Stopped Cold

In the aftermath of the brutal attack at Crocus City Hall earlier this week, the equally brutal truth is that the United States warned Vladimir Putin such an event was coming. Rather than take that intel at face value and act on it, he recoiled and took it as a personal insult to his power. Such is the ruler Putin has become – ever more fearful and tightening of his grip, while simultaneously failing to protect his own people. That is not unique to Putin; it is a common trait among dictators who rise to power on a cult of personality and then use increasing repression to remain there.

Few entities have had more impact on the world in the past thousand years than the various incarnations of Russia and the surrounding territories. Napoleon and Hitler, two of the most infamous dictators of all time, were both defeated in large part because of an inability to subdue Russia. And Russia was the primary player on the Soviet side of the Cold War with the West that dominated the latter half of the 20th century. Today, the shadow of Russia once again looms large on the world, thanks to the latest in a long line of Russian dictators. Many folks know how Russia got here, but it’s worth taking a few moments to recap, because Russia has been an absolute machine at putting dictators in power, and the latest may be the worst (or at least, that’s what more than one American political party should be thinking).

Russia was essentially born late in the first millennium as a convergence of Norse, East Slavic, and finally Byzantine cultures. The first rulers were Norse and known as the Rus’ – a name which lives on today in Russia and Belarus. Over time the Norse culture was absorbed by the Slavic culture, and the Eastern Orthodox flavor came from the long-lasting Byzantine Empire. The first state for the Rus’ was ruled from Kiev, now of course the capital of Ukraine. That state was eventually conquered by the Mongols, and it took a couple hundred years before it was able to return to power, this time centered around Moscow. The biggest leap forward on the world stage was achieved in the 15th century by essentially the first Russian dictator, Ivan III, also know as Ivan the Great. He emerged from a series of internal conflicts and victory over the deteriorating forces from the Mongol invasion. Ivan the Great definitely unified Russia, but at the expense of freedom and the light of knowledge, cutting off all ties with Western civilization just as the Renaissance was rising. He was also the first Russian Tsar (a name, recall, that traces back to the original Caesar). And, of course, it got worse, as Ivan the Great was immediately followed by Ivan the Terrible, who was known to execute disagreeing folks on a whim. He continued the expansion of Russian territory but also suffered some difficult defeats. By the onset of the 17th century, the Tsars were still ruling, but things were a bit of a mess. Enter the Romanovs.

Michael Romanov was “elected” to the throne in 1613, starting a chain of succession that would last over 300 years. The Romanovs would gradually gain back huge tracts of land (wink, wink, nudge, nudge to Python fans), and by the latter half of the century, Russia was the largest country in the world. This is where Peter I (Peter the Great) took over in 1672, and he would aggressively rule and conquer for the next 50 years. Expanding his power at home and bringing in new territories abroad, he created the Russian Empire (with him of course as the emperor) by 1721. The next formidable ruler was Catherine the II (Catherine the Great), who ruled with equal authority and conquests to Peter the Great, albeit with a bit more focus on the arts vs religion. Despite constantly beating down rebellions, the Romanovs were the ruling reality in Russia until World War I, when they finally lost their grip in quick and gruesome fashion. That was when rising communists such as Trotsky and Lenin ushered in the Revolution, freeing the Russians from oppression for a mere 5 years before the formation of the Soviet Union, which happily subsumed communism as a convenient way to subdue the Russian people once more. Joseph Stalin rose to power during this transition. Volumes could be (and again, have been) written about Stalin and the human suffering he caused both inside and outside of Russia. But for the purposes of this conversation, he was also just the first of many successive dictators over communist Russia and the broader Soviet Union.

To once again quote Inigo Montoya, lemme sum up. World War II, Potsdam, the bomb, Cold War, Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, numerous not-widely-known flirtations with the end of all things, a wall falling over, and next thing you know, Russia is a fleeting democracy in the early 1990’s. Despite the efforts of folks like Gorbachev and Yeltsin, it didn’t last. At the turn of the millennium, a new dictator assumed power: Vladimir Putin. And it was basically Yeltsin who was most directly responsible.

Born in 1952 and the grandson of Lenin’s and Stalin’s personal cook, Putin rose to prominence as a KGB officer for 16 years before moving into politics. Boris Yeltsin brought him onboard his administration in 1996, and eventually began grooming Putin to be his successor. He was named Prime Minister in August of 1999, and shortly thereafter became acting President when Yeltsin abruptly resigned – visibly as fatigued as the entire Russian people, who had suffered through a brutal economic decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin was officially elected President in March of 2000; at the time, no one really knew what was to come.

Putin immediately began working on multiple fronts – negotiating grand deals with the Russian oligarchy to strengthen his power, reforming laws to recover the economy while also increasing the central authority of his office, and leading efforts such as the conflict with Chechen separatists. This established an extremely potent cult of personality with the Russian citizenry, leading him to a landslide reelection in 2004. At the time, the Russian constitution forbade more than two consecutive terms, so in 2008, Putin had his ally Dmitry Medvedev run for President, under which Putin became Prime Minister again, but really still in control for all practical purposes. During that time, he led the conflict against Georgia and strengthened control over the military and the police.

Whether it was when he first entered politics or sometime during his first two terms, Putin clearly had a plan, and has stuck to it. In 2008, he ushered in a constitutional change that expanded the Presidential term to six years instead of four, to take effect in 2012, when he would of course run again for a new non-consecutive term. He was indeed reelected again in 2012, but that election was clouded with doubt and claims of fraud, leading to substantial protests across the nation. This caused an uptick in the pattern of behavior that has seen Putin become increasingly fearful of losing his grip, and therefore tightening that grip with one action after another, including actions that spilled beyond the Russian borders. He annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and expanded his military presence in the Middle East through support of his allies in Syria. In 2021, he signed a constitutional amendment that – surprise, surprise – allowed him to run for election twice more – in 2024 and 2030. He is already the longest serving Russian or Soviet leader since Stalin, and it seems only his death will prevent him from ruling until at least 2036.

Of course, Putin’s most egregious action against the broader world was his February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to which so many of us are probably a bit numb by now, but with atrocities continuing on a daily basis whether we pay attention or not. The war in Ukraine is also just another symptom of Putin’s growing fear that he will be defeated either from the outside or from within. Internally, the Russian political system is an absolute authoritarian dictatorship. It is beset with corruption, human rights violations, imprisonment and suppression of political opponents, and intimidation and censorship of independent media. Those who dare to challenge Putin all seem to meet the same end, from the Wagner Group to Alexei Navalny. Yet some American politicians are more impressed than horrified.

Let’s do some math. Start the clock when the Tsardom began in 1547, lasting until 1917. The Soviet Union was born in 1922 and ended in 1991. Putin took over in 2000 and has ruled for all practical purposes ever since. So out of the past 477 years of existence, Russians have lived under dictatorial rule for 463 years. That’s 14 years of fleeting freedom in nearly five centuries, despite two significant attempts to establish something different. The Russian people deserve better. And so do the citizens of future dictatorships.

Image by Eszter Miller from Pixabay

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