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Monkey with a Grenade

· 4 min read
Monkey with a Grenade
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation via teleconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on May 11, 2020. (Photo by Alexey Nikolsky via Getty Images)

“Not even a pig shits where it eats.” So said Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev when attacking Nobel Laureate Boris Pasternak for publishing his masterpiece Dr. Zhivago abroad while still living in Russia. Mao railed against the “running dogs” of capitalism. Stalinist propaganda posters vilified priests as sly geese, while Stalinist war art depicted the Soviet Union’s foes as crocodiles and hungry frogs. In Nazi cartoons, Jews were rats and fleas. Dictators are fond of animal imagery when describing their perceived enemies.

Now we have Putin’s addition to the genre. In his speech to the Russian people on March 17th, he spoke of the “traitors” and “non-patriots” within his country as “moths” [literally “blackflies”] that the Russian people will “spit out.” Though he recently compared neighbouring westward nations to Tabaqui the jackal from The Jungle Book, this language, now applied to his own people, was a new step for the Russian president. With his back against the wall, Putin’s pastiche of Stalinist rhetoric is appealing to ancestral memories of fear. It suggests that he wants his Russian audience to see a new Stalin, a new 1941, a new collective endeavour to which they must rise, and for which they must be prepared to sacrifice everything.

But this is not 1941. Although sanctions and commercial boycotts are inflicting mayhem on the Russian economy, Russia is not under military attack. Putin’s invasion is a squalid, ignoble war crime, and so far it is going badly wrong. A note of comedy is entering the proceedings. Lavrov’s plane turned back halfway to a fruitless mission to beg for Chinese war-aid. A Russian regime spokesman was put out that the Ukrainians defending their own land from Russia’s assault are not sufficiently committed to peace talks. As a Russian friend said to me, “It’s like they’ve only got one soldier left. And even he’s getting a bit weary now.”

So, with nothing apparently going to plan, time to wheel out a bit of Stalinism! Putin has been laying the groundwork for years, promoting Stalin as an “effective manager” (in a state handbook for history teachers) and inveighing against the “excessive demonization” of the dictator as “one way of attacking the Soviet Union and Russia.” The May 9th Victory Day celebrations each year—on which huge amounts of money are spent by the regime—ensure that the memory of the Second World War is kept alive in the minds of the Russian people, promoting almost constant war readiness, at least among the older generation. Children at schools take part in special activities, and “pilotka” hats (little khaki WW2 berets) are sold for them at the market. It’s all a bit of fun, part of the local colour, until it becomes a horrible reality—Ukrainian freedom-fighters are labelled “fascist” and Putin’s imperial killing spree is justified by the need for “denazification.”

A militant Stalinist speech is easy to mimic. You talk about “wreckers” and “saboteurs” at home and the threat—usually from Titoists or American Imperialists—from abroad. You talk about a “class enemy” or an “enemy of the people,” and use words like “smash” and “grind” and “spit” and “scum.” You intone ominously about an enemy within: if you are Stalin, these may be the “rootless cosmopolitans” among your citizens—those who are not real Russians but whose sympathies lie elsewhere. If necessary, you sprinkle in references to pigs or insects or vermin for cheap colour. Above all, you spread paranoia with dark talk about the need for a purge. You turn neighbours against one another. You talk about hidden enemies living side by side with you, masking evil intent with a congenial face. You maintain everyone in a state of compliant fear.

All these ingredients went into Putin’s speech. Along with the infamous blackfly quote, he spoke of non-Russian Russians, with “villas in Miami or the French Riviera” who were “not here with our people and with Russia.” He described them as a “fifth column” being used by hostile forces to “inflict maximum damage” on the Russian people. But Russians, Putin explained with a Stalinist lack of nuance, could distinguish “true patriots from scum and traitors.” He finished with a line that does not bode well for the Russian people. “I am convinced that a natural and necessary self-detoxification of society like this would strengthen our country, our solidarity and cohesion and readiness to respond to any challenge.” In other words, Putin was putting everyone on notice that a nationwide purge is coming. It worked for Stalin in the 1930s, as the Great Terror swirled around the country. Maybe it will work now.

But the more Putin tries to play the mighty Josif Vissarionovich, the more desperate and frightened he seems. He is like a man cashing in his own reputation, lovingly constructed over decades, for guile, reserve, and control. It’s been said that the compact between Putin and the Russian people was that he would guarantee stability and rising living standards in return for their freedom. However, at a deeper level, I suspect that the compact was a different one: “Give up your freedom and I will make you feared again.” As one Putin supporter demanded of me a few years ago, “Under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, those ‘great reformers,’ who was afraid of Russia?”

As I write, it is still unclear which way events will turn. A contingent of Syrian troops is entering Ukraine, and China still seems undecided about whether to waltz with its Russian suitor. But, notwithstanding the apparent rise in his popularity since the war began, Putin’s compact with the Russian people looks more fragile than ever. He seems clumsy and foolish—as inept as the technical problems plaguing his sinister rally yesterday—and he cannot afford to be either. Perhaps in his mind he is still the schlemiel carrying bags around for Sobchak, the St. Petersburg mayor for whom he schlepped in his youth so loyally. Perhaps he worries that people are finally seeing it.

In any event, he is no Stalin, a resolute monster forged in the adversity of incarceration, factional fighting, and the bloody rough and tumble of a revolution. Putin is a man who has been babied through a 20-year premiership like a prize-fighter whose opponents are hand-picked for him. Real dangers, like the tenacious journalist Anna Politkovskaya or the politician Boris Nemtsov, have quickly met a terrible fate. Now, encountering the first catastrophic failure of his regime, with all its attendant embarrassment and shame, he has no blueprint for how to react except to hide behind dusty but brutal Soviet tropes.

It is tragic, in more than one sense. A foolish man can still be dangerous—or, as the Russians put it, “Beware the monkey holding a grenade.” There are further tips awaiting Putin in the Stalin handbook of Russian leadership, and this is probably just the beginning. But about that—especially for those of us with friends in the country—one does not want to think.

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