12 February 2006

Khrushcheva on Putinism

In today's Washington Post, Nikita Khrushchev's great-granddaughter, New School professor Nina Khrushcheva, gives her take on Putinism.
When I was growing up in the Soviet Union of the 1970s, it was President Leonid Brezhnev that I loathed. The dreaded Joseph Stalin seemed merely a name from a distant past. Back in 1956, he had been outed as a monster by my great-grandfather, Nikita Khrushchev, in the famous "secret speech" at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party and deleted from history....

After the anarchy that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a period when democracy came to represent confusion, crime, poverty, oligarchy, anger and disappointment, it turned out that Russians didn't like their new, "free" selves. Having for centuries had no sense of self-esteem outside the state, we found ourselves wanting our old rulers back, the rulers who provided a sense of order, inspired patriotic fervor and the belief that we were a great nation. We yearned for monumental -- if oppressive -- leaders, like Ivan the Terrible or Stalin. Yes, they killed and imprisoned, but how great were our victories and parades! So what if Stalin ruled by fear? That was simply a fear for one's life. However terrifying, it wasn't as existentially threatening as the fear of freedom, of individual choice, with no one but oneself to blame if democracy turned into disarray and capitalism into corruption.

This is why the country rallies behind President Vladimir Putin. Putin promotes himself as a new Russian "democrat." Indeed, Russians view him less like the godlike "father of all nations" that Stalin was, and more like a Russian everyman -- a sign of at least partial democratization. Putin often notes that Russia is developing "its own brand of democracy." Translation: His modern autocracy has discovered that it no longer needs mass purges like Stalin's to protect itself from the people. Dislike of freedom makes us his eager backers. How readily we have come to admire his firm hand: Rather than holding him responsible for the horrors of Chechnya, we agree with his "democratic" appointment of leaders for that ill-fated land. We cheer his "unmasking of Western spies," support his jailing of "dishonest" oligarchs and his promotion of a "dictatorship of order" rather than a government of transparent laws.

"Putinism," an all-inclusive hybrid that embraces elements of Stalinism, communism, KGB-ism and market-ism, is our new national ideology. A man for all seasons and all fears, Russia's president pretends that by selectively adopting and adapting some elements from his predecessors' rule -- the Russian Orthodox Church of the czars, the KGB of the Soviets, the market economy of the Boris Yeltsin era -- he is eliminating the extremes of the past, creating a viable system of power that will last. But his closed and secretive system of governing -- the "vertical power" so familiar from the pre-secret speech era, with information once again manipulated by the authorities -- suggests that his proposed "unity" is yet another effort to rewrite the past.

And so the secret speech is no longer seen as a courageous act of political conscience, in which Khrushchev, in order to secure justice for Stalinism's victims and liberate communist ideals from the gulag's grotesque inhumanity, called for reform of the despotic system he had helped to build. In the Russian media today, the speech is dismissed as something far more ignoble: Khrushchev's effort to avenge his oldest son, Leonid, whom Stalin had allegedly persecuted for betraying socialist ideals by serving the Nazis during World War II.

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