30 December 2013
The battles of Russia
A second battle of Stalingrad may be underway as the year ends, though they call the city Volgograd now and they'd like to call the enemy al-Qaeda. For two days in a row terrorists reportedly affiliated with Chechen separatists have exploded suicide bombs in the southern city. The thought behind the attacks may be not just to terrorize but to embarrass the Putin government, since every attack this winter will raise concerns about security at the Sochi Olympics. If the terrorists hope to hurt the Olympic box office -- some have threatened the Games directly -- it puts them on the same side, if only in a negative sense, as the Pussy Riot band, members of whom emerged unrepentant from prison following Putin's holiday amnesty. By continuing to denounce Putin, the band members play into his hands without realizing it. Had they emerged contrite and quiet, the rest of the world, or that part that really cares, might have concluded that their release had been conditioned upon their silence and treated them as victims still of his repression. Since they've resumed their rhetorical attacks, if not their allegedly sacrilegious antics in Orthodox churches, Putin appears magnanimous, as he surely wanted to. Meanwhile, if Chechens or other separatists or terrorists hope to embarrass Putin by attacking the Olympics, they may not reckon on the rest of the world, since many would see an attack on Sochi as an assault not just on Putin or Russia but on the entire civilized world. The terrorists may not care; they may be interested only in seeing Russians or anyone who "endorses" Putin by going to Sochi suffer. Nevertheless, there probably would be no better way to turn the whole world against you than by attacking an international event like the Olympics -- though inevitably crackpots in and out of Russia would accuse Putin of staging a "false flag" attack for just that reason. Putin bugs a lot of people around the world not just for what he has or may have done but because, perhaps more than anyone now, he embodies the idea that the state should be bigger and more powerful than any other element in a nation -- that a government has a mandate to govern while minorities, defined politically or otherwise, should not have unlimited veto power. Someone like Putin is always at least a potential tyrant in the classical liberal (or American "conservative") imagination, while for centuries, under many forms of government, Russia has been perceived as an inherently tyrannical force in the world by virtue of its size and the supposed mentality of its people. Pussy Riot and al-Qaeda should be mortal enemies on their own terms but unite in their hatred of Putin, if not hatred of the entire (Russian "conservative") culture behind him. To suggest that fear of Putin is to some extent irrational is not to absolve him of anything. But there's always something active and not simply reactionary involved in fear focused on an individual or specific institution -- something we, rather than the object of fear, bring to it. For the terrorists, it's probably pretty simple; they see Putin as the foreign oppressor of their people. For Pussy Riot, something else is clearly going on, and for the international gay-rights movement, something else again. But no one should try to set policy for dealing with Putin before coming to terms with the reasons why they fear him that may have little to do with him at all. If some irrational fear has anyone rooting for the suicide bombers in Volgograd because the bombings are bad for Putin, something is probably more wrong with that person than with Putin or the bombers.