"Discerning Vladimir Putin."
3 MARCH—Our minds regurgitate with the incessant propaganda leveled at Russia and its leadership. The other side of this moon is not to be missed: If the venomous propaganda is overwhelming, its success in mutilating Western minds is equally egregious to witness. “This is a semiprofessional question,” a friend in Hanoi writes. “In your long journalistic career, have you ever witnessed such an orchestrated campaign of hatred against one man and one country? I haven’t. Not against Milošević, not against Saddam, not against Gaddafi, not against Assad… The current one against Putin and Russia seems to break all records.”
We haven’t either and yes, it does. To cultivate ignorance of this prevalence is more than unprincipled, cynical, or antidemocratic. It is dangerous, opening the path to national conduct we commonly associate with Mussolini’s Italy and other such places and eras.
“Putin is a madman.” “Putin is unstable.” “Putin has lost his grip.” This latest trope from our national leadership and in our media serves but one purpose: It relieves those who accept these preposterous notions of any responsibility to understand the Russian perspective on events. And if there is one capacity that the 21st century calls upon all of us to cultivate, it is the ability to grasp how others see things that we may interact constructively for the common good. This, to us, is the very core of the Biden administration’s dereliction—and, of course, that of its clerks in the press: their encouragement of the American public to refuse to consider the reasons for Moscow’s regrettable but in our view necessary intervention in a nation a cynical empire is determined to put to cynical imperial uses.
Are China and Xi Jinping next for this treatment? The latest noise out of Washington and in the foreign affairs journals indicates that the wilder factions among the policy cliques think they can make use of Taiwan as they have Ukraine.
We have had enough. And we publish the following essay in part as a hand raised in protest. With it, we invite readers to consider Russia and Vladimir Putin as they are, not more, not less. There is nothing more important, in our view, for all of us to do at this moment.
“Discerning Vladimir Putin” first appeared in the Autumn 2018 number of Raritan, the quarterly journal. We publish it as it appeared, without updates, contemporaneous references as they were four years ago. Autumn 2018 puts us two years into the Russiagate fiasco. It is useful in this way to note the extent to which the paranoiac frenzy that now engulfs us has been gathering momentum over the course of years. Future historians will shame those in positions of influence for their role in fomenting this freak show. We will have no hand to offer them.
This is the first of two parts.
By Patrick Lawrence
WE HAVE LEFT BEHIND the Russian dolls, one inside the other as if occlusion were their very point. “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” Churchill’s famous mot (invariably quoted out of context) is no longer for us. We have come to know better. We know Russia and Russians and, especially, we know their president. We read Vladimir Putin with the confidence of a clinical psychiatrist. We know just who he is and what he is up to and what he leaves unsaid and what his secret intentions are.
Good enough, one might say, that we Americans have taken one name off our list of “inscrutables.” But, purporting to clear sight, what is it we see when we look across at Russia and its people and the man who has led them these past eighteen years? What do we talk about when we talk about Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin? These are our questions. Our replies must shock anyone who considers them. Orientialism— among much else, the denial of all complexity in others—fades but slowly. At this point the dolls were a marginally better idea.
If there is a more pervasive case of blindness as America assesses another nation and its leader, it has not occurred in my lifetime (which takes us back to the midpoint of the last century). Not since Stalin, in the post–“Uncle Joe” period, has a Soviet or Russian figure been so thoroughly cast as Beelzebub. In some cases this amounts to willful distortion; our policy cliques, most of our media, and our “thought leaders” (not to be confused with our surviving intellectuals) all practice it. For the rest it is a matter of acquiescence—often out of political expedience—that of late has become difficult to forgive. And, again, a willful acquiescence, I would say. One cannot otherwise explain the near-complete absence of what the Jesuits call discernment, the critical thinking of autonomous minds.
Favoring Putin or detesting him is not at issue, to run straight at a point I should not have to make. Why we think it wise to confuse ourselves with conjured imagery is a good question. But most immediately at issue are the consequences of these misrepresentations. They are grave for all of us, no matter one’s political stripe. A few years ago some of us wondered whether we stood at the edge of Cold War II. This is no longer in question: Minus the ideological dimension, it has commenced. As I write, it is a month since the Pentagon released its Nuclear Posture Review, advocating low-yield nuclear weapons—those more thinkable than the previously un–. It is a week since Putin, in his state of the nation speech, disclosed Russia’s work on its own new generation of missiles and warheads. The sequence of these events—American action, Russian reaction—is a topic with a seventy-year history, and I will return to it. For now, this: But for Putin’s recent decision to decline a new nuclear arms race, which he made clear shortly after his speech to the nation, we would be at the forward edge of one. Absent our cultivated animosities toward a leader we cannot see clearly, to say nothing of understand other than cartoonishly, this would not be our location.
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