Note to readers: Here is a fictional takeaway from our week learning about “Russia and the West” at Chautauqua along with reflections from our travels there in 1993 and 2015.
My name is Boris Smirnov, and I love Vladimir Putin.
Contrary to what most of you in the West believe, we get plenty of news here in Russia about what is going on in the U.S. and we know what you think about us. You can’t understand why we overwhelmingly support our president and write us off as a bunch of stupid lemmings. There is a lot you do not understand.
The main thing you do not understand is what we have been through and why we are distrustful of the U.S. Our history is long and rich and proud. From the middle of the Sixteenth Century when Russia was first unified under Ivan IV, whom the West calls the “Terrible,” we became a formidable power and culture. We became the largest country in the world and remain so. It is true that the vast majority of the Russian people have suffered over the years as have, I might add, many in your country, especially slaves and people of color. But we also have produced the world’s greatest literature, its finest novels, short stories and poems, its most exceptional music and dance. There is no country that surpasses us with regard to the intellectual and artistic legacy that we have given to the world.
We are also a people of extraordinary courage and willpower. We are survivors. It is no coincidence that we were the country that stopped Napoleon and that stopped Hitler. Can you imagine any city in the U.S. that could hold out under siege, as did the people of Leningrad, for almost three years, with over 1.5 million people, half the population, dying from bombing, starvation or freezing to death? Can you imagine the U.S. tolerating losses of 40 million people in two world wars without surrendering? We as a nation do not give up. We are proud people. As a country we have never been conquered.
Now I and many other intellectuals like me acknowledge that the Communist Period was a mixed bag. To our credit we did away with the class system, practically eliminated illiteracy and created from whole cloth a first-rate, educational system, second to none in science and engineering. Our military might was close to being equal to that of the U.S. Communism eliminated serfdom and raised the standard of living for most Russians. But this came at a great cost. Perhaps as many as 20 million people—most of them innocent civilians—died from starvation caused by ill conceived five year plans or were murdered by the state or exiled to gulag work camps in Siberia. Free speech did not exist. We are not proud of this part of our history, but it illustrates another important part of the Russian character: we know how to adapt. We know how to keep on going with our lives when you have a system that is hostile to its citizens or you have a ruthless dictator running the country. Perhaps you Americans could learn a thing or two from us as you try to adjust to life under your own president.
Now fast forward to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Many in Russia welcomed a change from a failed system. Note that this may be the most significant “revolution” in all of human history where an old system fell apart with so little bloodshed. Many were hopeful that Russia could become a true democracy, but make no mistake: we never wanted to become a clone of your system. We wanted our own Russian democracy, which would take into account the uniqueness of the Russian experience and the Russian soul.
What did we get? What we got was chaos. What we got were Americans coming into our country, thumbing their noses at us and telling us what we should do when most of these so called experts had never been to Russia and could not speak our language. Beginning in 1991 and lasting for almost a decade, the country teetered on the edge of catastrophe. Food disappeared from stores. Even worse, vodka was in short supply. No one was sure what was going to happen next. There was no such thing as the rule of law. Gangs emerged, and the riches of the country were pillaged by “free enterprizers” and a new class of bandits called “oligarchs.” In 1994 there were more Mercedes Benz limos in Moscow than in the rest of the world combined. But the life of the ordinary citizen was worse than it was before, and the period of chaos called into question the endless sacrifices made over the centuries by those at the bottom. Plus we witnessed the disintegration of the Soviet Empire as the Baltic states, Georgia, The Ukraine, and others suddenly gained their “independence.” Can you imagine what the reaction would have been in America if your government had collapsed under its own weight, and a bunch of Russians arrived scolding you for your stupidity and failed economic system and telling you that Communism was the only answer?
Enter Vladimir Putin in the year 2000. Here is the bottom line: Putin has stabilized Russia. But Putin has done much more. He has revitalized the Russian Orthodox Church, restored our national pride and regained our proper seat on the world stage. You could say he has “made Russia great again.”
Are there issues? Of course there are, and there is much about Putin that many, especially intellectuals like me, do not like, but you can’t help coming back to the threat of disorder and chaos that is still fresh in so many minds. What realistic alternatives do we have? Furthermore, to say that Putin is another Stalin is a total misunderstanding of the current situation in Russia. While more limited, there is still at lest some freedom of speech and the press. We are technically a democracy and have a constitution. And by the way, Russia has never functioned successfully without some kind of strongman leader, be it a czar or a communist dictator. Maybe given our vast size, it is the only kind of system that can hold the country together. Perhaps it is the other side, the dark side, of the Russian soul.
So that is why I say I Iove Putin. Do I really love him? No, but given where we are now, he is the best we have. I can tell you right now that there was hardly a Russian who did not get some satisfaction from the now infamous press conference with your own version of a strongman leader. He rolled him. Long live President Putin!
And one last comment: I believe I forgot to say to you Americans with your President Trump—welcome to the club!