LONDON — As the leaders of the G7 countries meet in St. Petersburg this week I hope they will have another look into the eyes of Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is five years since U.S. President George W. Bush looked into those eyes and claimed to be able to see Putin’s soul, which he found to be “straightforward and trustworthy.”
Since Russia joined the Group of Seven and made it the Group of Eight, Putin’s behavior has been raising more and more questions as to whether or not Russia should continue to be a member of this country club for the rich. Many people have been calling for Russia to be thrown out, chiefly because “straightforward and trustworthy” are not the words that spring to mind when evaluating Putin’s activities and speeches over the last five years.
He described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century — largely because it left tens of millions of Russian citizens and countrymen stranded in the country’s former colonies.
He also made a point of reintroducing the Soviet red flag as the Russian military banner and brought back the Soviet music for the national anthem.
He has done little to condemn the rise of violent racism in Russia, not commenting on the growing numbers of attacks on non-white visitors, nor on the lenient sentences imposed on the skinheads who carry them out. And he has encouraged, lauded even, the removal of all independence in the Russian media. Internet sites that criticize him get closed down and authors of critical articles get fired.
And yet the Russians love him! More that 70 percent think he is doing a great job and say that having a strong leader is more important that democracy.
If this seems puzzling, you have to think a bit about who the Russians are.
First some numbers: Soviet leader Josef Stalin is held responsible for killing 43 million people, 39 million of them in the gulags, or labor camps. All other premature, violent deaths that have been attributed to the Soviet communist regime between 1917 and 1989 bring the total to at least 61 million (some academics believe the figure to be double that).
Who killed all those people? While 43 million are attributed to Stalin, he clearly did not kill them; he probably did not kill anyone. Other people did it for him. It takes a lot of people to kill even 43 million people.
People were killed by the communists for telling jokes, for annoying neighbors, for questioning the communist policymakers, or just for saying maybe communism was not right for Russia. Anyone who did not accept the total omniscience of the communist regime and the people who ran it, and let that attitude show in any way whatsoever, was killed.
So what was left? The informers, the police, the secret police, the bureaucrats, the transport workers, the petty government officials, the suppliers of food and water, and the people who just kept quiet and told their children to keep quiet too and not to ask any questions. These were the people who killed the scores of millions murdered by communism.
The killers were rewarded for their work. They and their children got the goods and houses left by the dead, they got the access to the universities, they got the good, safe jobs in the bureaucracy, they got the jobs in the Communist Party — jobs they accepted as their reward.
These people or their children are still there today; they still control Russia. They want the perks from running a totalitarian regime back. They applaud whenever Putin and his cronies in the Kremlin take away political freedoms, when he supports dictators and autocrats in ex-Russian colonies.
The people who ran and benefited from the murderous communist regime want the good times back. They think that the tougher, backward-looking Putin will give it to them. He is one of them and he knows how they feel. He associates the good times with the control by the Communist Party; he is now trying to get back to that single-party autocratic control.
He knows that his ability to offer the people who support him the good times they want depends on being able to develop and exploit Russia’s remaining colonies in Siberia and Russia’s Far East (and to a lesser extent the Caucasus), and feeding them the anti-American and anti-Chinese rhetoric on which they thrive. He has nothing else to sell to the West.
While the oil and money is pouring in, Putin and his cronies can feel good. They can pay off the supporters who maintain the political system. But when oil and gas prices fall, or the population of Siberia and the Far East falls further below the level needed to develop and sustain the oil and gas industries there, they will not be able to go on doing that. Then it will get difficult; that’s when new gulags might seem too attractive to ignore.
Meanwhile, the G7 leaders should be careful when they look into Putin’s eyes, and remember that Russia needs the G7 more than the G7 needs Russia.
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