Thursday, September 3, 2015

Frontline: “Putin’s Way” (WGBH/PBS, January 13, 2015, rebroadcast September 1, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The night before last, after watching a movie with Charles, I’d watched a PBS Frontline episode, originally aired January 13, called “Putin’s Way,” whose tag sequence promised a more interesting documentary than it in fact delivered. The tag suggested it would be a program about how Vladimir Putin had never been a democrat, and therefore it was wrong to analyze his regime as a democracy that had somehow failed. Rather, it argued that he was an authoritarian from the get-go, and his rule over Russia should be seen as an autocracy that has succeeded. Certainly I’ve noticed this before; Russians’ view of their own history seems to be that their country survives and prospers when it’s governed by a strong hand — an Ivan the Terrible, a Peter the Great, a Lenin, a Stalin, a Putin — and the periods of their national existence the Russians perceive as the worst are the ones in which there wasn’t a strong hand, and instead was a lot of turmoil as various would-be czars vied for the title until one of them emerged as the winner. The legendary “Time of Troubles” depicted in Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov — the 15 to 20 years of civil conflict between the death of Ivan the Terrible and the rise of Mikhail Romanov, who in 1613 founded the dynasty that would rule Russia until the Revolution(s) of 1917 — seemed to me to have their analogue in the period of uncertainty between the death of Leonid Breshnev in 1982 and the rise of Putin to the Russian Presidency in 1999, and as I said at the time, if the Russian people’s experience of “democracy” was the incompetent kleptocratic autocracy of Boris Yeltsin, it was no wonder they would regard the competent autocracy of Putin as an improvement and a reversion to The Way Things Should Be. Alas, this program (written, produced and directed by Neil Docherty and narrated by Will Lyman from research by “correspondent” Gillian Findlay) focused mostly on Putin’s alleged misappropriation of huge sums of money from the Russian economy (including relief payments from Western Europe) for his own benefit — he may be doing that and it may be a terrible thing that’s harming ordinary Russians, but he’s also proved a master politician who has been able to keep most of his people in support of him, largely because of his attitude towards what Russians call “the near abroad” — the outlying territories that seceded from Russia during the breakup of the Soviet Union. Charles said he didn’t want to watch this show because, though he’s not a Putin admirer, he didn’t want to see any more Western propaganda vilifying him — which is an interesting point; when Putin was being damned in the U.S. press for having said it was a world-historical tragedy that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, it occurred to me that he was right. Most of the former Soviet republics have become personal autocracies even more kleptocratic and less interested in their people’s welfare than Putin’s Russia, and quite frankly that part of the world would be far better off today if Mikhail Gorbachev had achieved his goal of reforming the Soviet Union instead of getting rid of it.