Join the dots
There are several lessons to be learnt from watching the tragic bloodshed and destruction in Ukraine. The most important one for us in India has to do with Vladimir Putin. Label him what you will — strongman, dictator, despot, lauh-purush, neo-czar, Second Stalin, hriday samrat of the Russians — but it is now clear that there is going to be no happy ending to the story of the man who rules Russia. More importantly, it is clear that the longer Putin has been allowed to stay in power, the more toxic he has become, his ability to inflict misery upon millions growing with each year that he has had his hands on the controlling levers of one of the most powerful countries in the world. Critically, what concerns all of us is not so much what ignominious and humiliating end his rule will meet but how much further damage this deranged man will inflict upon the world (and not least on his own people) before he goes.
A look at Putin’s biography and career is instructive. As a young man, Putin entered the cadre of an organization where unquestioning loyalty, cunning and ruthlessness are valued above all else, where basic human empathy, principles, ethics, adherence to truth and suchlike are drilled out of any young recruit. Rising through the KGB, Putin’s skills, stamina and luck combined to send him swirling higher and higher in the power structure of his country. Even as the Soviet Union/Russia goes through huge ruptures and changes, the founding tenets of Putin’s organization remain highly useful: secrecy, deceit, brutality, the quotidian incitement of fear and terror, an unwavering belief in the supremacy of the clique, the righteousness of its mission of ruling Russia and dominating the world — all of these stay entrenched, as powerful as they were when Lavrentiy Beria’s secret police spread its terror tentacles across the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.
A set of circumstances, including the weaknesses and the follies of those who could oppose him or keep him from power, put Putin in the driver’s seat in 1999. Putin was not the first KGB karyakarta to command the Kremlin (in 1982, Yuri Andropov had taken over as leader of the Soviet Union) but he was the first one to have risen through the ranks, the first one who had been part of the dark, dirty, bloody ground operations of the feared secret service. Andropov had been the sarsanghchalak of the KGB and his ill health didn’t allow him more than two years at the helm — his death in 1984 eventually bringing a deeply intelligent Mikhail Gorbachev to power, to soon oversee the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc. Putin, despite his initial genial and sincere-sounding pranaams to democracy and freedom of speech, had no intention of relinquishing power — in fact, his project was to undo the fledgling democracy Gorbachev and his cohort had set up and bring back the old Soviet dictatorial structure but minus the baggage of communist rhetoric.
No two countries or histories are exactly comparable, but if we look at Putin’s actions and patterns over the last twenty-odd years, we will recognize many things that have happened since then in other countries, not least in our own Republic. For one, while maintaining the painted plywood front of pluralistic democracy and fair elections, there was Putin’s ruthless and relentless uprooting of all political Opposition in his country. Then, there was the targeted blasting away of almost all free media, multi-pronged assaults on any newspaper, television channel or website that dared to question the regime and speak of its mistakes and misdemeanours. Third, there was the brazen transfer of the country’s great natural resources from government control into the private ownership of people close to Putin, creating and boosting the Russian oligarchs and their mind-boggling wealth.
Looking at the history of the last two decades, we can see how different politicians with little use for genuine democracy, pluralism and free speech have learnt from each other, fed off each other’s innovations in hollowing out their respective countries’ democratic structures, and piggy-backed on each other’s agendas and actions. Thus, someone like Narendra Modi could leverage both the Islamophobia created by 9/11 and George W. Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ as well as take a leaf out of the crude Islamization of Turkey’s multicultural spaces and the attacks on academics and journalists by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Donald Trump could look admiringly at what Putin was doing and prostrate himself before the Russian offer of dirty tricks while simultaneously learning from the sangh parivar’s IT cell’s carpet-bombing of sections of India’s voters with fake news via social media. Like his fellow-fascists, Viktor Orbán could shut down all critical media while misusing European Union money to inundate Hungarians with propaganda for himself. In terms of creating fear and hatred towards ‘outsiders’, ‘immigrants’ and ‘termites’, you can see Donald Trump, Amit Shah, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán, Matteo Salvini and Priti Patel all circling in a tightly synchronized garba. If Putin can brazenly send killers to North London and Salisbury to assassinate Russians he deems gaddar and poison and imprison his democratic opponents at home, then the Indian regime can at least label a bunch of human rights activists as traitors, lock them away for years without trial, and taunt them (and the rest of us) by denying them sipper-cups and P.G. Wodehouse books.
The problem is none of these strongman stories is going to end well. Most of them have already engendered great horrors and great sorrow and, as with Putin, the question is not what happens to each individual Arturo Ui, to each little man on a big chair, but how much devastation each leaves behind in the zone he affects. Just as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Franco left behind venomous spawn that we see sprouting today, we can’t help but wonder what is the radioactive material that’s being sown in the human ground on our watch.