[This analysis was written for the Unz Review]
I have recently had the pleasure of watching a short presentation by Professor Stephen F. Cohen entitled “Rethinking Putin” which he delivered on the annual Nation cruise on December 2, 2017 (see here for the original Nation Article and original YouTube video). In his short presentation, Professor Cohen does a superb job explaining what Putin is *not* and that includes: (but, please do watch the original video before proceeding).
- He is not the man who de-democratized Russia (Elstin and the White House did)
- He is not the leader who created corruption and kleptocracy in Russia (Elstin and the White House did)
- He is not a criminal leader who ordered the murder of opponents or journalists (no evidence)
- He did not order the hacking of the DNC servers (no evidence)
- He was not anti-US or anti-West from the get-go (Putin changed over time)
- He is not a neo-Soviet leader (he is very critical of Lenin and Stalin)
- He is not an aggressive foreign policy leader (he has been a reactive leader)
- He is not somehow defined by his years at the KGB.
Professor Cohen ended his talk by suggesting a few things which might form a part of a future honest biography:
- As a young and inexperienced leader placed at the helm of a collapsing state:
- He rebuilt, stabilized and modernized Russia in a way to prevent future collapses
- He had to restore the “vertical” of power: “managed democracy” (i.e. restored order)
- He needed a consensual history patching up Czarist, Soviet and post-Soviet eras without imposing one, single, version of history
- He needed Western support to modernize the Russian economy
- He wanted Russia to be a great power, but not a super-power
- He never favored iron-curtain isolationism; he is an internationalist (more European than 90% of Russians, at least in the beginning).
The key thesis is this: Putin began as a pro-Western, European leader and with time he realigned himself with a much more traditional, Russian worldview. He is more in line with Russian voters today.
Professor Cohen concluded by addressing two topics which, I presume, his audience cared deeply about: he said that, contrary to Western propaganda, the so-called ‘anti-gay’ laws in Russia are no different from the laws of 13 US states. Secondly, that “by any reckoning, be it flourishing inside Russia or relations with Israel, by general consent of all, nobody denies this, Jews under Putin in Russia are better off than they had ever been in Russian history. Ever. They have more freedom, less official anti-Semitism, more protection, more official admiration for Israel, more interaction, more freedom to go back and forth”.
This is all very interesting important stuff, especially when delivered to a Left-Liberal-Progressive US audience (with, probably, a high percentage of Jews). Frankly, Professor Cohen’s presentation makes me think about what Galileo might have felt when he made his own “presentations” before the tribunal of Inquisition (Cohen’s articles and books are now also on the modern equivalent of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum). In truth, Professor Cohen is simply true to himself: he opposed the crazies during the old Cold War and now he is opposing the same crazies during the new Cold War. His entire life Professor Cohen was a man of truth, courage, and integrity – a peacemaker in the sense of the Beatitudes (Matt 5:9). So while I am not surprised by his courage, I am still immensely impressed by it. Some might think that delivering a short presentation on a cruise-ship is hardly a sign of great courage, but I would vehemently disagree. Yes, nobody would shoot Cohen in the back of the neck like, say, the Soviet ChK-GPU-NKVD would have done, but I submit that these methods of “enforcing” a single official consensus were far less effective than their modern equivalents: the conformity imposition techniques (see: Asch Conformity Experiment) so prevalent in the modern Western society. Just look at the results: there was far more reading and thinking (of any kind) going on in the Soviet society than there is today in the modern AngloZionist Empire (anybody who remembers the bad old USSR will confirm that to you). As one joke puts it: in a dictatorship, you are told to “shut up”, while in a democracy you are encouraged to “keep talking”. QED.
Turning to Professor Cohen’s talking points, numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 are basic facts. Nothing to be debated here – Cohen is plainly setting the factual record straight. Number 5 is much more interesting and controversial. For one thing, we are talking views/intentions, which are hard to judge. Was Putin ever pro-Western? Who knows? Maybe his closest friends know? My own belief is that this question must be looked at in combination of issue #8: Putin’s service in the KGB.
There is still a huge amount of misinformation about the old Soviet KGB in the West. To the average American a “KGB agent” is a guy called Vladimir, with steel gray-blue eyes, who beats up dissidents, steals Western technological secrets, and spies on the wives of politicians (and even beds them). He is a hardcore Communist who dreams about nuking or invading the USA and he speaks with a thick Russian accent. Alternatively, there is Anna Kushchenko (a.k.a. Anna Chapman) – a devious sex doll who seduces Western men into treason. These prototypes are as accurate as James Bond is an accurate representation of MI6. The reality could not be more different.
The Soviet KGB was first and foremost a huge bureaucracy with completely different, and separate, directorates, departments, and sections. Yes, one such Directorate did deal with dissidents and anti-Soviet activists (mainly the 9th Department of the 5th Directorate) but even within this (infamous) 5th Directorate there were some Departments which, in coordination with other KGB Directorates and Departments, dealt with more legitimate tasks such as, for example, the early detection of terrorist organizations (7th Department). Other Directorates of the KGB dealt with economic security (6th Directorate), internal security and counter-intelligence (2nd Directorate) or even protection of officials (9th Directorate).
Putin was an officer (not an “agent” – agents are recruited from outside the KGB!) of the First Main Directorate (PGU) of the KGB: foreign intelligence. Putin himself has recently revealed that he was working inside the most sensitive Department of the PGU, the “Department S” which are “illegals”. This is very important. The PGU was so separate from all the other Directorates of the KGB that it had its own headquarters in the south of Moscow. But even inside the PGU, the Department S was the most secret and separated from all the other PGU Departments (no less than 10). As somebody who has spent many years as an anti-Soviet activist and who has had personal, face to face, dealings with KGB officers (of various Directorates) I can confirm that not only did the KGB as a whole get some of the best and brightest in Russia, but the PGU got the best ones of those and only the very best ones from that select group ever made it to the legendary Department S. Now let’s look at what kind of skill-set was required from PGU officers in general (besides the obvious two: being very bright and very trustworthy).
First and foremost, a PGU officer has to be a top-notch specialist of his area of expertise (in Putin’s case: Germany, of course, but also the rest of Europe and, since Western Europe was – and still is – a US colony, the USA). While Soviet people were told that the West was the enemy, the PGU officers had to understand why and how the West was that enemy.
In practical terms, this implies not only knowing and understanding the official cultural, political, social and economic realities of the enemy’s polity, but also the real power relations inside that polity. Such an understanding is not only useful to approach and evaluate the potential usefulness of each person you interact with, but also to be able to understand in what environment this person has to operate. The notion of PGU officers being bigoted commies is laughable as these men, and women, were very well read (they had unlimited access to all the Western information sources, including anti-Soviet ones, classified reports, and all the anti-Soviet literature imaginable) and they were ultimate realists/pragmatists. Of course, like in any organization, the top leaders were often political appointees and the bureaucrats and counter-intelligence officers were much less sophisticated. But for officers like Putin to really understand the reality of the Western society was a vital skill.
Second, a good PGU officer had to be likable; very, very likable. Being liked by others is also a crucial skill for a good intelligence officer. In practical terms, this means that he/she has to not only understand what makes the other guy tick but how to influence him/her in the right direction. When dealing with ‘illegals’ that also meant being their best friend, confessor, moral support, guide and protector. You can’t do that if people don’t like you. So these intelligence officers are masters of being good friends and companions; they are good listeners and they know a lot about how to make you like them. They also understand exactly what you like to hear, what you want to see and what words and actions place you in a relaxed and trusting mode.
Now combine these two: you have a man who is top notch specialist of the West and who is superbly trained to be liked by Western people. How likely is it that this man had many illusions about the West, to begin with? And what if a man like that did have misgivings – would he have shown them?
My own gut feeling is that this is not very likely at all.
What is far more likely is this: Putin played the “West best’s friend” role for as long as possible and he dumped it when it was clearly not productive any longer. And yes, in doing that he did realign himself to the mainstream Russian public opinion. But that was just a useful side-effect, not the cause or the goal of that realignment.
Look at the Professor Cohen’s points 9-13 above (I would summarize them as “fix Russia”). They all make sense to me, even that “he was a young and inexperienced leader”. There is a huge difference between being a skilled PGU officer and being the man who rules over Russia. And even if Putin did lose some of his illusions, it would have been primarily because the West itself changed a great deal between the 1980s and the 2010s. But Putin must have indeed always known that to implement Cohen’s points 10-13 he needed the West’s help, or, if that was not possible, at least the West’s minimal interference/resistance. But to believe that a man who had full access to the real information about the two Chechen wars would have any kind of illusions left about the West’s real feelings about Russia is profoundly misguided. In fact, anybody living in Russia in the 1990s would have eventually come to the realization that the West wanted all Russians to be slaves, or, more accurately, and in the words of Senator McCain – “gas station” attendants. Putin himself said so when he declared, speaking about the USA, “they don’t want to humiliate us, they want to subjugate us. They want to solve their problems at our expense, they want to subordinate us to their influence“. Putin then added, “nobody in history has ever succeeded in doing this and nobody will ever succeed“. First, I submit that Putin is absolutely correct in his understanding of the West’s goals. Second, I also submit that he did not suddenly “discover” this in 2014. I think that he knew it all along, but began openly saying so after the US-backed coup in the Ukraine. Furthermore, by 2014, Putin had already accomplished points 9-13 and he did not need the West as much anymore.
Now let’s look at points 6 (Putin’s view of the Soviet period), 12 (consensual history) and 14 (Russia as a great power but not a super-power). And again, let’s consider the fact that officers of the PGU had total access to any history books, secret archives, memoirs, etc. and that they were very free to speak in pragmatic analytical terms on all historical subjects with their teachers and colleagues. Here I submit that Putin had no more illusions about the Soviet past then he had about the West. The fact that he referred to the breakup of the Soviet Union (which, let’s remember, happened in a totally undemocratic way!) as a “catastrophe” which was “completely unnecessary” does in no way imply that he was not acutely aware of all the horrors, tragedies, waste, corruption, degradation and general evil of the Soviet regime. All this shows is that he is also aware of the immense victories, achievements, and successes which also are part of the historical record of the Soviet era. Finally, and most importantly, it shows that he realizes what absolute disaster, a cataclysm of truly cosmic proportions the break-up of the Soviet Union represented for all the people of the former USSR and what an absolute nightmare it was for Russia to live a full decade as a subservient colony of Uncle Sam. I am certain that Putin studied enough Hegel to understand that the horrors of the 1990s were the result of the internal contradictions of the Soviet era just as the Soviet era was the result of the internal contradictions of Czarist Russia. In plain English, this means that he fully understood the inherent dangers of empire and that he decided, along with the vast majority of Russians, that Russia ought to never become an empire again. A strong, respected and sovereign country? Yes. But an empire? Never again. No way!
This fundamental conclusion is also the key to Putin’s foreign policy: it is “reactive” by nature simply because it only acts in response to when (and what) something affects Russia. You could say that all “normal” nations are “reactive” because they have no business doing otherwise. Getting involved everywhere, in every fight or conflict, is what empires based on messianic ideologies do, not normal countries regardless of how big or powerful they are. For all the sick and paranoid hallucinations of Western Russophobes about a “resurgent Russia” the reality is that Russian diplomats have often mentioned what the goals of Russian foreign policies truly are: to turn enemies into neutrals, neutrals into partners, partners into friends and friends into allies. And this is why Professor Cohen is absolutely correct, Putin is no isolationist at all – he wants a new, multi-polar, international order of sovereign countries; not because he is a naïve wide-eyed idealist, but because this is what is pragmatically good for Russia and her people. You could say that Putin is a patriotic internationalist.
And now to the homosexuals and Jews. First, both assertions made by Professor Cohen are correct: homosexuals and Jews are doing great in modern Russia. I would even agree that they are doing better than ever before. Of course, both Professor Cohen and I are being factual and very superficial when we say that. And since I discussed both of these topics in some detail in the past (see here and here) I won’t discuss them here. Rather, I would simply state that in both cases we are talking about a rather small minority of whose treatment is, for some reason or other, considered as THE measure of humanity, kindness, civilization, and modernity in the West. Well, okay, to each his own. If in the West, the treatment of these two minorities is The One And Only Most Important Topic In The Universe – fine. I personally don’t care much (especially since I don’t feel that I owe any special consideration to either one of them). This being said, I would also claim that Putin’s number one concern is also not for any specific minority. However, and that is where this is indeed very interesting, his concern for the majority does not at all imply any kind of disregard or disrespect for the fundamental freedoms and rights of the minorities but includes his concern for all minorities (and, in this case, not just two minorities which are treated as “more equal than others”).
This is where various right-wingers and assorted Alt-Righters completely “lose” Putin. The very same Putin who told an assembly of Orthodox Jews in Moscow that 80-85% of Bolshevik leaders were Jews (see subtitled video here), the same Putin who crushed the (overwhelmingly Jewish) oligarchs of the Eltsin era as soon as he came to power, and the same Putin who completely ignored all the hysterics of Bibi Netanyahu about the Russian role in Syria is also the same Putin who went out of his way to protect Russian Jews inside Russia and who considers that Jews and Russians are forever joined in their common memory of the horrors of WWII.
[Sidebar: I personally wish that Russia would denounce Israel for what it is, an illegitimate racist rogue state hell-bent on genocide and expansion, but I don’t have relatives there. Neither am I the President of a country with very strong ties to the Russian-speaking Jewish communities worldwide. In my opinion, I am accountable to nobody else but my conscience and God, whereas Putin is accountable to those who elected him and still support him].
Guilt by association, the punishment of all for the actions of some, scapegoating, the vicious persecution of minorities in the name of some ideal – this has all been tried in the past, both in Russia and in the West. The Nazis did that and so did the Soviets. And both the Nazis and the Soviets inflicted untold horrors upon the many peoples of the Soviet Union and beyond. Putin is acutely aware of the dangers of nationalism, just as much as he is aware of the dangers of imperialism, and he said so many times: Russia cannot afford any more nationalistic conflicts as they almost completely destroyed Russia in the 1990s. Just look at modern Ukraine and you will see what a Russia torn apart by nationalist ideologies could have looked like had Putin not cracked down, hard, on various nationalists (including and mostly Russian ones).
Far from catering to (an admittedly powerful) Jewish lobby in Russia, Putin is, in fact, trying to assemble as many different peoples and minorities as possible to his project of a New Russia; and that project includes Russian Jews, not only for the sake of these Jews, but mainly for the sake of Russia. The same goes for another crucial minority in Russia – Muslims. They also very much form a key part of the project Putin has for Russia. Of course, racists, nationalists and other less than bright folks in Russia will still dream about expelling all Jews (or Muslims) from Russia. Simply put – that ain’t happening (for one thing this would be physically impossible) and Putin and those who support him will fight such projects with every legal tool at their disposal. Here again, you could say that Putin is a patriotic internationalist.
In the meanwhile, the West is still stuck in its old, ideological ways: imperialism, nationalism and messianic exclusivism on one hand, and a complete surrender to post-modernism, cultural self-hatred, petty minority politics and moral relativism on the other. It is, therefore, no surprise whatsoever that both mainstream camps in the West completely misread Putin and can’t figure out what he is up to.
Professor Cohen is right: the real Putin has absolutely nothing, nothing at all, in common with the pseudo-Putin the Western media presents to its infinitely gullible and zombified audience. Alas, nobody will listen to Cohen, at least not until the regime in Washington DC and the power structure which supports it, and whose interests it represents, come crashing down. But I do believe that Professor Cohen will eventually go down in history as the most intellectually honest and courageous Russia expert in the USA.