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Putin’s dangerous reading! · 6 November 2011

Anatoly Sobchak, the reformist mayor of Saint Petersburg with whom Vladimir Putin worked after he left the KGB in 1990, once suggested that Putin might be Russia’s Napoleon Bonaparte. And, in a sense Sobchak was right, and much of what I foresaw in a March 2000 article has occurred (see “Putin in 2000” in left-hand column)

Now, in order to justify his impending return to the presidency, Putin has invoked the cases of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Charles De Gaulle and Helmut Kohl as men who held power for a long time and who have been treated quite well by history – in contrast to Russia’s own Leonid Brezhnev.

Dmitry Peskov, his press secretary has said: “Putin reads all the time, mostly about the history of Russia. He reads memoirs, the memoirs of Russian historical state figures.”

This is dangerous reading!

Contrary to what Peskov and Putin undoubtedly think, such reading – concentrated on Russian historical state figures — adds to the evidence that Putin will increasingly become a negative influence on the development of Russia.

The reading selection is very narrow and unbalanced, particularly for someone who has little experience of a more liberal democracy, and will work to reinforce – rather than moderate – Putin’s natural psychological instincts. Putin will increasingly see Russia in terms of his own desires and needs, rather than the real desires and needs of Russia. He will unconsciously distort his views of the latter so that they fit in with the former.

Josef Stalin said to Sergo Beria: “If you want to know the people around you, find out what they read.” But we can also get a sense of Stalin from his own reading: he wrote in the margin of a biography of Ivan the Terrible: “teacher teacher”.

Mao Zedong, like Stalin, read a lot of pre-communist history for guidance. Li Zhisui, Mao’s doctor, wrote that Mao “turned to the past for instruction on how to rule”: “Immersed as he was in Chinese history, and thus in the power struggles and political intrigues that were part of every court, Mao expected political intrigue within his own imperial court, and he played the same games himself. Even if aspirants to power told Mao the objective truth, he could not accept it because he saw conspiracies everywhere.”

The reading of Stalin and Mao distorted their thinking. While I am not equating Putin with Stalin or Mao, Putin’s concentrated reading about Russian historical state figures suggests that he is beginning to see himself as such an “historical” figure.

Napoleon, Stalin and Mao – during their times in power — increasingly saw themselves as indispensible to their countries. And, in all cases the consequences of this were negative; although the negatives were greater in some cases than in others.

In 1812 Napoleon told General Caulaincourt that he was “the only man alive who knows the French thoroughly, as well as the needs of the peoples and of European society”. “France needs me for another ten years. If I were to die there would be general chaos.” Caulaincourt noted, that as far as any opposition in France to his policies was concerned, Napoleon “paid little attention to it and attributed it in general to narrow views, and to the fact that few people were capable of grasping his great projects in their entirety”.

In 1952, Stalin expressed his self-belief to the Communist Party’s Central Committee when ordering further investigations of Soviet citizens: “Here, look at you – blind men, kittens, you don’t see the enemy; what will you do without me? – the country will perish because you are not able to recognise the enemy.”

Mao was no different. His long-time chief body-guard, Wang Dongxing, noted that “Mao considers no one in the whole of the Communist party indispensable to the party except himself”. Dr Li wrote that “Mao had an almost mystical faith in the role of the leader. He never doubted that his leadership, and only his leadership, would save and transform China.”

The attitudes of Napoleon, Stalin and Mao were influenced by their success. In the words of Louis de Bourreinne who was Napoleon’s friend and first secretary: “Intoxication which is occasioned by success … produces in the heads of the ambitious a sort of cerebral congestion”.

Of course, Napoleon, Stalin and Mao are not the only dictatorial personalities in history, and some have left a more positive long-term legacy.

One example of the latter is Kemal Ataturk of Turkey. In 1938, with tensions rising in Europe, the dying Ataturk said: “If this second world war catches me when I’m still in bed, who knows what will become of the nation. It is I who must return to be in a position to take charge of government affairs.”

Like Napoleon, Stalin and Mao, Ataturk saw himself as indispensible—and in a very positive light. In 1937, Ataturk explained his position in these terms: “Man, as an individual, is condemned to death. To work, not for oneself but for those who will come after, is the first condition of happiness that any individual can reach in life. Each person has his own preferences. Some people like gardening and growing flowers. Others prefer to train men. Does the man who grows flowers expect anything from them? He who trains men ought to work like a man who grows flowers.”

So, why did Ataturk have a more long-lived positive influence than the others? There are a number of reasons related to the circumstances of the time and their own personalities, but Ataturk was not obsessed – as Mao and Stalin — with reading about the influence of individual historical figures, and he was not obsessed — as Napoleon — in boosting the international power of his own country. Rather, he looked at Turkey with a much greater eye on the future than on the past. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew — who is also reportedly admired by Putin – was similar.

According to a 1 November Reuters article, “Peskov said Putin had a keen interest in Tsarist Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin and Russian Orthodox philosopher Ivan Ilyin, who said Russia should plot an independent course between dictatorship and democracy. Putin has made no secret of his respect for Stolypin, who crushed dissent but also introduced land reform as prime minister from 1906 to 1911 under Czar Nicholas II. Putin said in July that a statue of Stolypin should be placed outside the Russian government’s headquarters in Moscow.”

“A true patriot and a wise politician, he understood that both radicalism of all sorts as well as stagnation, a lack of reforms, were equally dangerous for the country,” Putin said of Stolypin.

In justifying rejection of “radicalism” Putin has the personal experience of the 1990s, but this – along with his own personality – has made him too fearful of change. Reading history is an excellent way of understanding the nature of people and their actions and reactions, but that understanding then has to be applied in a contemporary context with an eye to the future – and not used to justify existing notions.

Putin would be well advised to read more widely; he has already read enough Russian history!

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