Russia under Putin: New friend, or old foe?

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin described the breakup of the Soviet Union as Photo: AP

NEW YORK, March 31, 2013 — Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his state of the nation address, described the breakup of the Soviet Union as “the greatest catastrophe of our century.” This type of rhetoric signals potential danger to the United States. Why? The re-sovietization of Russia is possible, as Russia’s leadership refuses to fully dismiss its communist past and avoids seeing communism as a threat to Russian society.

Russia has never fully confronted its Soviet past. There have been no serious investigations into the Communist regime, no self examination over the Stalin-era atrocities and the gulags that persisted a generation past his death. While Germany has engaged in long introspection over its Nazi past and Germans have pondered the nature of their complicity in Nazi crimes, Russians have been unable to honestly ask or answer the question, “how did Stalin so thoroughly capture and corrupt our nation?”

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In Russia, the past lies uncomfortably just beneath the present, asleep, not entirely dead. People tip-toe uneasily in its presence, afraid that it might awake. The danger is always there that if you look too long in the mirror, the Soviet past will stare back out at you. Who was complicit, who were the informers? Were Soviet ideology and Communism themselves to blame for murderous madness of the past? Soviet archives are sealed, the pasts of Russian leaders are ignored, the official policy is to forget.

Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. There’s a growing fascination with the Soviet past in Moscow. The Soviet era is viewed as the time when Russia was at its greatest heights of economic and military power. Its influence was global, its power feared. Its crimes were an aberation, committed by corrupt and criminal men.

But they weren’t. Stalin and his thugs didn’t hijack an unwilling nation and then murder it; a willing nation deliberately closed its eyes and then committed suicide. This happened not incidentally to Communism, but because of it.

Prominent Russians are ready to embrace their Soviet past, and with a kiss reawaken the Soviet Union. Ordinary Russians remember the past no better than their elites, but there is a collective memory that has produced popular unease over the path Putin is charting. This path includes greater authoritarianism at home, and much more assertive foreign and military policies abroad. On that path the country has violated non-proliferation treaties to provide weapons technology to nations like Syria, Iran and North Korea. These nations are all adversaries of the United States, and the Russian policy is a return to the Cold War policies the superpowers pursued when they armed proxies against each other.

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Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, Russia still devotes a large share of its GDP to military spending, including researching, developing and manufacturing nuclear weapons to counter what Putin sees as its primary adversary, the United States. A generation after the Cold War, Russia is once again engaging in a cold war characterized by rebuilding its nuclear strike forces, arming proxies against the U.S. and NATO, and diplomatic intransigence on any issue that might annoy its superpower adversary. 

Foreign policy experts and eastern European researchers consdier Russia’s government a direct conduit for terrorist activity throughout the eastern world. Russia has formally supported the UN Security Council’s efforts to sanction Iran, but still remains a trading partner with Iran and works to limit sanctions against Iran by fair means and foul. 

President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev have both pushed the nation into a complex authoritarian state, putting severe holds on the legal system, increasing pressure on political opposition and attempting to assert a complete dominance over the press. Journalists have suddenly died, disappeared and been beaten for criticizing the Russian state, and television has become a mouthpiece of government. The legislature is increasingly sidelined and corrupted. 

In Russia, everything old is new again. Without memory, it always will be.

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