Putin in the Shadow of the Red Czar

August 24, 2008

AT the center of Gori, Georgia, where every window has been shattered and Russian T-72 tanks patrol, the marble statue of the world’s most famous Georgian — Josef Stalin — stands gleamingly, almost supernaturally unharmed.

As this vicious colonial war turns into an international battle over spheres of influence, Stalin is Banquo at the feast, metaphorically present in the palaces of the Kremlin, the burning houses in the villages, the cabinets of Europe’s eastern capitals.

Today, as far as Moscow is concerned, the Georgian cobbler’s son and Marxist fanatic has been laundered of any traces of Georgia and Marx. He is now a Russian czar, the inspiration for the authoritarian, nationalistc and imperial strains in today’s capitalistic, pragmatic, swaggering Russia. In this crisis, and in who knows how many future ones, Stalin represents empire, prestige, victory.

When Vladimir Putin presented Russian teachers with their new textbook last year, Stalin appeared as “the most successful Russian ruler of the 20th century” — Peter the Great-meets-Bismarck. Stalin, the book gushes, expanded the empire further than any Romanov and created a Russian nuclear superpower. And his killings were a tool of necessary, if excessive, discipline. Recall that when America’s World War II envoy to Moscow, Averell Harriman, congratulated him on the Red Army’s taking of Berlin, Stalin fired back: “Yes, but Alexander I made it to Paris.” Stalin liked to sit over dinner in one of his Abkhazian villas on the Black Sea, poring over maps: “Yes, we haven’t done badly.”

This was quite some leap for the Iosif Dzhugashvili, born in Gori in 1878. It is hard to describe how foreign Georgia is to Russia. It has its own history as an ancient kingdom under a thousand-year dynasty, its own literature and language as different from Russian as Cantonese is from English.

During one of their earliest rows, Mr. Putin 4 now the prime minister, but clearly a paramount leader — supposedly told President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, “Thanks for giving us Stalin.” In other words, in today’s strange re-creation of Stalin, the imperial, victorious bits are Russian; the nasty bits must be Georgian. (Oddly, both men, who despise each other, have personal links to the Soviet dictator: Mr. Putin’s grandfather was his chef; Mr. Saakashvili’s aristocratic grandparents hid young Stalin from the czarist secret police.)

However valid some Russian grievances over Georgia may be (and some truly are), however flawed our Western record may be (and it is flawed) and however imperfect Georgian policies were (and they were impulsive), the fact is that Russia wants to dismantle Georgia, a democratic state that is worth saving for itself but also because it is the first domino of the Near Abroad.

History offers no neat repetitions, but Russia’s power gambit in the Caucasus and challenge to the post-1991 order would be entirely familiar to Stalin. After World War II, Stalin seemed at the height of his prestige after years of revolution, terror and war — just as today Mr. Putin’s Russia seems muscular and resurgent after the humiliations of the 1990s. Stalin had Eastern Europe; Mr. Putin has an imperium of oil and gas. And they share the same confident swagger combined with a feeling of seething resentment toward Western hypocritical sanctimony.

It isn’t just a question of spheres of influence; it’s about domination. Stalin remarked that his armies would impose his political system on Eastern Europe. Likewise, Moscow’s Georgian invasion aims to remove American-style democracy, replacing it with Russia’s strain of managed authoritarian politics. The Kremlin, then and now, is basically against anything that we are for.

If we are returning to cold war, the Berlin Crisis is the most useful precedent. Stalin tested the West in Berlin 1948 much as Mr. Putin is doing in Georgia today. Once again, in Georgia the daunting challenge for America is to maintain and restore a fragile entity, to defend a line, without going to war. Beleaguered Georgia will need American resolve, ingenuity and daring equal to that of the Berlin Airlift if it is to be restored.

In the Caucasus, Stalin literally wrote the book on imperial-colonial control: his “Marxism and the National Problem,” commissioned by Lenin in 1912. In it, Lenin and his Georgian henchman offered ersatz rights of independence to the minority peoples of the czarist empire — which they would, of course, never be permitted to exercise. The Soviet Union was designed for Muscovite rule, not for division into independent republics. Yet the latter is exactly what happened in 1991 — and the Kremlin has never accepted it.
“Daddy used to be a Georgian,” Stalin’s son, Vasily, once said. Actua lly, the dictator didn’t truly become Russian; he remained Georgian culturally. Yet he embraced the imperial mission of the Russian people. He designed the Soviet Union using his knowledge of Caucasian ethnic feuds to create republics within republics, including Ossetia and Abkhazia, as Russia’s Trojan horses, and they have outlived Stalin’s great project.

I’ve spent a great deal of time in the Caucasus since 1991, having met with all three Georgian presidents, always analyzing the longstanding Russian game of undermining and controlling Georgia by Stalinist means. Russia’s recent policy of encouraging rebel skirmishing in South Ossetia and offering Russian passports to its citizens was a classic trap. As colonial puppeteer and successful restorer of Russia as imperial superpower, Mr. Putin is Stalin’s consummate heir.

Stalin was equally expert in annexations justified as protecting ethnic Russians — think eastern Poland, Bessarabia and the Baltics in 1939. Today’s rhetoric of protecting Russian citizens is both genuine and Stalinist doublespeak: after all, some Ossetians have only been Russian citizens for a few weeks. Ukraine, on the other hand, really is half-Russian. Few in Kiev should be sleeping soundly.

While most know the young Stalin was a seminarian, few realize that he was also a Georgian patriot, a published romantic poet. (Curiously, his enemies deprecated him as Ossetian; in truth his father was of Ossetian descent but the family was long since Georgianized.) Yet he found it impossible to be both a Marxist internationalist and a Georgian nationalist. In 1904, he was accused of heresy by top Bolsheviks and made to humiliatingly renounce Georgian nationalism. Driven out of Georgia for leading bloody bank robberies, he referred to it as a “parochial swamp.” In 1921, he engineered the Red Army’s invasion and annexation of the newly independent Georgia. His vengeance perhaps continues.

Georgians mourned Stalin at his death. When Nikita Khrushchev denounced him in 1956, Georgians rioted. Yet today Georgia has embraced pro-Western democracy, while the Russian rehabilitation of Stalin is best illustrated by those tanks parked protectively beside the white marble temple around the humble birthplace of Iosif Dzhugashvili. This is what Vladimir Putin meant in 2005 when he said that the fall of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. And what the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko meant when he warned, “Double, triple the guard in front of this tomb, / Lest Stalin should ever get out.” Perhaps it’s too late.