Cultural Caviar

The Putin Fan Club

September 23, 2016

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The Putin Fan Club

UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) achieved its primary goal in June when Britain voted to leave the European Union. Its triumphant leader, Nigel Farage, resigned (though he remains a member of the European Parliament). Diane James, also an MEP, has now been elected as the new UKIP leader. Few outside the party had previously heard of her. Too much shouldn’t be made of this.

The first thing many of us have learned about Diane James is that she admires Vladimir Putin. This isn’t surprising. Lots of nationalists admire Putin as a strong leader who puts his own country’s interests first, doesn’t hesitate to take military action, and despises soft, bien-pensant liberal democracy. Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front, respects him. The former Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, has spoken admiringly of him in the past, and, though he has been critical of Putin’s Ukrainian adventures, is seemingly happy to appear on RT, the Russian propaganda television channel. Donald Trump has been a bit equivocal about Putin, but I would guess that he has a considerably higher opinion of the Russian leader than he does of President Obama.

Strong nationalist leaders have always attracted foreign admirers. Diane James’ other heroes are, apparently, Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill—safe choices. I suspect Thatcher would have been suspicious, to put it mildly, of Mr. Putin’s ambitions and policies, which threaten the Western alliance, and wouldn’t have thought him a man she could do business with—her judgment on Mikhail Gorbachev. Churchill, however, believed he had established good relations with Stalin and could do business with him—even though Stalin held most of the high-ranking cards. No matter. UKIP’s new leader couples the man in the Kremlin with Thatcher and Churchill.

“Power worship is understandable because power is dazzling.”

Between the wars lots of respectable democratic politicians and ordinary people in Western Europe thought well of Hitler and Mussolini. David Lloyd George, the Liberal leader and First World War prime minister, visited Hitler and was impressed by him; he had restored national pride (just like Putin?) and put Germany back on its feet. It didn’t apparently occur to the elderly former PM that those feet would soon be marching across frontiers. Still, it wasn’t only politicians who took a starry-eyed view of what was happening in Germany in the early years of the Nazi regime. My own father, home on leave in 1935 from his work as a rubber planter in Malaya and just married, spent part of the honeymoon in Germany and sent a postcard to his new mother-in-law saying that “if things were previously as bad here as we were told they were, Hitler seems to be doing a wonderful job.” If someone like Dad had visited Russia in the early Putin years, after the chaos of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, he might, quite reasonably, have said the same thing: Putin seems to be doing a wonderful job.

If some admired Hitler, far more admired Mussolini. In 1933 Churchill called him “the greatest law-giver among living men” and declared that he “has shown to many nations how they can resist the pressures of Socialism and has indicated the path that a nation can follow when courageously led.” In 1932 the British Tory newspaper, the Morning Post, while expressing reservations about dictatorship, judged that “History will be able to write the name of Mussolini among those of the noblest Romans who ever existed.” So general was the admiration for Il Duce that he even got into musical comedy, Cole Porter writing “You’re the top! You’re the Great Houdini! You’re the top! You’re Mussolini!” As late as 1937 Churchill praised Mussolini’s “amazing qualities of courage, comprehension, self-control and perseverance.” Some saw through him, of course, but on the political right especially, admiration of Mussolini and his Fascist regime was common.

The left, of course, was every bit as guilty of power worship. Edmund Wilson, visiting the Soviet Union, was delighted to find a “classless society” and thrilled by the way that Lenin had “stamped his thought and language on a whole people.” The choice of the word “stamped” is interesting. Wilson was thinking, no doubt, of an action like stamping a passport, but inescapably there is the suggestion of the boot crushing a face, Orwell’s vision of totalitarianism. Others, of course, went further than Wilson. The apostles of bureaucratic Socialism, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, found the Soviet Union to be “a New Civilization.” George Bernard Shaw, clever-silly savant and joker, was even more completely taken in. Having been escorted round chosen sights by Soviet apparatchiks, he declared that talk of famine was nonsense. He had seen no sign of hunger and had indeed never eaten so well in his life.

Adulation of Stalin went much further, of course, during the war. The mass murderer became popularly known in Britain as “Uncle Joe,” the kindly resolute reassuring figure usually pictured with a pipe in his mouth. But this was only one side of the picture. What really impressed, and indeed dazzled, many was his unrivaled power and ruthlessness. I recall an example of this soon after Khrushchev’s famous speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party when he lifted the lid on at least some aspects of Stalin’s tyranny. I was staying with a school friend whose father was highly indignant. He wasn’t a Communist, or Socialist. Quite the contrary. He was a rich man who owned a country estate and a four-story house in Edinburgh, an asthmatic who lived on unearned income. He wouldn’t have survived long in the Soviet Union; liquidation would have been his fate. But he despised Khrushchev and those who applauded him. None of them, he said, would have dared utter a squeak of protest while Stalin was alive. He was quite right, of course, but really he was also expressing an admiration for Stalin’s power and brutality.

Putin is no Stalin or Hitler. He isn’t—quite—a dictator and he isn’t a mass murderer. Admittedly his treatment of Chechnya was brutal, and vocal enemies of the regime tend either to disappear, sometimes mysteriously shot, or to be charged with corruption and imprisoned after rigged trials. But there are no shootings in the cellars of the Lubyanka and there is no Gulag Archipelago. Russia is a democracy of sorts. There are elections for the presidency (Putin wins) and for the Parliament; Putin’s United Russia Party has just won three-quarters of the seats in the Duma. Opposition parties are permitted, but elections are not very significant. Less than 48 percent of eligible voters bothered to vote in this most recent one. Putin, though an old KGB man who regards the disintegration of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century, isn’t a Communist; what survives of the old Communist Party is on the opposition benches in the Duma. He is a Russian nationalist determined to restore Russia’s position as a Great Power despite its economic weakness, and it is his daring attempt to do this and his disregard of so-called “world opinion” that appeals to nationalist politicians in Britain, France, and other European countries; also, it seems, to Donald Trump.


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