President Putin did his annual marathon call-in show today. While reporters around the world were most interested in what he might say about Ukraine, Iran, the murder of Boris Nemtsov, etc., I was intrigued when reading a summary afterward by one caller's historical question. Russia will soon be commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, and one patriotic Russian echoed the common American feeling that Europeans are ingrates. Why does Europe give Russia such attitude, ran the complaint, when if not for us they'd all be goose-stepping in German today? -- or words to that effect. Putin actually gave a sensible answer, telling the caller that Russia itself is partly to blame for European attitudes because the Soviet Union (in the words of a presumably official report) "imposed its model of development by force on the nations it liberated from the Nazis." Of course, Putin then went on to score a rhetorical point against the U.S., claiming that under Bush, Obama et al "Washington is doing about the same thing now, trying to impose their model on almost the entire world....And they will fail too." Americans and liberals around the world will no doubt dispute what they see as an apple-orange comparison. In their view, if the U.S. wishes to "impose" anything, it's the rule of law and civil liberty that's every human being's birthright. Putin can't be talking about a different model of economic development because Russia's a capitalist country now, right? So the only alternative to an American "model" must be one with more power for the leader and less freedom for dissent, right? But if Americans see any deviation from the U.S. "model" as tyranny, the rest of the world may see things with, dare I say, more "nuance" and definitely less idealization of the U.S. as a model for governance.
Putin wasn't done with the topic, however. He went on to say that, while some European criticism of Russia may be historically understandable, it would be going too far to equate Stalin, the man who imposed the Soviet model, with Hitler and Nazi Germany, as those averse to totalitarianism are wont to do. Stalinism contained "ugliness and repressions," Putin acknowledged, but it never aspired to the annihilation of an entire group of people. Here he is judging between mass murderers by intent rather than results. Is it somehow less atrocious to aspire, as Stalin did, to annihilate entire "classes" of people than it is to wipe out people based on their ethnicity or religion? Is Stalin really in a lesser category of evil because he used comparatively made-up categories to decide who should be killed, when he wasn't just slaughtering or torturing anyone whose loyalty was suspect? It's perfectly fair to speak of Hitler and Stalin together, as two of a kind, because both men believed that the good society depended on millions of people being slaughtered. Racism is not a worse crime than murder and racist mass-murder is not worse than plain old mass-murder. Putin's problem is that he wants to salvage something of Stalin for patriotic reasons. There's really little to say for Stalin except that he made the Soviet Union a superpower, for what that's worth, and he played a big role in defeating an enemy who was at least arguably more barbaric than he was. But when that's all you've got you get defensive about it. Just as American knee-jerk superpatriots answer critics of our actions abroad with, "If not for us you'd be speaking German (or Russian) today!" their Russian counterparts say much the same thing. Worse, as we see when the discussion turns to Ukraine, they tend to talk as if to be against Russia is to be a Nazi. At least Americans are more diverse in their delusions. For them, if you're against the U.S. you can be either a Commie or a Muslim.
To close with a perhaps ironic observation, democracies -- as both the U.S. and Russia more or less claim to be -- seem to have a harder time repudiating "evil" leaders than monarchies. It doesn't reflect on the present queen of England, for instance, or on English culture if you say King John or Richard III or whoever was a bad king, a tyrant, etc. That may be because monarchy comes with a principle of personal responsibility, or else it makes it easier to scapegoat individual monarchs for what otherwise might be considered collective, systemic sins. By comparison, even post-Soviet Russia can't fully repudiate Stalin, while China insists on a hairsplitting "70% good, 30% bad" formula for the comparably vile Mao Zedong, and some Americans will only grudgingly concede that the U.S. or its leaders (recent company excepted) has ever done anything bad. In each case, to concede evil in the past threatens to discredit the principles upon which constitutional republics or people's republics are founded, while to acknowledge and condemn a bad monarch doesn't similarly undermine the monarchic principle, to the extent that it is a principle. Perhaps monarchists were onto something despite the fundamental idiocy of the hereditary idea. They did seem to recognize that despite all rhetoric, and even despite the letter of the law, a leader's character mattered most. If modern political systems can't criticize their pasts from fear of discrediting the present, that's a character flaw for democracies, dictatorships and anything in between.