Millions embrace him as the Dear Leader, an austere man with a steel spine summoned by destiny to defend the Homeland. Millions of others consider him an incipient tyrant, a figurehead representing a corrupt system. Many initially regarded his ascent to power as illegitimate, the result of appointment rather than election. But those misgivings were subdued after the deadly terrorist attacks that struck the nation the following September.
Some of the Leader's bolder domestic critics, carefully scrutinizing the evidence, accused the government of having prior knowledge of the terrorist plot. In any case, the Leader and his advisers certainly capitalized on the event. The power of the presidency was radically expanded, the security agencies were unleashed, police agencies were brought more fully under the central government's control, and extra-judicial interrogation tactics — including torture — quietly received official sanction.
Just as alarmingly, the president himself became the centerpiece of a cult of personality. Despite a questionable personal background, the president's supporters are firmly convinced that he is a sincere Christian devoted to defending the faith. Frequently seen in the company of military personnel, the president has been cast as a crusading warrior. One particularly memorable photo-op depicted the president at the controls of a military jet.
Is this a brief sketch of Russian President Vladimir Putin, or of U.S. President George W. Bush?
Like Mr. Bush, "ex"-KGB officer Vladimir Putin's ascent to office was marked by irregularities. He was appointed Prime Minister by Russia's then-President Boris Yeltsin in August 1999. A month later, hundreds of Russian citizens were killed in terrorist bombings of residential buildings. The resulting public outrage not only re-ignited Russia's war in Chechnya, it also offered Putin — who assumed the presidency following Yeltsin's January 2000 resignation a pretext to proclaim a "dictatorship of the law."
With an early presidential election called for May 2000, Russia's state-controlled media, working in tandem with the Kremlin's image-makers, relentlessly defamed Putin's opponents, and began to build a cult of personality around the dour KGB careerist. This was an astounding accomplishment, given that Putin — who looks as if he could be Gollum after an unsuccessful makeover — has no discernible personality.
According to Kremlin propagandist Gleb Pavlovsky, Putin was successfully re-cast in the role of "Stirlitz," a "dashing fictional KGB officer" from post -World War II propaganda films. The Russian public was regularly treated to "macho photo ops," such as Putin at the controls of a fighter plane, or handing out hunting knives to Russian troops on the Chechen front.
For all the superficial parallels that can be drawn between Mssrs. Putin and Bush, they made an oddly matched pair during their February 24 meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia. After all, it could be said, one of them heads an increasingly authoritarian and lawless government that is pursuing a radical vision of global revolution rooted in the teachings of the Soviet Union's founders. The other is merely the president of the Russian Federation.
The essential tenet of the Soviet dictatorship, declared the regime's founding dictator Vladimir Lenin, was "power without limit, resting directly on force, restrained by no laws, absolutely unrestricted by rules." The Bush administration has made extravagant claims of presidential power to wage war abroad, to imprison "unlawful combatants" without trial both here and abroad, and to authorize the use of torture — that are in harmony with Lenin's political formula.
One suitable specimen of the Bush administration’s neo-Leninism is found in a September 21, 2001 Justice Department memorandum written by Deputy Assistant Attorney General John C. Yoo. In that brief, Yoo claimed that it was impermissible for Congress to "place any limits on the President’s determinations as to any terrorist threat, the amount of military force to be used in response, or the method, timing, and nature of the response. These decisions … are for the President alone to make.”
During a February 18 interview with Belgium's VRT television network, Mr. Bush invoked that dictatorial doctrine with reference to a possible war with Iran: “You never want a president to say never, but military action is certainly not, is never the president’s first choice. Diplomacy is always the president’s or at least my first choice.” Under the U.S. Constitution, which vests the power to declare war exclusively in Congress, that "choice" is never the president's to make.
The Busheviks are also indebted to Soviet founder Leon Trotsky for the doctrine of "permanent revolution," through direct military intervention as well as support to surrogate movements in targeted countries — in the name of defeating "oppression," naturally. The shade of Trotsky could very well have ghost-written Mr. Bush's declaration that "it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
Like the countries over which they preside, George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin are very different. But as with the mutant pig-men creatures described at the end of Orwell's Animal Farm, it's becoming difficult to distinguish between post-Soviet Russia and pre-Soviet America.
March 4, 2005