Saturday, March 13, 2004

BBC - Russia's Love Affair with Strong Leaders

Is someone at the BBC reading my blog? This article mirrors my thoughts about Russia to an uncanny degree.

When Russian voters go to the polls on Sunday, many will be firmly convinced that President Vladimir Putin is the strong leader they are looking for.

That is, the kind of authority figure that Russians have been used to and have admired over the centuries.
Even a short glance at Russian history shows that it's the "firm fist" that has always won respect.
Ask most people to name the best known tsars, and they will say: Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great.
Ivan was Terrible because of the brutal methods he used to strengthen his rule.
Peter was Great because he made the then civilised world sit up and take note of Russia - but also at great human cost, not least to his own people.
Conversely, Nicholas II may also be high up on the list of best known tsars - but he was known for his weakness, a major factor as to why he was overthrown by the March Revolution of 1917.
Feeding off Nicholas' weakness, the Bolsheviks, who seized power in November 1917, understood that Russia could be governed only by strength.
Lenin was brutal in his conclusions as to how "enemies of the people" should be treated.

Black joke

Much of the brutality carried out on the orders of Stalin was simply a logical continuation of Lenin's thought.
A black joke of the later Soviet period supposedly quotes a history book of the 21st century: "Who was Adolf Hitler?"
Answer: "A petty dictator who lived in the time of Joseph Stalin."
It is estimated that as many as 20 million Soviet citizens perished in the network of labour camps - the Gulag - which Stalin perfected.
After an initial period where he gave Russians back some pride, Boris Yeltsin became an embarrassment
And what is the simplistic, but widely held view as to why the Soviet Union collapsed?
Because Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and only Soviet president, was too weak, toyed with Western ideas of democracy which do not suit Russia, and lost the country.


Growing power

To those schooled in Western democratic traditions, figures giving Mr Putin 80% approval are staggering. And when they look at Mr Putin's democratic credentials, they find it even more puzzling.
In his first term as president, Mr Putin has overseen the closure or takeover by the state of all six independent national television stations that existed when he was elected in 2000.
The lower house of parliament, the State Duma, is now controlled by the party that hangs on every word Mr Putin says, United Russia.



But partly through luck, partly through good judgement, under Mr Putin's presidency the Russian economy's improved and living standards for millions have risen.
And if the liberals wring their hands and complain that democracy is now weaker in Russia than at any time since the collapse of the USSR?
There are plenty of Russians who will shrug their shoulders and say that Russia's too big to be ruled any other way than by the strong hand in Moscow.

People like to crack jokes about a supposed German tendency to blindly defer to authority ("kadavergehorsam"), but it seems to me that this is actually much more true of Russians than it ever has been of the Germans. There's something deeply contemptible about the eagerness of so many millions to be under the heel of a strongman. This sort of "anything for a quiet life" mentality is more in keeping for sheep or cattle than for self-respecting human beings.