Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2007
Choosing Order Before Freedom
In a year when Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize and green became the new red, white and blue; when the combat in Iraq showed signs of cooling but Baghdad’s politicians showed no signs of statesmanship; when China, the rising superpower, juggled its pride in hosting next summer’s Olympic Games with its embarrassment at shipping toxic toys around the world; and when J.K. Rowling set millions of minds and hearts on fire with the final volume of her 17-year saga—one nation that had fallen off our mental map, led by one steely and determined man, emerged as a critical linchpin of the 21st century.
Russia lives in history—and history lives in Russia. Throughout much of the 20th century, the Soviet Union cast an ominous shadow over the world. It was the U.S.’s dark twin. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia receded from the American consciousness as we became mired in our own polarized politics. And it lost its place in the great game of geopolitics, its significance dwarfed not just by the U.S. but also by the rising giants of China and India. That view was always naive. Russia is central to our world—and the new world that is being born. It is the largest country on earth; it shares a 2,600-mile (4,200 km) border with China; it has a significant and restive Islamic population; it has the world’s largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction and a lethal nuclear arsenal; it is the world’s second largest oil producer after Saudi Arabia; and it is an indispensable player in whatever happens in the Middle East. For all these reasons, if Russia fails, all bets are off for the 21st century. And if Russia succeeds as a nation-state in the family of nations, it will owe much of that success to one man, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
No one would label Putin a child of destiny. The only surviving son of a Leningrad factory worker, he was born after what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War, in which they lost more than 26 million people. The only evidence that fate played a part in Putin’s story comes from his grandfather’s job: he cooked for Joseph Stalin, the dictator who inflicted ungodly terrors on his nation.
When this intense and brooding KGB agent took over as President of Russia in 2000, he found a country on the verge of becoming a failed state. With dauntless persistence, a sharp vision of what Russia should become and a sense that he embodied the spirit of Mother Russia, Putin has put his country back on the map. And he intends to redraw it himself. Though he will step down as Russia’s President in March, he will continue to lead his country as its Prime Minister and attempt to transform it into a new kind of nation, beholden to neither East nor West.
TIME’s Person of the Year is not and never has been an honor. It is not an endorsement. It is not a popularity contest. At its best, it is a clear-eyed recognition of the world as it is and of the most powerful individuals and forces shaping that world—for better or for worse. It is ultimately about leadership—bold, earth-changing leadership. Putin is not a boy scout. He is not a democrat in any way that the West would define it. He is not a paragon of free speech. He stands, above all, for stability—stability before freedom, stability before choice, stability in a country that has hardly seen it for a hundred years. Whether he becomes more like the man for whom his grandfather prepared blinis—who himself was twice TIME’s Person of the Year—or like Peter the Great, the historical figure he most admires; whether he proves to be a reformer or an autocrat who takes Russia back to an era of repression—this we will know only over the next decade. At significant cost to the principles and ideas that free nations prize, he has performed an extraordinary feat of leadership in imposing stability on a nation that has rarely known it and brought Russia back to the table of world power. For that reason, Vladimir Putin is TIME’s 2007 Person of the Year.
Anybody else thinking “hmm… that sounds a lot like Hitler and Germany after the first World War”?
Looking at Russian history, where Putin himself comes from, and some of the stuff they get up to with neighboring countries now under Putin’s leadership, their interaction in global circles, as well as their seemingly extreme sense of national pride (even more than America, which is scary), I find it really difficult to trust this guy in any way.
One thing I will say, I think he understands his people and how they think, in much the same way Lenin and Stalin did.
And I will certainly agree that I think Russia is going to be pretty important internationally in the coming few years.
if i understand correctly, Man of the Year isn’t necessarily an award given to “good” leaders, just the most “influential” – i wouldn’t compare Putin with Lenin or Stalin and i certainly would not claim that Lenin or Stalin “understood” Russian people – not only because to “understand russian people” is a bit of a generalized statement, russia is a very diverse country, but also because Lenin, for example, spend 14 years living in europe before he “returned” to russia in 1917. Stalin was as disconnected from the people as other communist leaders.
as for the “trust” – i don’t think that any leader should be trusted, he’s a president, not a tzar, even if people in the west want to believe that he is perceived by russians as one
Anybody else thinking “hmm… that sounds a lot like Hitler and Germany after the first World War”?
i don’t think that everytime a leader emphasizes, say, secutiry, law and order, or other elements that for some reason are juxtaposed with “freedom” one needs to think of Hitler – i think it’s a western bias to assume that people would rather have “freedom of speech” than good economic conditions and a sense of national pride – these are russians we’re talking about, most of them still remember the “glorious days of Soviet Union”
isn’t it better to know that russia is being more or less “ordered” considering that it is a pretty large country with a lot of people?
Oh, I don’t think Putin is perceived as a tzar, but he does seem to have pretty high public opinion in Russia.
I guess rather than saying Lenin and Stalin understood the Russian people, I could say I think they understood the times they were in and they understood how to create a system which kind of trapped the people into at least a surface level of compliance. You’re right, it’s not right to compare Putin to them, I guess the Russian government’s behavior towards their neighbors at this point in time just makes me nervous about where they may be going.
Which also led to the Hitler comment – I agree that a western view of government isn’t necessarily the best system for everyone, and I thought after I posted my comment that I should have said that, and I agree that a government which emphasizes stability over freedom isn’t necessarily bad – I guess the history again just makes me nervous, as Russia seems to have a tendency to err on the side of oppressive government.
But then maybe that is what is required to keep order in such a large country with their particular diversity of ethnicity, religion, etc.
But then again, when that gets foisted on other countries…
I don’t know, it’s a complicated issue.
Man of the Year isn’t necessarily an award given to “good” leaders, just the most “influential”
…and just the fact that Stalin’s been awarded twice attests to this statement. sigh, I guess one cannot correctly classify in present circumstances if the wielded power is good or bad.
David, I think you are correct in your assessment, and it is a complicated issue indeed, it is also important to remember that russia does not really have an experience of democracy like US or even Western countries like Germany or France (not sure about UK) – a short period in the 1990s was not really a time of “freedom” that some think Putin squashed, it was a time of chaos and a kind of hopelessness that one associates with a general break down of a societal structure – your analogy with WWI time would fit well, but not with Hitler, i think, because out of a variety of political options (including ultra-nationalists and communists) russians chose Elzin and Putin – so i guess it could have been much much worse.
Rash, i am not really an expert on the Time magazine award, but really? which years was Stalin a man of the year? i could google it but i’m lazy now…
Lou, i’m not sure how many of the russians actually remember the “glorious days of the Soviet Union” – certainly not the generation which was born in 1980s, plus even though the communist party is still very influential, it is not exactly the same party, is it?
I’m not an expert either, but the TIME article mentioned it. He got them in ’39 and ’42. Looking at the complete list, interestingly, Gorbachev was also man of the year twice, in ’87 and ’89.
Ha, shows you how attentive of a reader i am!
Yeah, i was wondering, do Russians really look at the days of the Soviet Union as glorious (even the ones who remember it still)? I mean, I can see that a bit in the sense that they were an international force, but it doesn’t seem to me like the life of the average person in the Soviet Union was particularly glorious. I can certainly see Russian people having at least a slightly different take on the whole situation than those in other Soviet countries.
I definitely got the idea that Russia immediately post-Soviet Union was not a wonderful time of freedom, but was more chaotic and nobody really knew what was going to happen. Yeah, it definitely could have been worse 🙂
True, the “man of the year” (why not “PERSON”?) distinction need not be given for kindness and ideals, BUT giving it to someone influential nevertheless sends a message of approval of that person’s politics, wouldn’t you say?
This is my problem with your choice of Putin. And, by the way, does the “man” in the title mean that you weren’t considering awarding a woman in the first place?
ME, you make a very important point about the Russian experience of democracy. I don’t know how the majority of Russians respond to Putin, yet the opposition he gets from within the country (so not just “the West”) does mean that there are Russians who find his idea of the state oppressive and dangerous. Opposition from within counts, because it means that we cannot simply put things down to different cultural values and say things are just like Russians want them — it means that there is “something” to human rights and that freedom of speech is not just a “western fad.”
i’m not sure how many of the russians actually remember the “glorious days of the Soviet Union” – certainly not the generation which was born in 1980s, plus even though the communist party is still very influential, it is not exactly the same party, is it?
I disagree with you on the first point: I was raised in 1980s Poland and I do remember the reality quite well. It was the political ramifications that I needed to clarify as I was growing up, but the times have been formative for me nonetheless. Memory is undeniably fallible and that’s how communism becomes “glorious;” and this is not a phenomenon limited to Russia. Out of a mixture of nostalgia and a willingness to make a significant change for the “better” we get new communist parties — I’m with you on this one. It is biased to link all communists and communist thought to the Soviet era.
As a last word, I’d like to give you my personal opinion on your choice of Putin as man of the year: I wish you hadn’t done that. Although he might have a lot of support in Russia (but how reliable are opinion polls with so much censorship and plain killing off of independent media?), I cannot gloss over tyranny and, as a Pole, over his anti-Polishness and vulgar attempts to rewrite history (cf. the disgusting celebrations of the anniversary of the ending of WWII). This is morally wrong, racist, harmful, and dangerous. And so I don’t care that he’s influential. He does not deserve an award that by implication validates his politics — not from critically-thinking people.
Januaries, thanks for your thoughts, i just wanted to point out that it was TIME magazine who chose Putin as the man of the year, not us…
I know, but you posted it here without the kind of framing that would distance you from their decision…
i see, in that case i think i would agree with the nomination to a certain extend but the main purpose of posting was to inform and initiate a kind of a dialogue, not necessarily to endorse all the way…