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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D
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The Gadfly Bytes -- April 5, 2017

 


VLADIMIR PUTIN AS EMANUEL GOLDSTEIN

Ernest Partridge

April 5, 2017
 

I


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 Luthor.

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, “NewSpeak,” 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.

Fear generates 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: “партнерство” partnerstvo), 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.


II


A personal disclosure is relevant here: 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 contact with several of them.

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 American media.

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: Jack Matlock  (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: American Committee for East-West Accord,  The Center for Citizen Initiatives US-Russia.org, among others. These dissenters are rarely, if ever, invited to participate in mainstream media news programs.


III

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 Levada Center 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): Russia Insider, Moscow Times, Meduza.   In Russian (with rough English translations available from Google and Yahoo):  Novaya Gazeta,  Otkritaya Rossiya.
     

  • 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.


IV

“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 National Hissy-Fit

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 their sorrow.

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!”).


V

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 – former communist apparatchiki instantly transformed into enthusiastic capitalists – grabbed these assets for themselves. They are now the ruling oligarches: 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, but unproven.

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 observations:

  • 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 body guard.
     

  • 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 and calm.

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 were murders.


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 in not surprised?

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 my
"Bungling Toward Oblivion: A Letter to my Friends in Russia" and "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, on both sides, could go a long way toward a reconciliation of our differences.

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 his own.


VI

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.

Some suggestions:

  • 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.”).
     

  • 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 media.
     

  • 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.


VII

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 hostility intensifies.

In particular:

  • Categorizing the rival nation (namely Russia) as “the enemy”? Check!
     

  • Demonizing the leadership of “the enemy”? Check!
     

  • Stereotyping and depersonalizing the “enemy” population? Check!
     

  • Conditioning the public to hate and fear “the enemy”? Check!
     

  • Unifying the media message and stifling dissent? Check!
     

  • Labeling dissenters as “disloyal” at best, and “traitors” at worst? Check!
     

  • Labeling calls for negotiation as “cowardice,” or “betrayal”? Check!
     

  • Shutting down communication with the rival government? Check!

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 unimaginable catastrophe.

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 happen?”

That’s the question that we all should be asking now. It is a question that is almost totally absent in our national discourse.

Beware!

And resist!

 

.

 


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .