VLADIMIR PUTIN AS EMANUEL GOLDSTEIN
April 5, 2017
History teaches us that in times of turmoil, public support
of an oppressive government is solidified by fear and hate, usually fear of,
and hatred toward an alleged foreign threat or of internal “subversion,”
and, more often than not, hatred focused upon the enemy leader.
This theme of “the essential villain” resounds, not only through history,
but also through literature. There is no Othello without Iago, no Sherlock
without Moriarty, no Batman without the Joker, no Superman without Lex
George Orwell was well aware of this need for a hated enemy. In his
dystopian novel, 1984, the totalitarian state, “Oceania,” was at perpetual
war with “Eastasia,” or with “Eurasia” – it was never entirely clear who was
the enemy. But no matter, “the enemy of the moment always represented
absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him
was impossible.” (1984, Signet, 1992, p., 32) In any case, all the public
believed was what the government chose to tell it through its propaganda
mill, “The Ministry of Truth.”
Because each citizen was under constant surveillance with two-way
telescreens, there was no privacy in Orwell’s “Oceania.” (“Big Brother is
watching you”). The meticulously structured language,
made anti-party talk and thought (“thought-crime”) difficult, with the aim
of eventually making such thought impossible.
Accordingly, the citizens of Oceania lived in constant fear.
hate. But it wouldn’t do for citizens to hate their
government (a “thought-crime”), and so the government directed the public
hatred to a single individual, one Emanuel Goldstein:
the renegade and backslider who once, long ago ... had been one of the
leading figures of the Party, .., and then had engaged in
counterrevolutionary activities, had been condemned to death, and had
mysteriously escaped and disappeared. (14)
In order to focus this hate, the state scheduled a daily public “two minutes
of hate,” directed at Goldstein
... the Hate rose to a frenzy. People were leaping up and down in their
places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the
maddening bleating voice that came from the screen... The horrible thing
about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but
that it was impossible to avoid joining in. A hideous ecstasy of fear and
vindictiveness ... seemed to flow through the whole group of people.
(15-6) (See the “Two Minutes of Hate”
portrayed in the 1984 film version).
And so to my question: Is Vladimir V. Putin our Emanuel Goldstein?
Russia is a land of numerous and diverse nationalities, languages, and yes,
of competing political parties. It is the home of Peter the Great,
of Tolstoy, of Dostoevsky, of Tchaikovsky, of Stravinsky, of Nureyev, of
Sakharov and Gorbachev. Even within the Putin government
there is a diversity of contending views
about the United States and NATO: “Westerners,” who desire accommodation,
“nationalists” who distrust outsiders and seek to isolate Russia,, and
“moderates” who seek “partnership” with the West (the same word in Russian:
while steadfastly defending Russian sovereignty and security.
Yet, in our media and political discourse, all this wealth of history, of
artistic, scientific and political genius, all this diversity of ethnic
identity and of political thought and activism has been set aside, as
“Russia” has been distilled, reduced and identified as one man: Vladimir
Putin – our “Emanuel Goldstein.”
Putin is the object of much more than “two minutes of hate;” that “hate” is
reiterated, unabated and unchallenged, day in and day out, in our media. By
comparison, Orwell’s “Goldstein” had it easy.
Vladimir Putin may be as evil and as threatening as we are told. But before
we agree to believe this, are we not entitled to evidence and a reasoned
argument, along with informed rebuttal? If not, then what are we getting
other than propaganda and “proof” by repetition, whereby Putin is presumed
guilty until proven innocent, as scant evidence is offered as to either his
guilt or innocence.
A personal disclosure: In the decade of the nineties, my
profession (philosophy professor)
took me to Russia seven times,
usually as an invited participant in academic conferences. In addition, during the school year 2005-6 my wife and I hosted a Russian
high school student, who is now a military historian in Moscow. As result, I
gained many Russian friends, and today remain in frequent email and Skype contact with
several of them.
According to conventional media wisdom, I
suppose that by "talking to the Russians, " I am "on a treasonous path"
(John Brennan, former CIA chief).
Well, screw 'em all! I get to
choose my friends, and to communicate with them if I wish After all,
this is a free country, isn't it! Or, is it still?
The run-up to the Iraq war, along with frequent distortions and outright
lies about Russia today, have led me to distrust the American mainstream
news media. And so, for information I look to dissenting American sources
(Democracy Today, The Real News Network, The Nation, etc.), and to European
and independent Russian news media. I am appropriately skeptical of news and
opinion on “RT” (“Russia Today”) which is, of course, a propaganda arm of
the Putin government. However, RT broadcasts dissenting American Journalists
such as Thom Hartmann, Ed Schultz and Chris Hedges, who are banned from the
And so I am not an ordinary American observer of Russia and Vladimir Putin.
Nonetheless, my dissenting views are shared by many highly qualified former
diplomats, scholars and journalists, many of whom have lived in Russia and
speak the Russian language. Among them:
(ambassador to the Soviet Union under Reagan,
Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, (Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff),
John Mearsheimer, (University of Chicago),
Stephen Cohen (Princeton
University), former US Senator Bill Bradley, Journalist
Robert Parry, and more. Their opinions may be found on these websites:
Committee for East-West Accord,
The Center for
US-Russia.org, among others. These dissenters are
rarely, if ever, invited to participate in mainstream media news programs.
Because my perspective on Russia is “unorthodox” and likely to provoke
resistance, I will endeavor, as much as possible, to ground my arguments on
verifiable facts. Among them:
Fact: Vladimir Putin is the President of the Russian Federation. As such,
it is his Constitutional duty to assure the security and defend the
sovereignty of Russia. If he does not, he will be replaced, most likely by a
leader even more hostile toward the United States.. Accordingly, Putin must
be expected to gather information about, and to favorably influence the
policies of, countries perceived to be the rivals of Russia. That is his
job. The American president and his intelligence agencies are expected to do
the same, and so they do. We would be justly outraged if they did not.
Fact: In the open and contested election of 2012, Putin received 62% of
the official vote count, which means that more than a third of the Russian
voters voted against him. While critics, both inside and outside of Russia,
say that there was much voting fraud in that election, it is more than
likely that Putin did receive a majority of the votes which, by the way,
were cast on paper ballots. In addition to Putin’s “United Russia” party,
there are several competing parties in the Russian “Duma” (parliament),
where Putin’s party has a bare majority.
Fact: Currently, Putin has the support of a majority of Russians. The
independent and non-governmental
reports an 84% public approval of Vladimir Putin (February, 2017). While that number is probably inflated, one might still assume that a
substantial majority of Russians support Putin.
Fact: There are several independent media sources in Russia, some openly
critical of Putin and his government and accessible to the American
internet. Among them (in English):
In Russian (with rough English translations available from Google
and Yahoo): Novaya Gazeta,
Fact: The international internet is available to any Russians with a
computer and a command of foreign languages – in particular, of English.
(Most Russian scholars, scientists and journalists understand English). I
know this as a fact from my email exchanges with friends in Russia who have
told me as much. As proof, I can report that I freely exchange website
addresses with these friends and have never been told “that site is not
available in Russia.”
Contrary to all this we are told by our media that Russia is a “closed
society,” that Russian media is “totally controlled” by Putin and his government.
We are told this by a “mainstream media”
90% of which is owned and
controlled by six mega-corporations
that speak with one voice in their condemnation of Putin and Russia.
To be sure, government control of the Russian media is pervasive and far
greater than that which should be tolerated in a nation claiming to be
“democratic.” Even so, that control is not complete.
The US media tells us that Russia today is ruled by a corrupt autocrat who
murders journalists and political rivals and terrorizes dissenting citizens.
If so (and, as noted, I am not convinced either way), then I grieve for my
Russian friends and with them, I look forward to the day when this allegedly
evil regime is overthrown. But that “liberation” is their concern and
responsibility, not ours. If the United States and its NATO allies appoint
themselves the “liberators of Russia,” you can be sure that those Russians
will unite behind their leader and will steadfastly resist any “assistance”
on our part. Just as we would do if the roles were reversed. The fate of
Hitler’s “Operation Barbarossa” should have taught us that much.
So when I express my concern about the economic and political conditions in
Russia, many of my Russian friends reply, in effect: “Cool it! It’s true
that we have much to complain about here, but it’s not all that bad.
Economic conditions are tough, but despite the sanctions, these conditions
are much improved from the Yeltsin era. As for the politics, we endure what
we must and push back as we can. This is not Stalin’s Soviet Union.”
Case in point: my friend Misha, a research scientist. (Not his real name).
He is steadfastly opposed to Putin, who he describes as a “thug,” and
Putin’s regime, which he describes as “a mafioso.”
I tell Misha that I am astonished by his candor. “Misha,” I reply, “here you
are, openly insulting your President in an email to the United States which,
we must assume, is being read by the FSB (successor to the KGB). Aren’t you
concerned for your safety?”
“Naw,” he replies. “I don’t worry about the government. I am only worried
about the extra-legal gangs that have appoint themselves as ‘Putin’s
guardians,’ to the great distress and embarrassment of the government, much
like your right wing ‘citizen militias.’” (Misha, as it happens, is an avid
reader of the unrestricted American internet).
“Misha’s” opinion of Putin, while extreme, is shared by many of my Russian
friends, and so I am inclined to accept what they tell me. I believe that
there is much not to like about Vladimir Putin, and if I were Russian I
would surely not vote for him.
But this is the essential point: if I were Russian, I would be free to vote
against Putin as, I suspect would most of my Russian friends – as more than
a third of Russian voters did in 2012. And like my friend Misha, I would
likely complain about Putin loudly and openly, without fear of repression.
Last I heard, all of my friends, Misha included, are “at large” and
undisturbed. None have been sent to a Siberian gulag.
Which prompts this question: “If so many of your friends are opposed to
Putin, how do you account for those Levada poll numbers and the 2012
election returns, which indicate substantial support?”
I suspect that Putin’s support, like that of Donald Trump, is inversely
related to education and sophistication. Also the improving economy (in
spite of Western sanctions) may account for Putin’s support. But most
important, I suspect, is the Russian habit of rallying behind their leaders
when faced with an external threat – even a leader as despotic and feared as
Josef Stalin. And not only the Russians. Consider the spike in George Bush’s
approval ratings, following the 9/11 attacks.
“The Russians have influenced our election!”
If you have given more than casual attention to our broadcast and cable news
media, you have heard that accusation hundreds of times. Double that number
if you regularly watch MSNBC.
With these endless repetitions, that accusation has become undisputed,
albeit unsupported, “common knowledge.” “Everybody knows that!”
“Unsupported?” That claim requires an argument, which I have presented
at length in a recent essay,
In the Throes of a
Suffice to say, the accusation of “Russian meddling” in our election has not
only been repeated endlessly, it has evolved over the past few months. At
first it was accompanied by qualifiers such as “suspected” or “attempted”
interference. With time and repetition, albeit absent of fresh evidence,
those qualifiers have been discarded, as that “interference” has morphed
from “possible” to “probable” to “certain.” Similarly, over the years
Vladimir Putin was at first correctly described as the “leader” or
“President” of Russia. Those description have gradually been replaced with
“dictator,” “autocrat” and “despot.”
The hostility toward Putin and Russia has reached such a high pitch that
merely speaking or corresponding to a Russian can put one’s career in
jeopardy, as Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions, among others, were to learn to
And yet, a refusal to communicate with our rivals is immoral, foolish, and
above all dangerous. (As I argue in my previous essay,
“Trump Aides Talked
to Russians” Big Deal!”).
Well, what about it? Is Vladimir Putin the murderous, kleptocratic tyrant
that the “conventional media wisdom” tells us he is?
Quite frankly, I do not know. And the more I read from independent sources
both foreign and domestic, and the more I correspond with friends in Russia
and with Russian ex-patriots, the more perplexed I become. There is informed
opinion on both sides.
These are the prominent US media accusations against Russia:
First, Russia is a kleptocracy. Probably true. But some historical context
is urgently in order.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, there were no Soviet billionaires.
The capital assets were owned and managed by the state. A policy was adopted
by the Russian government that those assets were to be evenly divided among
the Russian people. However, a few ruthless but enterprising individuals –
many of them former communist apparatchiki instantly transformed into enthusiastic
capitalists – grabbed these assets for themselves. They are now the ruling
oligarchs: Russia’s counterpart of our “one-percent of the one-percent,”
who effectively “own” the Congress of the United States. President Vladimir
Putin and Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev are, almost certainly, among the
Russian oligarchs. TV news images of mansions, private jets, and other
evidence of lavish extravagance appear to confirm this conclusion.
However, it is important to note that this looting took place during the
Yeltsin administration, aided in no small part by carpetbagging American
libertarian “experts” with their “free market” and privatization dogmas. (I
sat next to one of these “experts” on a flight back from Moscow in the early
nineties. He talked at length about what he had “taught” the Russians, with
scarcely a word about what he had learned from them ). And it is noteworthy
that Russia today is not an oligarch’s paradise. Several Russian oligarchs
have been tried and convicted and their assets seized. Others have taken
their money and fled Russia, presumably never to return.
Second: Vladimir Putin is a killer. Possibly, but the evidence is
inconclusive. Never mind that, the MSM has no doubt about it. One friend, a
former KGB officer turned dissident and now an American citizen, describes
Putin as a “war criminal,” due to his conduct of the Chechin conflict. The
most prominent examples of Putin “hits” put forth by the Russophobes are
Anna Politkovskaya (2006), Dmitri Litvinenko (2006) and Boris Nemtov (2015).
Litvinenko had many enemies among his former colleagues in the KGB/FSB. But
did Putin order the murder? Plausible, but unproven. Politkovskaya
(interestingly, born in New York City and a dual American-Russian citizen)
had many enemies, including the Chechin autocrat, Ramzan Kadyrov. The manner
and location of the Nemtsov murder is problematic for Putin. If Putin had
ordered the killing of Nemtsov, he couldn’t have chosen a worse place – in
the shadow of the Kremlin. The “Putin guardians” described by my friend
“Misha” might have been the culprits. But Putin himself? Again, plausible,
And just a couple of weeks ago in Kiev, another suspicious “hit:” Denis
Voronenkov. Predictably, the MSM has blamed the Voronenkov assassination on
Vladimir Putin. Given the poisonous state of Russo-American relations, this
rush to judgment was to be expected.
While I would not rule out Putin's involvement in this murder, I have three
The MSM seems uninterested in the plain fact that Russian politics today
is very complicated, with numerous factions struggling for control. Some of
these factions are criminal and ruthless. Barack Obama was plainly wrong
when he commented that "nothing happens in Russia that Putin doesn't know
about." Putin's rule in Russia is undoubtedly stronger than a nation
claiming to be democratic should allow. But his control is not total. Putin
in neither omniscient or omnipotent.
Denis Voronenkov had many mortal enemies, which is why he traveled with a
Putin's clear desire to portray Russia as a respected and trustworthy
player on the global stage is seriously undercut by political
assassinations, both inside and outside of Russia. And what does Putin gain?
None of these victims was a clear and present threat to Putin and his
regime. Putin arguably lost far more than he gained by their elimination.
Protests in Russia over these murders continue to this day. Surely Putin
would prefer that these victims were all alive and the Russian streets empty
Granted, Russia is a dangerous place for journalists. But, according to the
Committee to Protect Journalists it
was twice as dangerous under Yeltsin (40 killed in eight years) than it is
under Putin.(40 killed in sixteen years). About two-thirds of those killings
And finally: Russia is an expansionist threat to American interests. In a TV
interview that I watched a couple of years ago, Hillary Clinton was asked,
“just what is the nature of the Russian threat? She replied, “Russia is a
threat to America’s interests.” I don’t recall that she identified these
“interests.” While I can’t document that interview, it doesn’t really
matter. That question is routinely asked and that same reply is answered by
prominent American politicians and pundits. And just as routinely, those
“interests” are mentioned vaguely, if at all.
Is it not possible that the Russians are threatening the American “interest”
in becoming the enduring unipolar global “hegemon,” with the self-appointed
privilege of toppling uncooperative regimes, imposing trade rules, and
ignoring United Nations resolutions and international law (e.g., regarding
due process and torture) whenever convenient? This was the clear intention
of the neo-con “Project for a New American Century:”
“A hegemon is nothing more or less than a leader with preponderant influence
and authority over all others in its domain. That is America's position in
the world today... The appropriate goal of American foreign policy,
therefore, is to preserve that hegemony as far into the future as possible.”
To this end, the US has spread over 800
military bases around the world and it spends more on its military than the
next seven nations combined (most of whom are US allies). In contrast,
Russia has just two military bases outside of its national territory.
Furthermore, the Russian government has announced a 26% cut in its military
budget, which puts it at ten percent of the US budget. With these cuts, the
Russian military budget will now be
ranked eighth in the world, behind India and France.
What?! You haven't been told this by the Mainstream Media?
Why am I not
As for an American unipolar “hegemony,” Putin and his government will have none
of it. For that matter, neither will the Chinese and increasingly many
European nations, but we’re talking about Russia right now. As Putin is
reported to have said, “We wish to be partners with the Americans; they wish
us to be their vassals.” Putin refuses to allow Russia to be an American
“vassal,” as does the vast majority of the Russian people. As would all
Americans, should the Russians aspire to make us their “vassals.”
In other words, the essential issue between the United States and Russia is
national sovereignty – the right of each nation to self-determination and
defense of its legitimate interests. Sovereignty, let us recall, was the
unifying theme of our Declaration of Independence which, beyond the stirring
words of the Preamble, consisted of a long list of complaints against the
British crown of violated sovereignty.
If Russia seriously threatens the sovereignty of its neighbors – former
republics of the Soviet Union or members of the former Warsaw Pact – then
NATO and the United Nations must respond. If Russia is content to remain
within its own borders, then what remains of our quarrel with Russia?
“Well, what about Ukraine and Crimea?” These issues are too
complicated to discuss in this brief space. I have much to say about them in
"Bungling Toward Oblivion: A Letter to my Friends in Russia"
"Thinking Like a Russian.”
See also the aforementioned dissenting websites. Suffice to say that there are
grievances on both sides and that peaceful resolution of these issues
requires an understanding (though not necessarily agreement), on both sides
of the opposing points of view.
One can well understand why, after decades of Soviet occupation, eastern
European countries, especially the Baltic Republics, welcome NATO membership
and protection. Conversely, one can understand Russian apprehensions when
NATO troops conduct military exercises in Poland and seek to extend NATO
membership to Ukraine. Just seventy-five years go, German troops crossed the
Polish and Ukrainian plains whereupon they killed twenty-five million Soviet
citizens – one sixth of the population. And just last year, NATO “Operation
Anaconda” took place in Estonia, within artillery range of St. Petersburg
where, over 900 days of siege (September 1941 to January 1944) , a million
Russians died of starvation. Compassionate recognition of these historical
facts could go a long way toward a reconciliation of our
Doesn’t Putin aim to weaken the Western Alliance and to undermine US global
leadership? Quite likely. But Colin Powell’s lies to the Security Council,
America’s failed and brutal wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and now
the election of an ignorant, narcissistic buffoon as president, have done
much more to destroy the United States’ international reputation and
leadership than anything that Putin could ever have hoped to accomplish on
We do not need to follow down this dangerous road. Unfortunately, there
appears to be little prospect that our leadership and our media will pause,
reconsider, and choose an escape route. Even so, we must strive to escape
from the self-imposed trap that is leading the United States, Russia, and
the rest of the world to destruction.
We Americans must rid ourselves of the conceit that we are universally
admired and envied throughout the world. In fact, in a recent international
Gallup Poll, involving 24 foreign countries,
the United States was
identified as the greatest threat to world peace.
It is long past time for some sober and honest self criticism. (Cf. The
brilliant opening scene to the TV series, “The Newsroom,”
which many of my Russian friends have seen, with much appreciation, in
their free internet).
We must acknowledge and deal with the hostility that our policies have
generated in Russia. When I visited Russia in the nineties, Americans were
well regarded. By some accounts, four out of five Russians approved of
Americans and the United States. Today,
the Pew Research Center reports,
those figures are reversed: 81% unfavorable, 15% favorable.
As for American hostility toward Russia, just read and watch the mainstream
Threats and hostility toward the Russian government serve to unite the
Russian public behind their government, thwarting internal efforts at
reform. If we truly wish to see an authentic democracy emerge in Russia, our
best course of action is to “back off,” mind our own business, and leave the
solution to Russia’s problems up to the Russians.
Both sides must recognize and mutually
acknowledge that there is much more that unites than divides us. Most
notably, the threats of Islamic terrorism (13% of the Russian population
is Moslem), climate change, and nuclear war – a catastrophe which, if it
happens, will almost certainly be accidental.
Much of our mutual hostility arises out of ignorance. I dare say that in
general, Russians are better acquainted with our history and culture than we
are with theirs. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, there were many
excellent cable TV programs about Russian history and culture. They are rare
today. They should be revived, along with an exchange of cultural programs,
educational opportunities and joint scientific research and development.
This is merely a partial list. Much more might be done to lead us away from
this road to catastrophe,
as I have written in numerous essays.
Tragically, in the United States today, there appears to be little interest
in achieving peaceful accommodations with Russia, and in engaging in
cooperative efforts to mitigate common threats. Instead, the rhetoric and
Categorizing the rival nation (namely Russia) as “the enemy”?
Demonizing the leadership of “the enemy”?
Stereotyping and depersonalizing the “enemy” population?
Conditioning the public to hate and fear “the enemy”?
Unifying the media message and stifling dissent?
Labeling dissenters as “disloyal” at best, and “traitors” at worst?
Labeling calls for negotiation as “cowardice,” or “betrayal”?
Shutting down communication with the rival government?
This is a public attitude that, history tells us, typically leads to war.
And as that national mental frame persists and intensifies, we find
ourselves on an accelerating slippery slope heading straight towards
If humanity falls over the brink of that approaching catastrophe, in the
brief interval between the nuclear exchange and their death by radiation or
starvation, the few survivors will ask, “how could we have allowed this
That’s the question that we all should be asking now. It is a question that
is almost totally absent in our national discourse.