Remembering Katyn And A Scrap Of Paper In Prague*

Many Western critics of Putin fail to understand the man, his popularity and what ‘Putinism’ actually represents. His joining Polish officials as the first Russian or Soviet officially to commemorate the anniversary of the NKVD massacre of Polish officers captured after the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact is a case in point. As is his unquestionably personal authorization to show the harrowing Polish documentary “Katyn” by Oscar nominated Andrzej Wajda on Russian television.

Putin and Putinism are (in the Stiftung’s view) the utterly predictable Russian reaction (all in senses of the word) to the world as seen at the turn of the century. We did not help with clumsy, inept, self-serving and pointlessly provocative United States policies dating back to the waning days of Dubya’s Pappy, through Clinton/Gore and the Neocon Manichaenism.

For those seeing the 1991 collapse up close, many Soviets acknowledged losing the Cold War and actually were relieved to ‘surrender’. From the highest officials to people on the street, we heard time and again optimism that the United States would ‘do the right thing’ and treat the Soviet Union as a defeated power. They expected the U.S. to live up to our myth. The fUSSR would be as the West (U.S.) treated Japan, Germany, etc. In fact, in one meeting we had with officials, they openly asked who our ‘Lucius Clay’ might be. The Soviet faith in America’s capabilities would shame a Neocon.

Instead, Pappy, Baker et al. largely did nothing but send carpet baggers like KPMG/BearingPoint consultants, Paine Webber investment bankers, Sachs, Aslund and more lawyers than clog Connecticut Ave. during rush hour. All the announced U.S. and E.U. ‘aid’ (relatively paltry anyway) to the fUSSR/Russia and other republics ended up in their pockets. The Russians weren’t stupid. They could see this. And in return we dumped on their desks meaningless mounds of empty ‘reports’ or velobound ‘model laws.’ We also saw the disillusionment and ultimately anger kick in. It was there when Pappy gawked at grocery store scanners and gushed over tube socks.

Can’t Blame The U.S. For ALL The Drunken Incompetence

For those who followed the sorry, incompetent Russian ‘privatization’, Chubais and Yeltsin bear ultimate blame for the oligarchs’ shameless rape of Russia. True, the debacle was *perceived* as a ‘Western’ and ‘American’ inspired plot. Who didn’t see American campaign consultants pulling puppet strings for Yeltsin’s lethargic and pathetic re-election campaign? Or the thousands of Western ex-pats descending on Moscow, treating the temporarily humbled Russia as if they were all Col. Kurtz in the deep jungle? Now add Not-So-Bright’s (and Asmus’) Neocon-lite NATO expansionism, the Balkans and the financial crisis. What do you think the Fox Nation’s chyrons would say if roles were reversed? Then add the Warlord’s militarization across the so-called Near Abroad, triumphalist talk about ‘lily pads’ across Central Asia, encouraging Georgia, Ukraine and others to flaunt pro-Western relationships ostentatiously . . .

Our view? We ‘lost’ Russia as a non-revanchist partner in 1991-1992 and kicked it in the face 1993-2000. Amazing when one thinks about it — several trillion squandered on Iraq/Afghanistan state building. And Russia even has oil. We don’t believe that kind of commitment would have been appropriate anyway. The psychological dislocation of Soviet society was too vast. But we didn’t even fake a try.

Thus we see Putinism — for all of its authoritarian aspects — as distinct from Stalinism or even Soviet totalitarianism lite, but instead a reaction to All That. American stupidity assumed a weakened Russia always would remain so. Historical illiteracy of the highest order. In terms of resources, geographic location and even demographics (albeit shrinking) Russia will be a Great Power (if not the formidable colossus of the fUSSR). In crude terms, it’s as if the Americans saw the 1991 Russia as the Soviets in 1940 screwing up with Finland and thus assuming a half-assed invasion the next year would be like ‘kicking the screen door down’. Except instead of encircling Smolensk some young law partner faxed over a model bankruptcy law copied from the U.S. Code (but unread since he hired a translator and had no idea if the fax was the law or porn). Or expanding NATO would have no pay back, or intruding in historic Russian spheres of influence like the Balkans and humiliating Russia would carry no price (remember the showdown with troops at the airport?).

When Wise American Policy Would Have Had Decisive Impact

We made these arguments at the time. We urged that the time to treat Russians with respect and dignity was precisely when they were most down. We also pushed back against the Davos-American-mindless generic market economy pablum peddled by Sachs et. al. The gulf was too wide.

We were familiar with the Czech privatization (successful), the Polish (so-so) and Hungarian (even more mixed). It was easy to see that the Russian privatization as looming car wreck. We urged considering alternative development models more in keeping with Russian/Soviet political, cultural and economic history. Examples? Statist-capitalism. The old joke used to be that the only successful communist economy was Japan’s. We cited the ‘Four Tigers’ and Japan (China was only then just beginning to unfold in its magnificently managed development).

Not surprisingly, not alot of interest. Imagine saying ‘Yes we can!’ at a Tea Bagger slumber party.

Hence Putinism – a re-assertion of Russian (Slavic) dignity against slights and in pursuit of an alternative, nationalist economic model. All pretty predictable.

We also think too much has been made of Putin’s KGB pedigree. Some of the harshest critics of the old Soviet regime and reform proponents we knew were KGB. He’s not of that mold. Neither is it accurate to say he’s Old School. His version of nationalism and Russian Slavic pride differ yet are still pretty popular. Yes, he installed the siloviki (the new nomenklatura of powerful insiders). Yes, many have defense and intelligence backgrounds. Putin’s Statist Russia nonetheless is not Soviet but unique.

As with any broad-based political phenomenon in the Slavic and particularly Russian tradition, Putinism unleashed other elements in concentric circles which in turn fed on each other: revanchism, nepotism, corruption and terror. Russian history shows its continuity. Is he ultimately responsible? Of course. Yet talk with twenty-something Russians on the street today. They largely are proud of their country (although the economic crisis is felt). Putinism’s Faustin bargain – also resting on oil revenues.

Medvedev’s technocratic partnership with Putin is also part of the mix. Eventually their co-government must resolve itself.

Many Poles might cavil against Putin’s observation of Katyn that the ‘Russian people are not to blame’ for what happened. And it was a ‘crime’. Putin’s position is not wholly political expedience. Russians — but also especially the other nationalities of the fUSSR, Ukrainian, Belorussian, etc. — all victims of Stalinism/those Georgians, and the OGPU/NKVD. Stalin slaughtered millions during manufactured famines, migrations and the Yezhovschina. Of course, behind Putin’s words of Russian victimhood is always the historical latent tension between Russian chauvinism and the other nationalities of the fUSSR. Russians as an ethnic group suffered comparatively little compared to the others during the overall catastrophic deaths.

Getting details correct matters. Is Putin not going far enough? Consider Iraq. How will Americans in the future respond to demands for reconciling our actions? For example, in the face of already real Iraqi accusations of murder re the (shamefully) uncounted hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead? (Accepting the low end of the Johns Hopkins estimates). We’ll ignore the latest 2007 gunship video and appalling audio. Think hard about that. Not so easy to confront historical truths now, is it?

Who but an AEI/Neocon mouthpiece honestly can deny the fundamental truth of Putin’s now famous Munich (how appropos!) critique of the Warlord’s American mindless bellicosity? Many famous American foreign policy and defense analysts at the time private conceded such.

To James Baker, Not-So-Bright, the Warlord et al. we say you helped create that which we have to deal with. Inept American policy helped to create conditions ripe for Putin and Putinism. Both, however, are ultimately Russian in origins.


The Slavic mind is as unique and mutli-faceted as the Confucian, Gallic or Latin. Within it lies the Russian variant. One reason why so much of American Sovietology faced so many difficulties. That most Americans (in and out of government) did not speak or read Russian added to the challenge. Then add the pervasive Counter-Intelligence State apparatus. To compensate we tried ‘Operations Analysis’, ‘Rational Actor’ models, U.S.-based input-out econometric models, etc. Often because we had no other choice.

Many of these people in the field were our teachers or friends. We have the utmost respect. To us today looking back, it’s easy to see errors in hindsight. The Soviet Union defined denied area. If one wants to visit alien worlds, ignore NASA. The closest man will get to another planet for ages? To have lived and breathed the pre-Gorbachev Soviet air.

One reason why some Polish-Americans figured so prominently as historians and American policy architects (Zbig (but ‘not so great’ as one wag observed during his Noontime), Pipes, etc.). They understood intuitively the Slavic culture, the mindset beyond ‘objective facts’. Whether that perspective carried its own baggage is also clear (and was at the time).

All of which brings us to the nuclear agreement in Prague. The Boy King and his counterpart Medvedev will sign a ‘New Start’ agreement there. Some theatrical and staging elements show tentative insights into Russian/Slavic sensitivities. The U.S. remains on the tightwire, balancing between the eager, young Medvedev and Putin obviously maneuvering for return to overt power/a presidential come back. Both appeared on the world stage simultaneously at Katyn and Prague.

As for the ‘New Start’ we mostly shrug. Useless and costly warheads cut. Obama, like the Nuclear Posture Review, continues to prove President Goldilocks will back the path of least bureaucratic resistance. And Medvedev can now transfer cost savings to preserving the more immediately useful conventional forces infrastructure. While holding center court in the heart of the old Soviet Empire. Both sides agreed to kick the ABM can down the road. For once, the tottering metropole (Washington) refused to let the tail (bleating from some quarters in Prague) wag the clueless imperial dog. Remember the Czech emigres all over Wilson? Or later Churchill?

Prague overall? At least it’s done and the orchestration a helluva lot better than healthcare. And Katyn decades overdue.

* (revised for style, typos, etc.)


  1. latte says

    “[…] *perceived* as a ‘Western’ and ‘American’ inspired plot […]”
    But really it was all Yeltsin’s fault, sure. That could be contested with a lot of evidence suggesting otherwise. I intend that to be understood without any sense of moral approbation. Realpolitik. Carve it up and feed it to the wolves, IMF style.
    There was certainly a lot of historical illiteracy and clumsiness, as you allude; but also there seems to have been (evidence suggesting) a concerted and calculated effort underway to accomplish the permanent vassalizing (apologies/word?) of the space.
    ‘Plot’ is such a tawdry word, isn’t it?

    So, anyway. The effort failed, (countered by an emergency reconstitution of former KGB players under new auspices, eventually FSB), and it is failing more and more spectacularly in recent months:, as per events in Ukraine and the meltdown of socio-economic situation of US ‘homeland.’ rots any kind of economic base out from under the operational bodies involved: IMF/Wall-St/Georgetown/Pentagon… etc…
    [rough drafty]

  2. rkka says

    “We contended at the time to all who would listen that the time to treat the Russians with respect and dignity was precisely the time when they were most down.”

    This is precisely what Imperial America is incapable of doing. With regard to Arabs, it is precisely why the Iraqis have shoved us out of having anything at all to do with influencing their country. They tell us how many vehicles we can take on a convoy. And its why the Afghans are going to boot us out of their country.

    And people think “Diem-ing” Karzai will help…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

CommentLuv badge