February 15, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Vladimir Putin’s Inner-scape is Completely Beside the Point

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I read with mixed feelings Artur Gorokh’s February 13th column Putin’s Fears and Grievances. In it, he asks us to consider Putin not as an evil antagonist ever-bent on chaos, but as more of an antihero — a once-keen idealist turned into the callous ruler we know today by circumstance. Gorokh is correct insofar as Putin’s early rhetoric was much easier on the international ear. It is also true that the villainizations of Putin by western outlets range from the hypocritical to the absurdly comical. All that aside, it is perhaps most useful of all to look at a few actual events early in Putin’s political career to assess where he falls on what is referred to in superhero circles as “the evil villain spectrum.”

In 2004, on what would be called back-to-school day here in the States, the Beslan School No. 1 in North Ossetia was taken hostage by a group of Chechen fighters. It was no accident that the hostage operation fell on the exuberant first school day — this is why when the dust settled after the tanks had blasted the terrorists out of the building, the collateral damages were discovered, as if awaiting burial, already in their best clothes. In all, 334 hostage casualties were reported, 186 of them children. Throughout the crisis, the Russian state persistently lied and obstructed the press, and Putin’s aftermath-photo op was not announced until after he’d come and gone. International outrage notwithstanding, this kind of heavy-handed nihilistic response was already par for the course for the Putin presidency.

Two years before, Vladimir Putin had taken to the television following a similar incident in Moscow itself to defend the unrestrained response to the takeover of a theatre by Chechen independence fighters. In this case, Russian government agents had pumped a highly toxic gas through the theatre’s air conditioning system after a 3-day standoff. The state-siphoned gas ended up poisoning everybody in the building and killing 130 of the hostages. According to journalist Oliver Bullough, he had then watched as the government agents entered the front doors, found the Chechen’s among the fallen bodies, and shot them in the head on the spot.

It was thanks to this early-Putin lack of inhibition that the former KGB agent won the hearts and minds of a terrified Moscow, a city subjected to years of bombing attacks from Chechen separatists. A decade of violence and tragedy had brought out cruelest aspects of human nature on all sides: the decimation of Chechnya’s capital Grozny by Russian bombs, the conscription as suicide-bombers of the most desperate of Chechen women by the terrorists, the endless list of innocent victims, and the debut of Mr. Putin strongman himself. Rereading the accounts, I still struggle to make sense of it, and then I hear Marlon Brando’s heavy and slow voice somewhere in the background, iterating Conrad’s “The horror!.. The horror!”

It was details like these that gave me pause when reading Gorokh’s column this Tuesday morning in The Sun. Here he portrays Vladimir Putin as a sympathetic actor — an idealist turned evil by fear and frustration, “having started with understandable values and noble goals.” For Gorokh, Putin is a tragic figure, a victim of his own good intentions, the classic villain trope we have come to expect, like Vader, like Voldemort (Magneto is Gorokh’s choice). It’s just like in the movies: they start out alright before falling victim to circumstance and inner demons.

While I find Gorokh’s characterization of Putin naive and, well, cartoonish, his column left me conflicted. He rightly points out that much of Putin’s political maneuvers make sense in light of things like NATO’s ambitions, resentment and international humiliations in double dealings with the US, and a reluctance on the part of Russians to feel like they have become patsies of the West.

But while Gorokh rightly finds fault with the “simplistic narrative” of the Russia and Putin we hear about, he likewise falls into his own caricatures, bringing up of the inner lives of political headliners, comparing Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump. Why should we care if President Putin started out with noble intentions? Why are we trying to evaluate his tender hopes and gauge the fragility of his feelings? It is not only Putin’s inner life I don’t give a damn about, but also not Trump’s, not Obama’s, not Aung San Suu Kyi’s and not Daenerys Targaryen, Queen of Dragons. Why, you ask?

Because politicians should be judged by what they do — not whatever they end up saying in front of TV cameras. Even if every last bit of it isn’t superficial, it might as well be. We will only ever be able to judge these show-people by what they end up doing. What they say is just part of the calculus that somehow put them where they are. A math PhD might put it this way: the better a politician can approximate the best-of-all-possible-combination-of-words, the better they will maximize their preferred outcomes, whatever those outcomes are.

Let us reject, along with Gorokh, the simplistic narratives and press releases — but let us also defy the personality narratives that give these politicians much of their dark powers in the first place. It’s hardly a stretch to say that both Russians and Americans are prone to delineate their own identities in terms of the personalities of their leaders. This is always a mistake. Heads of state have more in common with each other than they do with their subjects. Remember the last scene in Animal Farm? It is all about who you are sharing the table cloth with! Likewise, peoples have more in common with each other than with their figureheads. Let our bread be broken thusly. We should identify first as citizens of the world, and leave political-puppet pop-psychology and personality analysis to Hollywood Access and TMZ.
Ryan Sherman is a Masters Candidate in International Agriculture and Rural Development. His area of research is on rural mountainous communities in the Khevsureti region of the Caucasus. Guest Room runs periodically. Comments can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com.