Josef Stalin hated international travel: He suspected somebody might attempt to kill him. Nikita Khrushchev loved it: He enjoyed shocking foreign hosts with his erratic behavior. Leonid Brezhnev was happy to travel to any country that would give him a new Mercedes as a state gift. Mikhail Gorbachev had no other option but to travel widely, because Raisa felt a constant urge to parade her new clothes in front of smart crowds. Boris Yeltsin did not know whether he liked to travel or not, because after the third shot of vodka all capitals looked the same to him.
Now we have Vladimir Putin, the heir to this awesome row of Russian leaders. He not only likes to travel, but knows how to do it in the right way.
Last week was Putin’s prime time. He visited China and North Korea and participated in the G8 summit on Okinawa. Remarkably enough, he arrived at the summit not empty-handed, but bringing an olive branch to the West from North Korean leaders. He charmed everybody with his businesslike and energetic negotiating style and ended the trip with a firm promise to visit Japan to negotiate a peace treaty.
He was showered with lavish praise; the Germans even suggested making Russia a full member of the club, forsaking the G7 sub-summit as a Cold War “fossil.” Virtually every leader at Okinawa found a kind word for Putin. Absolutely unknown to anybody in the West only a year ago and later dismissed as a stark and dangerous nationalist, Putin has suddenly become popular, a new darling of Western capitals.
The explanation to this is simple and evident: Putin is the first Russian leader since Czar Nicholas II who shares at least something in common with the world beyond Russia’s borders.
Throughout the 20th century, the educational level of Russian rulers kept plummeting. Czar Nicholas II was fluent in four languages; Stalin in two; Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin were not too fluent even in their own native tongue. Their Russian was full of “er’s” and awkward and incomprehensible grammatical constructions. Stalin could quote Walt Whitman (in Russian translation) and the Bible; Gorbachev, when asked in the United States about his favorite American author, could not come up with a single name. As for Yeltsin, it is doubtful whether he had ever opened a book. Apparently, that was the rock bottom. With Putin came significant improvement.
Of course, knowledge of German and familiarity of modern European lifestyles do not make Putin a Westerner. Yet, he shares many cultural and behavioral patterns with his foreign colleagues. Doubtlessly, his training as a spy has helped a lot. In Russia’s intelligence community, James Bonds in training have to master not only various espionage techniques, but also foreign languages, traditions and customs. They are supposed to have a good command of modern history; for them the Iron Curtain, when it existed, was transparent.
For a number of years Putin was stationed in East Germany. It is easy to sneer at East Germans as surrogate Westerners, polluted by Stalinism, but the truth of the matter was that polluted or not they did carry the European cultural legacy in all its richness. For a young Soviet like Putin, spending several years in the German Democratic Republic was an eye-opener.
Finally, Putin’s hometown is St. Petersburg. Again, no Russian leader since the czars could boast of that; all of his predecessors came from exceptionally provincial rural settings, where cows were much more numerous than books.
Putin is not another Peter the Great, discovering the West for Russia. He is not a Westernized intellectual, either. But he did grow up on the periphery of Europe, absorbing tidbits of its culture. That’s not enough to teach at Oxford or the Sorbonne, but it’s more than enough to impress Oxford and Sorbonne graduates — Western diplomats and politicians.
The contrast between Putin and his immediate predecessor, Yeltsin, is so sharp that Putin’s virtues grow larger than life size. Yeltsin was the embodiment of the “crazy Russian,” the man from an exotic country where people drink vodka instead of coffee and bathe in snow instead of water. He was almost grotesque as the envoy of the land of matreshkas, babushkas, vodka, borsch and samovars. Sometimes one couldn’t escape the feeling that Yeltsin tended toward overkill, like a Hollywood actor in a Cold War movie.
Putin must be extraordinary grateful to Yeltsin for this. When compared to Boris, he looks polished, refined, sophisticated and cultured. Which he is — to a degree.
However, his adherence to values like human rights is doubtful ( see the war in Chechnya, the recent attack on a free mass media in Russia), his good will is unproven and his plans are not known. The message he brought to Okinawa from North Korea is weird, to say the least: North Korea will abandon its rocket program if somebody else launches North Korean satellites into space. What kind of satellites does a tiny starving country need? Why space and not rice growing? Will the West have to send a North Korean to Mars to guarantee peace on Earth? It is a bizarre concept and one can’t escape the thought that the olive branch Putin brought from the North has a hidden thorn.
During his first months in office Putin has demonstrated a taste for drama and limelight as well as a desire to bring Russia back to the table with the other great powers. It’s unclear whether there is any substance in his politics other than sheer ambition, however. His visit to Japan later this year will clarify a lot. Hopefully, the Kuril Islands problem will be finally solved. But what if Putin suggests turning them into a launching pad for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s rockets?
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