Eurasia’s Ongoing Crackup. By Robert Kaplan. Real Clear World, June 26, 2014.
Thursday, June 26, 2014
Obama Needs to Find His Inner Cold Warrior. By Suzanne Nossel. Foreign Policy, June 25, 2014. Also here.
Ralph Peters: Obama “a Coward and He Won’t Make Tough Decisions to Defend America.” Video. Real Clear Politics, June 25, 2014. YouTube. Also at The Right Scoop.
LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: The White House is lying! This president is a coward and he won’t make tough decisions to defend America, and, you know at some point – yes, it’s a hard decision. Presidents are supposed to make hard decisions. Bush was derided for saying I’m the decider, but Megyn, that’s what a president is, and I am not for willy-nilly foreign interventions everywhere in the world, but when you see the emergence of an al Qaeda offshoot terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East that threatens our interests and will threaten America and our president does nothing whatsoever except send those 300 advisers, some of whom are in Baghdad, probably safe. Some of whom are in Erbil up in the Kurdish areas, they will be safe, but they're brave guys, they're special operators.
But those guys, when we send them out in teams on the ground, the one thing they could do is help call in air strikes, but the Iraqis will not defend them. They don’t have the numbers or the strength to defend themselves and mark my words. If ISIS were able to grab one or several of our special operators, and they will try, if they were able to, our guys aren't going to get the gentle treatment Bowe Bergdahl got from the Taliban.
MEGYN KELLY: I don’t want to think about that.
PETERS: ISIS will go for beheading videos as recruiting tools. The whole thing is just a mess.
Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Why the Arab World Is Lost in an Emotional Nakba, and How We Keep It There. By Richard Landes. Tablet, June 24, 2014. Also at The Augean Stables.
By ignoring the honor-shame dynamic in Arab political culture, is the West keeping itself from making headway toward peace?
Anthropologists and legal historians have long identified certain tribal cultures—warrior, nomadic—with a specific set of honor codes whose violation brings debilitating shame. The individual who fails to take revenge on the killer of a clansman brings shame upon himself (makes him a woman) and weakens his clan, inviting more open aggression. In World War II, the United States sought the help of anthropologists like Ruth Benedict to explain the play of honor and shame in driving Japanese military behavior, resulting in both intelligence victories in the Pacific Theater and her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Taking her lead, the great classicist E.R. Dodds analyzed the millennium-long shift in Greek culture from a “shame” culture to a “guilt” culture in his Greeks and the Irrational, where he contrasted a world in which fame and reputation, rather than conscience and fear of divine retribution, drive men to act.
But even before literary critic Edward Saïd heaped scorn on “honor-shame” analysis in Orientalism (1978), anthropologists had backed off an approach that seemed to make inherently invidious comparisons between primitive cultures and a morally superior West. The reception of Saïd’s work strengthened this cultural relativism: Concerns for honor and shame drive everyone, and the simplistic antinomy “shame-guilt cultures” must be ultimately “racist.” It became, well, shameful in academic circles to mention honor/shame and especially in the context of comparisons between the Arab world and the West. Even in intelligence services, whose job is to think like the enemy, refusing to resort to honor/shame dynamics became standard procedure.
Any generous person should have a healthy discomfort with “othering,” drawing sharp lines between two peoples. We muddy the boundaries to be minimally polite: Honor-killings, for example, are thus seen as a form of domestic violence, which is also pervasive in the West. And indeed, honor/shame concerns are universal: Only saints and sociopaths don’t care what others think, and no group coheres without an honor code.
But even if these practices exist everywhere, we should still be able to acknowledge that in some cultures the dominant voices openly promote honor/shame values and in a way that militates against liberal society and progress. Arab political culture, to take one example—despite some liberal voices, despite noble dissidents—tends to favor ascendancy through aggression, the politics of the “strong horse,” and the application of “Hama rules”—which all combine to produce a Middle East caught between prison and anarchy, between Sisi’s Egypt and al-Assad’s Syria. Our inability, however well-meaning, to discuss the role of honor-shame dynamics in the making of this political culture poses a dilemma: By keeping silent, we not only operate in denial, but we may actually strengthen these brutal values and weaken the very ones we treasure.
Few conflicts offer a better place to explore these matters than the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In order to understand the role of hard zero-sum, honor-shame concerns in the attitude of Arabs toward Israel, one must first understand the role of the Jew in the Muslim Arab honor-group. For the 13 centuries before Zionism, Jews had been subject to a political status in Muslim lands specifically designed around issues of honor (to Muslims) and shame (to Jews). Jews were dhimmi, “protected” from Muslim violence by their acceptance of daily public degradation and legal inferiority. Noted Chateaubriand in the 19th century: “Special target of all [Muslim and Christian] contempt, the Jews lower their heads without complaint; they suffer all insults without demanding justice; they let themselves be crushed by blows. … Penetrate the dwellings of these people, you will find them in frightful poverty.”
For more than a millennium, Arab and Muslim honor resided, among other places, in their domination and humiliation of their dhimmi—and when the occasional reformer equalized their legal status, he struck a heavy blow to Muslim honor. Noted a British envoy on the impact of Muhammad Ali’s reforms: “The Mussulmans … deeply deplore the loss of that sort of superiority which they all & individually exercised over & against the other sects. … A Mussulman … believes and maintains that a Christian—& still more a Jew—is an inferior being to himself.”
To say that to the honor-driven Arab and Muslim political player, in the 20th century as in the 10th century, the very prospect of an autonomous Jewish political entity is a blasphemy against Islam, and an insult to Arab virility, is not to say that every period of Muslim rule involved deliberate humiliation of dhimmi. Nor is it to say that all Arabs think like this. On the contrary, this kind of testosterone-fueled, authoritarian discourse imposes its interpretation of “honor” on the entire community, often violently. Thus, while some Arabs in 1948 Palestine may have viewed the prospect of Jewish sovereignty as a valuable opportunity, the Arab leadership and “street” agreed that for the sake of Arab honor Israel must be destroyed and that those who disagreed were traitors to the Arab cause.
Worse: The threat to Arab honor did not come from a worthy foe, like the Western Christians, but by from Jews, traditionally the most passive, abject, cowardly of the populations over which Muslims ruled. As the Athenians explained to the Melians in the 5th century B.C.E.:
One is not so much frightened of being conquered by a power which rules over others, as Sparta does, as of what would happen if a ruling power is attacked and defeated by its own subjects.
So, the prospect of an independent state of should-be dhimmis struck Arab leaders as more than humiliating. It endangered all Islam. Thus Rahman Azzam Pasha, the head of the newly formed Arab League, spoke for his “honor group” when he threatened that “if the Zionists dare establish a state, the massacres we would unleash would dwarf anything which Genghis Khan and Hitler perpetrated.” As the Armenians had discovered a generation earlier, the mere suspicion of rebellion could engender massacres.
The loss in 1948, therefore, constituted the most catastrophic possible outcome for this honor-group: Seven Arab armies, representing the honor of hundreds of thousands of Arabs (and Muslims), were defeated by less than a million Jews, the surviving remnant of the most devastating and efficient genocide in history. To fall to people so low on the scale that it is dishonorable even to fight them—nothing could be more devastating. And this humiliating event occurred on center stage of the new postwar global community, before whom the Arab league representatives had openly bragged about their upcoming slaughters. In the history of a global public, never has any single and so huge a group suffered so much dishonor and shame in the eyes of so great an audience.
So, alongside the nakba (catastrophe) that struck hundreds of thousands of the Arab inhabitants of the former British Mandate Palestine, we find yet another, much greater psychological catastrophe that struck the entire Arab world and especially its leaders: a humiliation so immense that Arab political culture and discourse could not absorb it. Initially, the refugees used the term nakba to reproach the Arab leaders who started and lost the war that so hurt them. In a culture less obsessed by honor and more open to self-criticism, this might have led to the replacement of political elites with leaders more inclined to move ahead with positive-sum games of the global politics of the United Nations and the Marshall Plan. But when appearances matter above all, any public criticism shames the nation, the people, and the leaders.
Instead, in a state of intense humiliation and impotence on the world stage, the Arab leadership chose denial—the Jews did not, could not, have not won. The war was not—could never—be over until victory. If the refugees from this Zionist aggression disappeared, absorbed by their brethren in the lands to which they fled, this would acknowledge the intolerable: that Israel had won. And so, driven by rage and denial, the Arab honor group redoubled the catastrophe of its own refugees: They made them suffer in camps, frozen in time at the moment of the humiliation, waiting and fighting to reverse that Zionist victory that could be acknowledged. The continued suffering of these sacrificial victims on the altar of Arab pride called out to the Arab world for vengeance against the Jews. In the meantime, wherever Muslims held power, they drove their Jews out as a preliminary act of revenge.
The Arab leadership’s interpretation of honor had them responding to the loss of their own hard zero-sum game—we’re going to massacre them—by adopting a negative-sum strategy. Damaging the Israeli “other” became paramount, no matter how much that effort might hurt Arabs, especially Palestinians. “No recognition, no negotiations, no peace.” No Israel. Sooner leave millions of Muslims under Jewish rule than negotiate a solution. Sooner die than live humiliated. Sooner commit suicide to kill Jews than make peace with them.
Yet somehow, however obvious these observations are, their implications rarely get discussed in policy circles. Current peace plans assume that both sides will make the necessary concessions for peace, that compromise can lead to an acceptable win-win for both sides. As one baffled BBC announcer exclaimed, “Good grief, this is so simple it could be resolved with an email”; or as Jeremy Ben-Ami puts it, “It would take sixty seconds to lay out the basic solution.” But it’s only simple if you assume that Arabs no longer feel it’s a hard zero-sum game, that any win for Israel is an unacceptable loss of honor for them, that their “honor group” no longer considers negotiation a sign of weakness, compromise, shameful, and any peace with Israel, any Israeli “win” no matter how small an insult to Islam. During and (more remarkably) after Oslo, it became a matter of faith among both policy makers and pundits that the old era of Arab irredentism was gone. As one NPR commentator noted (during the intifada!), “Any Palestinian with a three-digit IQ knows that Israel is here to stay.”
The condescension of this remark is matched only by its inaccuracy. Not only does it consider the entire leadership of Hamas morons, but it ignores how deeply the psychological trauma of Israel affects the Arab world. Hamas’ Khaled Mash’al, by no means a two-digit-IQ-er, spoke thus at the height of the intifada:
Tomorrow, our nation [Islam not Palestine] will sit on the throne of the world. … Tomorrow we will lead the world, Allah willing. Apologize today [you infidels], before remorse will do you no good. Our nation is moving forwards, and it is in your interest to respect a victorious nation. … Before Israel dies, it must be humiliated and degraded. Allah willing, before they die, they will experience humiliation and degradation every day.
Even among the most Westernized Arabs, the wound of Israel’s existence cuts deep, as does the instinct to accuse Israel for Arab failures. Ahmed Sheikh, editor in chief of Al Jazeera, blames Israel for the lack of democracy in the Arab world:
The day when Israel was founded created the basis for our problems. … It’s because we always lose to Israel. It gnaws at the people in the Middle East that such a small country as Israel, with only about 7 million inhabitants, can defeat the Arab nation with its 350 million. That hurts our collective ego. The Palestinian problem is in the genes of every Arab. The West’s problem is that it does not understand this.
Sheikh’s conclusion is not that ending the fight with Israel might lead to democracy, but rather that once the West lets the Arabs win against Israel, then they’ll build democracies.
As transparently inaccurate an understanding of the Arab world’s problems with democracy as this appeal might be, it has many Western takers, eager to preserve their “rational choice models.” Many post-Orientalists, in the tradition of Edward Saïd, have predicted the outbreak of democracy any decade now, from the1990s to the “Arab Spring.” Thus, while Yasser Arafat’s “no” at Camp David shocked Bill Clinton, Dennis Ross, and a public fed on the idea of a win-win peace process, those familiar with the values of Arafat’s primary honor-group predicted that rejection. If “that which has been taken by force must be regained by force,” then nothing Arafat “got” in negotiations could possibly wash away the shame of a cowardly stroke of the pen that legitimized Dar al Harb in the midst of Dar al Islam. As a result, while Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak (and, reportedly, some younger Palestinian negotiators) mourned, Arafat returned to the Middle East a hero.
None of this mattered to experts like Robert Malley and Robert Wright, who explained why a reasonable Arafat had to say no. Of course, to make Arafat rational meant blaming the Israelis for the failure of negotiations and for the subsequent explosion of violence against them. When Cherie Blair expressed her understanding for the despair of suicide bombers, she projected her liberal world view on people who actually aspire to the highest honor their society can offer: martyrdom in the war to kill the Jews. Israelis themselves offer ample support for this reversal of responsibility. Unable to tell the difference between strategy and tactics, they criticize “both sides” for playing zero-sum games, even though only their side considers that a reproach.
The policy implications here are grave. The “rational” model assumes that the ’67 borders (’49 armistice lines) are the key and that an Israeli withdrawal will satisfy rational Palestinian demands, resolving the conflict. Attention to honor-shame culture, however, suggests that such a retreat would trigger greater aggression in the drive for true Palestinian honor, which means “all of Palestine, from the river to the sea.” Recently, military historian Andrew Bacevich, expressing the logic of win-win conflict resolution, wrote that only by leveling the playing field between Israelis and Palestinians, by weakening the too-dominant Israelis, could negotiations really work. By ignoring “strong-horse” Arab political culture and its deep grievance with the “Zionist entity,” he even raises the possibility that parity would produce more conflict, indeed, behavior akin to Syria’s civil war, rather than the Scandinavian model of civility he invokes. Israelis, even the peace camp, instinctively know this and resist those kinds of concessions; outsiders and the dogmatically self-accusatory view that resistance as the cause of the problem.
For Israelis, the stakes of these abstruse debates over the meaning and importance of honor-shame culture could not be higher. Israelis’ future depends on their ability to understand why their neighbors hate them and what can and won’t work in trying to deal with their hostility. It would constitute criminal negligence to ignore these issues.
But the problem goes far beyond Israel and her neighbors. As anyone paying attention knows, the Salafi-Jihadis, who have “hijacked” Islam the world over, embody this self-same honor-shame mentality in its harshest form: the existential drama of humiliate or be humiliated, rule or be ruled, exterminate or be exterminated. Dar al Islam must conquer dar al Harb; independent infidels (harbis) must be spectacularly brought low, their women raped; Islam must dominate the world … or vanish. The language of Shia and Sunni Jihadis alike reverberates with the sounds of honor, plunder, dominion, shame, humiliation, misogyny, rage, vengeance, conspiracy, and paranoid fear of implosion.
It’s not that our policy makers—and here I speak of not only Israel but the democratic West—don’t take account of honor-shame dynamics. They just don’t take it seriously. For them, what they regard as childish, superficial concerns can be palliated with polite words and gestures, and then these good people will behave like rational choice actors, and we can all move forward in familiar, sensible ways. So, when the Pope Benedict’s remark about an “inherently violent Islam” set off riots of protest throughout the Muslim world, the onus was on the pope to apologize for provoking them. Only thus could one spare Muslims global derision for randomly killing—killing to protest being called violent.
But culture is not a superficial question of manners. In the Middle East, honor is identity. Appeasement and concessions are signs of weakness: When practiced by one’s own leaders, they produce riots of protest, by one’s enemy, renewed aggression. Benjamin Netanyahu stops most settlement activity for nine months. Barack Obama goes to Saudi Arabia for a reciprocal concession he can announce in Cairo. King Abdullah throws a fit and the Palestinians make more demands. And too few wonder whether basic logic of the negotiations—land for peace—has any purchase on the cultural realities of this corner of the globe. If only Israel would be more reasonable …
When we indulge Arab (and jihadi Muslims’) concerns for honor by backing off anything that they claim offends them, we think that our generosity and restraint will somehow move extremists to more rational behavior. Instead, we end up muzzling ourselves and thereby participating in, honoring, and confirming their most belligerent attitudes toward the “other.” They get to lead with their glass chin, while we, thinking we work for peace, end up confirming and weaponizing the Arab world’s most toxic weaknesses—their insecurity, their embrace of all-or-nothing conflicts, their addiction to revenge, their paranoid scapegoating, their shame-driven hatred. And there is nothing generous, rational, or progressive about that.
Want Two States? Not the Palestinians. By Jonathan S. Tobin. Commentary, June 25, 2014.
The Jihadi Menace Gets Real. By Walter Russell Mead. The American Interest, June 23, 2014.
Sunday, June 22, 2014
World War I: The War That Changed Everything. By Margaret MacMillan. Wall Street Journal, June 20, 2014. Also here.
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
The Hour of ISIS Power: How Did It Come to This? By Timothy R. Furnish. History News Network, June 17, 2014. Also at MahdiWatch.org.
Monday, June 16, 2014
The Foggiest of Wars: My Mind-Melting Week on the Battlefields of Ukraine. By Julia Ioffe. The New Republic, June 16, 2014. Also here. From the June 30, 2014 issue.
Pro-Putin Grannies Chased Away the Ukrainian Army. Then They Turned on Me. By Julia Ioffe. The New Republic, May 22, 2014.
Pro-Putin Grannies Chased Away the Ukrainian Army. Then They Turned on Me. By Julia Ioffe. The New Republic, May 22, 2014.
Terror and the Truth About the Middle East. By Jonathan S. Tobin. Commentary, June 16, 2014.
Israelis can try, but they can’t ignore the occupation. By Gideon Levy. Haaretz, June 15, 2014.
Palestinian Leaders Don’t Want an Independent State. By Efraim Karsh. Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2014.
Crowning a Winner in the Post-Crimea World. By Lilia Shevtsova. The American Interest, June 16, 2014.
How to Win Ukraine and Influence the Future. By Vladimir Inozemtsev. The American Interest, May 25, 2014.
How to Win Ukraine and Influence the Future. By Vladimir Inozemtsev. The American Interest, May 25, 2014.
Anarchy in the GOP: The End of Authority in the Republican Party. By Peter Beinart. The Atlantic, June 12, 2014.
Peter Beinart’s Advice for Republicans: Become Democrats or Lose Forever. By Rush Limbaugh. RushLimbaugh.com, June 16, 2014.
ISIS photographs detail execution of Iraqi soldiers. By Bill Roggio. Long War Journal, June 15, 2014.
The Fall of Mosul and the False Promise of Modern History. Informed Comment, June 11, 2014. Also at History News Network.
The mad dream of a dead empire that unites Islamic rebels. By Amir Taheri. New York Post, June 14, 2014.
No End of a Lesson - Unlearned. By William R. Polk. History News Network, June 15, 2014.
Monday, June 2, 2014
Why Putin Says Russia Is Exceptional. By Leon Aron. Wall Street Journal, May 30, 2014. Also here.
Such claims have often heralded aggression abroad and harsh crackdowns at home.
Such claims have often heralded aggression abroad and harsh crackdowns at home.
In the winter of 2012, something surprising happened to Vladimir Putin: He discovered, as he wrote in a government newspaper, that Russia isn’t just an ordinary country but a unique “state civilization,” bound together by the ethnic Russians who form its “cultural nucleus.” This was something new. In his previous 12 years in office, first as Russia’s president and then as prime minister, Mr. Putin had generally stayed away from grand pronouncements on culture and ideology.
And Mr. Putin wasn’t done with this theme. Elected in March 2012 to a third term as president—in the face of massive anti-regime protests, replete with banners and posters scorning him personally—he told the Russian Federal Assembly the following year that it was “absolutely objective and understandable” for the Russian people, with their “great history and culture,” to establish their own “independence and identity.”
What was this identity? For Mr. Putin, it was apparently easier to say what it was not: It was not, he continued, “so-called tolerance, neutered and barren,” in which “ethnic traditions and differences” are eroded and “the equality of good and evil” had to be accepted “without question.”
To Mr. Putin, in short, Russia was exceptional because it was emphatically not like the modern West—or not, in any event, like his caricature of a corrupt, morally benighted Europe and U.S. This was a bad omen, presaging the foreign policy gambits against Ukraine that now have the whole world guessing about Mr. Putin’s intentions.
There is ample precedent for this sort of rhetoric about Russian exceptionalism, which has been a staple of Kremlin propaganda since 2012. In Russian history, the assertion of cultural uniqueness and civilizational mission has often served the cause of political, cultural and social reaction—for war and imperial expansion, as a diversion from economic hardship and as a cover for the venality and incompetence of officials. As the great 19th-century Russian satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin wrote: “They [the powers that be] are talking a lot about patriotism—must have stolen again.”
The pedigree of Russian exceptionalism stretches back to a 16th-century monk, Philotheus of Pskov, a city about 400 miles northwest of Moscow. Constantinople had fallen to the Turks a century earlier and Rome was possessed by the “heresy” of Catholicism, so it fell to the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, Philotheus averred, to preserve, strengthen and expand the only real and pure Christianity: the Russian Orthodox faith.
Muscovy wasn’t just a growing principality but, Philotheus wrote, a “Third Rome,” endowed by God with a sacred mission to redeem humanity. Such ideas were ready-made for the centralizing ambitions of the founders of the modern Russian state, Vasily III and his son, Ivan IV, known as “The Terrible.” This is how Ivan became “czar,” the first Russian sovereign to be so crowned—a title derived from Caesar and, in the new state mythology, a ruler whose authority could be traced back to Augustus himself.
“Two Romes have fallen. The Third [Rome] stands, and there shall be no Fourth,” Philotheus declared with a literary flourish, which has inspired Russian messianism ever since. Ivan the Terrible, for his part, responded during his reign (1547-84) with incessant wars in the West and the East, imperial expansion and sadistic purges.
These are the seeds of Mr. Putin’s newly adopted worldview. But Russians themselves have often rejected this notion of national uniqueness. In particular, a number of Russian leaders have tried time and again to bring their country into the orbit of the “civilized world.”
In the early 18th century, the brutal modernizer Peter the Great forced his nobles to shave off their traditional beards, to swap their Byzantine robes for stockings, breeches and wigs, and to send their sons to Europe to learn navigation, engineering and the modern sciences. Catherine the Great's effort at Westernizing Russia during her own rule (1762-96) was incomparably milder, but she was just as determined. Nor was the “Third Rome” to be found in the discourse of Russia’s three greatest liberalizers: Czar Alexander II, who freed the serfs in 1861, and Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, who brought the Soviet Union to an end and explicitly sought what they called a “road to the European home.”
By contrast, Mr. Putin’s recent rhetoric harks back to Russia’s two most reactionary rulers: the 19th-century czars Nicholas I and his grandson, Alexander III. These are the sovereigns who made Russia’s secret political police a key state institution, with Alexander giving it virtually unlimited powers by declaring, in effect, a perennial state of emergency. At the same time, Russia’s allegedly distinctive identity was crystallized in the official state ideology of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality.” With minor linguistic adjustments, this slogan of Nicholas I and Alexander III seems now to have been adopted by Mr. Putin.
One of the most troubling aspects of this concept of Russian uniqueness is that it is has been defined largely in opposition to an allegedly hostile and predatory West. According to Mr. Putin’s favorite philosopher, the émigré Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954), “Western nations don’t understand and don’t tolerate Russian identity . . . They are going to divide the united Russian ‘broom’ into twigs to break those twigs one by one and rekindle with them the fading light of their own civilization.” Mr. Putin often quotes Ilyin and recently assigned his works to regional governors.
One can hear distinct echoes of Ilyin’s views in the fiery speech that Mr. Putin delivered this past March after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The West, Mr. Putin said, “preferred to be guided not by international law in its practical policies but by the rule of the gun” and wished to “drive Russia into the corner.” He traced this hostility as far back as the 18th century and said that, in the post-Soviet era, Russia “has always been deceived, has always been [confronted with] decisions made behind its back.”
In Mr. Putin’s view, it is the West’s intention to interfere with Russia’s historic mission and to thwart the rightful “integration of the Eurasian space.” As for those in Ukraine who resisted this effort, he described them as boeviki (fighters), a term that, until then, had been used only to designate Muslim militants fighting in Russia’s North Caucasus. Mr. Putin’s other innovation was to label the critics of his regime not just as “fifth columnists” but as “national-traitors,” natsional-predateli—a precise Russian equivalent of Nationalverräter, the term used by Hitler in Mein Kampf to refer to the German leaders who signed the treaty of Versailles after Germany was defeated in World War I.
Mr. Putin’s approval ratings, which fell to the low point of his career at the end of 2013, are now sky-high. How could they not be? Russian government propaganda about the Ukraine crisis goes completely unchallenged on state-owned and state-controlled national television networks, where 94% of Russians get their news. In this coverage, Mr. Putin is presented as the defender of the motherland and his ethnic Russian brethren in Ukraine, who are said to suffer assault, torture and butchery at the hands of the “junta of fascists” in Kiev. To Russian ears, “fascist” inevitably recalls the Nazi invaders of World War II.
Russians are hardly the only people in modern history to be intoxicated by the ideological cocktail of national victimhood and triumphalism, by the vision of a heroic nation-on-a-mission, abused by foreigners yet always ultimately victorious. Over the past century, Germans, Italians, Japanese and, more recently, Serbs have embraced such narratives, once their regimes silenced critics through censorship, harassment, forced exile, jail and murder. These and other histories of state-sponsored campaigns of national “uniqueness” suggest that the regimes and leaders that flatter their peoples most shamelessly are precisely the ones that end up decimating them with the greatest indifference and in the largest numbers, whether through war, starvation, concentration camps or firing squads.
It is hard, then, not to be troubled by Mr. Putin’s suddenly opining, at the end of his four-hour call-in television show last month, about the “generous Russian soul” and the “heroism and self-sacrifice” that allegedly sets ethnic Russians apart from “the other peoples.” The last time Russians were praised in similar terms was in Stalin’s famous toast at the May 24, 1945, victory reception in the Kremlin for the commanders of the Red Army. The dictator extolled ethnic Russians as “the leading people,” blessed with “steadfast character” and “patience” and, most of all, an unshakable “trust in the government.”
As he spoke, Stalin was putting hundreds of thousands of those very same Russians through the hell of “filtration camps” and in cattle cars on the way to even greater suffering in the Gulag, where many of them died. The toast also presaged the end of wartime cooperation with the West, still greater repression at home and a campaign of aggressive, exclusionary patriotism, including the hunt for “rootless cosmopolitans” and “Zionists” in the service of American imperialism.
But today’s Russia isn’t the Russia of old. The period of highly imperfect but real democratization under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, as well as the protest and open discussion of recent years, has made Mr. Putin’s assertions of Russian exceptionalism even more transparently self-serving. Leonid Kaganov, one of Russia’s most influential bloggers, recently posted what he labeled the “Ten Commandments of the New Russian State.” It opens, in pitch-perfect parody of the regime’s latest line, with the statement: “Russia is [the country] biggest in size, population, level of development, culture, intelligence, modesty, honesty and justice.” It goes on to lament that “We are completely surrounded by Gayropa and its whores on all sides,” who “falsely worship a notion of liberty deeply alien to us.”
Or maybe not so “alien.”
Asked in a 2012 poll if their country needs to have a political opposition, more Russians agreed than disagreed. In polls over the past six months, a majority also endorsed the propositions that a state should be under society’s control and that power should be distributed among different political institutions, rather than being concentrated under one entity.
Russians also have abiding doubts about Mr. Putin. In a 2013 poll by the Levada Center, Russia’s most credible independent polling firm, Mr. Putin was “admired” by 2% of Russians and “liked” by 18% (the corresponding numbers in 2008 were 9% and 40%), while 23% were either “wary” of him, could say “nothing good” about him or disliked him, and 22% were either “neutral” or “indifferent.”
Asked if they thought that Mr. Putin was guilty of the abuse of power, 52% answered “undoubtedly” or “probably” (13% were convinced that it wasn’t true, while 18% thought that it didn’t matter, even if true). Perhaps most alarmingly for Mr. Putin, more than 50% of Russians in another Levada poll in April 2013 didn’t want him to remain president after 2018. In the words of Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, by January of 2014, “Putin stopped being a ‘Teflon’ [president].”
In today’s Russia, these sentiments have been drowned in a wave of patriotic euphoria and anti-Western paranoia. But Mr. Putin may soon find that the effects of such strong and fast-acting stimulants are only temporary, with a heavy hangover to follow. In the short term, he is likely to continue manufacturing external hostility and “saving” ethnic Russians in Ukraine (and possibly in other regions as well). He will blame the inevitable economic hardship on the machinations and sanctions of the West, thus making it a patriotic duty to bear the deprivation stoically.
But the country’s patriotic rapture will eventually cool as the economy declines even more sharply. After all, as Mr. Putin lamented a few years ago, almost half of Russia’s food is imported (up to 85% in some of the largest cities), most of it from the EU countries. And this year the ruble has hit record lows against the euro.
Terror, censorship and indoctrination have long allowed dictators to maintain power even amid deprivation. Just look at Cuba and Zimbabwe, not to mention North Korea and Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Mr. Putin’s appeals to the unique ways of Russia and Russian civilization may not be enough, however, to force the country back toward dictatorship, especially after the brilliant moral explosion of glasnost and a decade and a half of liberty. Russia’s fate will be determined by how much repression he is prepared to deploy—and by the wishes of the Russian people, who now face a choice between living in a normal country or in one that is aggressively and chauvinistically exceptional.