stood him in good stead for a long time to come, till the time he became the director of the new secret service (FSB, Federal Security Service, successor of KGB) of the Russian Federation under Yeltsin. Ultimately, he became the full-fledged prime minister of Russia. This followed with his becoming the President of Russia in the post-Yeltsin era.
His popularity was never that of a mass leader or a charismatic personality; he was more like a strong doer behind the curtains, in the tradition of top leaders and general secretaries during the era of the Soviet Russia. However, after the terrorist attacks in Moscow and his strong actions in retaliation, his popularity gradually soared. Day by day, he became stronger and more powerful, and along with it, his charisma and mass appeal grew by leaps and bounds. The unknown official of the secret service became the strong man Russia needed, after the collapse of Soviet Russia, the entry of crony capitalism and the capture of the collapsing economy by big barons and billionaires, the social and economic disintegration of the inherited Soviet structure, the drastic fall in the value of the Ruble, and, of course, the gradual shrinking of the military and political might of Russia.
After Putin took over, and even while there was an overwhelming feeling of openness and freedom, and a sense of democratic outpouring, there was the sense of loss and helplessness with the disintegration of the glorious Soviet story, the sudden rise in poverty and mass unemployment, the tragic condition of the older generation which were left bereft of social security, the loss of political, industrial and military power in the international scenario, and a deep melancholy about the fact that all the sacrifices of the past seems to have gone in vain. Indeed, in a country where everything was controlled and provided by the State, including housing, health, transport and education, the sudden opening up of the economy into a quasi capitalist process, with the corrupt and the rich ruling the roost, led to a schizophrenic sense of ‘déjà vu’, an anti-catharsis of collective disbelief, a social crisis of huge magnitude, a nostalgia for the past, and a general anarchy of thought and belief. Russia was unable to understand or cope with it all, when Putin arrived with a sense of the past, as a strong leader, perhaps not exactly steeped in democracy, but ready to act and respond with an iron fist, even if charged as dictatorial by his opponents.
“Different social strata see Russian President Vladimir Putin differently,” declared Aleksandr Oslon, Director, Public Opinion Foundation, Moscow, at a 9 March, 2001, lecture at the Kennan Institute, “but all strata see him as addressing their concerns. Young people see him as healthy and vigorous, and as providing an environment in which they can achieve. The elderly and ill see him as a guarantor of social benefits. Workers and professionals see him as a guarantor of stability. All these strata see in Putin, if not a guarantee, at least a hope that they will be provided with what they need.” Faith in Putin as a leader has tracked consistently over 60 percent in polls, Oslon noted.
“When Putin was appointed acting prime minister in the summer of 1999, his popularity stood at 1 to 2 percent and remained at that level for about six weeks. Putin was not alone in his unpopularity. Russian society was exhausted from the tumultuous 1990s and completely disillusioned with politicians…One event changed this dynamic. In September, 1999, a series of bombs destroyed apartment buildings in Moscow and other Russian cities, killing hundreds. “This led to a very rare thing in Russian public life,” noted Oslon, “at the same time, tens of millions of Russians experienced the feeling of fear in their own homes. No other event in the 1990s approached the effect of these explosions.” Putin, the unknown politician with a 2 per cent approval rating, reacted with swift, unexpected announcements promising action. “Our research,” Oslon declared, “shows that the attitude of the Russian public towards Putin changed to one simple phrase: He is like us.” Putin’s popularity started climbing at a rate of about 5 percent per week, until by the end of the year it stood at about 49 percent where it remained until his election for president the following March…
“Putin sustained his rising popularity with concrete policy actions. As prime minister, Putin addressed the issue perceived by the Russian people as the most important problem facing Russia — the non-payment of pension by the government. According to polling data from 1996 onwards as many as 50 percent of pensioners had not received payments on time. The government cleared the backlog in 1997, but only as a one-time solution by borrowing money; by fall the problem returned. This was an example of the ‘virtual politics’ that frustrated Russians. The pension arrears were eliminated in November 1999, which played a huge role in solidifying Putin’s popularity. Not only have pensions continued to be paid on time, Oslon added, but they have also been increased. Putin’s popularity immediately paid off in political terms. After announcing that he would vote for the newly-created Unity Party in the parliamentary elections, Unity captured the second largest bloc of deputies in the election.”
Putin was elected President of Russia on March 26, 2000. He was officially inaugurated on May 7, 2000. As he took over, he said, “We have common aims, we want our Russia to be a free, prosperous, flourishing, strong and civilized country, a country that its citizens are proud of and that is respected internationally…I consider it to be my sacred duty to unify the people of Russia, to rally citizens around clear aims and tasks, and to remember every day and every minute that we have one Motherland, one people and one future.”
Since the days and months of his presidency, a leadership cult has been developed around Putin, even while he flexes his muscles literally and visually, every time his TRP flounders. That he does not touch alcohol, is a fitness freak and a disciplinarian, and that he cultivated his image as a stoic and a doer, helped in restoring sanity in a country which was losing its mental and physical grip. All these ‘qualities’ became instruments in soaring his popularity, and adding to the image of a strong, resolute, disciplined and stoic leader which a crisis-ridden Russia so desperately craved at that time. Even while the opposition has been literally crushed, silenced, sidelined or turned redundant, including prison terms for politicians and billionaires, and exile for some others, he has consolidated his power inside the Kremlin, and across Russia and beyond its immediate border in the last decade with amazing leadership and strategic qualities, strong-arm tactics, a mix of democracy and one-dimensional iron-fist, and a larger economic recovery in the era of the decline of oil prices across the world.
In a paper written by White, S. and Mcallister, I. (2008), ‘The Putin Phenomenon’, Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, the authors write: “The importance of ‘exceptional personalities’ has certainly been borne out in the early years of Russia’s post-communist presidency. It was Boris Yeltsin who personally decided to face down his opponents in the Russian parliament, and then imposed his own rules of the game in a new Constitution that underpinned his dominant position. The war on breakaway Chechnya began in 1994 on the basis of a secret presidential decree; much of the privatization programme rested on a similar foundation… It was Vladimir Putin, in turn, who restored the political authority of the presidency, using his decree powers to establish a new system of federal districts at the start of his administration, and his powers of appointment to bring forward a new leadership that drew heavily if not exclusively on his former colleagues in the security services… We examine, first of all, the remarkable ‘cult of personality’ that developed around Putin as Russian president over the course of his two presidential terms…
“Putin took over the presidency on an acting basis at the end of 1999…Within a year of his accession, foundry workers in the Urals were casting him in bronze; not far away, weavers were making rugs with the president’s face inside a golden oval. In Magnitogorsk, the overalls Putin had worn during a visit were on display in the city museum. A factory in Chelyabinsk had begun to produce a watch with a presidential image on its dial, and a local confectioner was selling a cake with the same design; a ‘Putin bar’ had opened elsewhere in the town, selling ‘Vertical power’ kebabs and ‘When Vova was little’ milk-shakes. An all-female band had meanwhile ‘taken the airwaves by storm’ with its single ‘Someone like Putin’ (someone who, among other things, ‘doesn’t drink’ and ‘won’t run away’)…”
In recent times, Putin, having reasonably consolidated the economy and put Russia back on its feet, even while freedom of expression and democracy remains a twilight zone, has redefined its foreign policy to enter not only a zone of conquest and one-upmanship in the global geo-strategic power scenario, but also to reassert Russian supremacy in a world which is no longer bi-polar, nor determined by the one-dimensional diktat of ‘US imperialism’. Of the most significant muscle-flexing moves by Putin was the annexation of Crimea, a long-held emotional high-point for Russians, from Ukraine, by force. The huge uproar across the western world and the sanctions against Russia only consolidated Putin’s charisma and spread it far and wide across Russia and the nations which wanted to stand up to US and NATO tactics across many parts of the world. The Crimean war is historically intrinsic to Russian pride; hence the annexation of contemporary Crimea was taken for granted. Putin became yet again another version of Ivan and Stalin, restoring Russian pride, glory and honour yet again.
Meanwhile, even while there were confirmed reports of a possible American attack on Iran, it was the strategic alliance of Russia and China, along with other nations, which shifted the balance of power. Even while the Middle East was rocked by civil war, pro democracy protests and unprecedented violence, in a sense, Putin intervened late, but decisively, on the Syrian question. It was clear that the western bloc was playing with fire. The mass human devastation and deaths of tens of thousands in Syria and the region around it, including in Iraq and Libya, were clearly the handiwork of mindless policies enacted by the Nato countries and its war industry, including the ‘occupation’ of Iraq by George Busheven while there were no WMDs found during Saddam Hussain’s regime. In this ‘blood for oil’ politics, the backing of the rebel Free Syrian Army by the Nato countries inside Syria, and the creation of ISIS, among other splinter jehadi groups, is attributed to the vicious and diabolical double games being played out in the region by the western bloc and its war machine, to shift strategic and economic goals in their favour. That it boomeranged badly has been witnessed by the huge influx of refugees in Europe, mass trafficking, deaths and dying, organized sex slavery, and perhaps the biggest tragic exodus in the post-war era in the world.
Indeed, Russia’s entry has helped consolidated the winning battle against ISIS, even while shifting the power equations from the fledgling NATO alliance which seemed both clueless and without a strategy, even as ISIS ravaged country after country, capturing huge territories, beheading people, using women as sex slaves. Amidst the mass deaths and despair of war, Putin’s Russia has restored a semblance of balance and sanity, in what seemed a completely lopsided western plot, often sinister in its machinations, driven by the powerful arms lobby. Indeed, Russia has joined China in the contentious South China Sea for military exercises recently, even while the western bloc is chiding China for its expansionist tendencies. Clearly, the global Geo-strategic military and non-military alliances are shifting goalposts, and Putin is a big factor in this paradigm shift. Russia is no longer a push-over. With Putin at helm, it’s like a classical Russian movie from the past which has come back.
(The writer has written a book namely “The New C_Old War” on Ukraine Russia conflict.)