Streetwise Professor

January 16, 2008

Stalin and Putin: Great Leaders, or Great Blunderers?

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:07 am

Bob Amsterdam took the words right out of my mouth when he pointed out that the Russian government has bungled every major crisis during the Putin years. Notably, it is hard to imagine how it could have handled Chechnya, the Kursk, Beslan, and Nord Ost any worse than it actually did. Despite these fiascoes, Putin has created an image of an omnipowerful–and omnicompetent–state, and of himself as the great helmsman of the ship of state. How has he done so? Well, it seems primarily by (a) getting very lucky on the economy, (b) using the state’s massive powers to crush any opposition, from Khodorkovsky to Kasparov, to the wife (or was it mother?) of the Kursk crewman who was tranquilized in public when she had the temerity to speak out, to the tragic mothers of Beslan, to the British Councils, to whoever is next in daring to stand on his or her own hind legs, (c) throwing its weight around in Georgia, Estonia and other parts of the near abroad, and (d) engaging in pathetic military posing. (With respect to the economy, Russia’s performance under Putin looks far less impressive when one sees that Armenia, which has in no way profited from the energy boom that has fueled the Russian economy, grew almost twice as fast (13.6 percent) as Russia in 2007.)

It is only fitting, then, that the cult of Stalin as a Great Leader is metastasizing in Russia. Stalin was arguably not only the greatest mass murderer in history, but the greatest blunderer. Read any account of Stalin’s policy vis a vis Germany in 1939-1941, or of the the early months of the Nazi invasion in 1941, and you will be staggered by the magnitude of Stalin’s errors large and small. (Of recent books, Niall Ferguson’s War of the World or Andrew Nagorski’s The Greatest Battle are quite good on the subject. Paul Johnson’s Modern Times is somewhat older, but also quite damning–and accurate–in its assessment of Stalin. See Liddell Hart’s, J.F.C. Fuller’s or John Keegan’s histories of WWII for indictments of Stalin’s handling of the opening phases of Barbarossa.) There were errors in tactics. Errors in strategy. Errors in personal judgment (e.g, Stalin’s quite inexplicable trust in Hitler). And these errors cost literally millions of lives–and not just Soviet lives. By dealing with Hitler, and supplying his armies with fuel and grain, Stalin freed Germany to attack west with impunity. As Ferguson puts it, all that saved the Soviet Union from Stalin’s colossal errors were Hitler’s equally colossal misjudgments.

Yet Stalin is revered today in Russia as a great leader–and Putin is among the most reverent. It is outrageous to revere such a sociopathic mass murderer in any event, but it is beyond bizarre to worship his leadership, and to endow him with an aura of unerring judgment when in fact he figuratively stacked the corpses of millions of Russians (and other Soviet citizens) killed through his incompetence on top of the millions he killed through deliberate policy.

Even Stalin’s supposed greatest legacy–the transformation of the USSR from a backward agricultural nation to an industrial powerhouse–was a failure on its own break-a-few-eggs terms. (Terms, by the way, that I find appalling, and certainly wouldn’t condone even if they had produced substantial economic growth.) This transformation was effectively financed by draconian taxation on the peasantry of the USSR (most notably, the Ukrainian peasantry). In the short run, the surplus extracted from agriculture was indeed instrumental in facilitating industrialization. In the longer run, however, Stalin’s hollowing out of Soviet agriculture proved to be the regime’s Achilles heel. Due to the effects of collectivization, before long the USSR could no longer feed itself. Moreover, the vaunted industrialization produced nothing–other than oil–that the USSR could sell to pay for food. When the price of oil collapsed, the USSR collapsed with it. In a nutshell, Stalin destroyed Russian and Ukrainian agriculture to create an industrial complex that produced nothing that anyone wanted to buy. It was only a matter of time before the whole edifice collapsed. And collapse it did. If that’s leadership, the world could do with a lot less of it.

By comparison to Stalin and his stupendous mistakes, Putin is a piker in the blunder department. But there is an eerie parallel. Despite their blunders, they are viewed as visionary and effective leaders. A combination of intimidation (obviously far more extreme in Stalin’s case), relentless propaganda, and to no small degree, a willing suspension of disbelief by the Russian people, has sufficed to obscure their myriad failures with a mirage of power and brilliance.

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