Putin, and that would be Vladimir with a “V,” Russian fuehrer, leader, czar, prime minister, president, Sochi host, the great and powerful whatever (and, really, does the title matter?) granted several people amnesty this week.
Make no mistake, Putin’s in charge. The number for the man who runs the show in the Russian Federation just happens to be the number that rings the phone on Putin’s ornate and oversized desk. He sits atop the Caucasus, the bread baskets, the steppes, the tundra, China’s northern border, the Bering Strait islands off Sarah Palin’s front porch. He directs the circular traffic jam that happens to be the hub of a country that spans half the globe with more time zones than O’Hare airport.
And what does the average American media-buff know about him? Very little, which is the Russian way, after all. Perhaps if we’d known more about Stalin three generations ago maybe all those liberal intellectuals wouldn’t have been seduced by the lofty promise of a workers’ paradise made manifest by a psychopath.
But what about this strange man with the short legs and over broad shoulders?
On the plus side he met with Paul McCartney some years ago. They were filmed taking a stroll, no interpreters in sight. They seemed to be enjoying a nice chat, probably because neither one knew what the other one was saying. Paul’s second wife, the mercurial Heather Mills, was there, too. She behaved herself. At least they didn’t put her on a train to the Gulag (though Paul probably would have paid). That night Paul gave a concert with his killer travelling band. The crowd went wild. Back in the U.S.S.R.
President Bush said Putin was full of little games, like showing off his rough, tough, muscle bound, rip your throat out, Siberian killer dog, while making light of little Barney, Bush’s Scottish terrier.
Putin’s not averse to having himself photographed shirtless, proud of his middle aged torso, which makes one wonder if dysmorphic body image is a wrinkle in the frontals particular to modern czars.
He struts like the kid in high school who’s dying for somebody, anybody, to cross him, so he can show off the latest move he learned in martial arts class.
He looks Russian, which comes as no surprise, but Putin looks particularly Russian. He’s got that meld of the slav, the Asian and the European in a bone structure given to planes and secrecy. He’s got the pale skull, cloudy eyes, and the cold, flat-line lips that haven’t enjoyed a smile since a St. Petersburg mixer. One suspects that if he did smile, it would be the false smile men force after hearing a dirty joke, or the sinister smile one allows on learning of some enemy’s misfortune.
He’s married. Or he’s not married. Divorced? Separated? Dating Heather Mills? Or maybe the wife is still with him? If there is a wife. And what were those photos with Medved all about? Popped up in cyber space and disappeared within a news cycle. It was right around the time Putin announced the anti-gay stuff for the Sochi Olympics and before he considered amnesty as an olive branch.
He teared-up when he was re-elected to office in an election that was more referendum than campaign. The tears seemed out of character and out of place. He’d only left office because the Russian constitution required it, but he never left the power. He stood behind his very own Potemkin Village false front, propping up Medved, who just might be Gary Kasparov.
Years ago he sat across the table from Yeltsin in one of Catherine the Great’s ornate conference rooms. It was clear for all to see that Yeltsin was past ready for the dog track with a jug and a plaque that said: “Thanks for standing on the tank-thing.” Putin just stared at him, while Yeltsin went on and on, wanting and failing to give the impression that he was interviewing Putin. Putin knew the score. Yeltsin talked and Putin measured him for a pine box.
Putin’s got friends. There’s the KGB crowd from St. Petersburg. They’re like a college fraternity where the hazing is especially dangerous. He’s got friends in the KGB or the NKVD or the Lubyanka or the Cheka or the Stasi or the IRS or the CIA or some combination of the crazy Russian letters they wear on their Olympic sweatshirts.
Putin’s friends are a half-step up the evolutionary scale from standard Russian prison guards, which is to say they’re sadistic, but they know that they’re sadistic. They’re dangerous and loyal. As one commentator allowed 70 years ago in Berlin while watching a parade of SS Stormtroopers walking their barking dogs: “Cruel masters can be very kind to cruel dogs. And cruel dogs can be very loyal to cruel masters.”
Putin benefits from contrasts. He’s not Stalin. But then again, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov and the fourth guy, Chernenko, who looked like Santa’s mobbed up older brother, weren’t Stalin. And what good were they? Not starting World War III isn’t exactly grounds for the Noble Peace prize.
Putin’s not Gorbachev or Yeltsin either. Forget Yeltsin (though Bill Clinton acted as if he found him funny), but Americans miss Gorby. He shone bright when America was proud of itself in the 80’s with John Williams’ music at the LA Olympics, Cosby on the TV, Cheers, Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, MTV, The Police and Michael Jackson before the deluge.
One wonders what would happen if time flipped back on itself. What if President Obama had been the one standing at the lectern in Berlin demanding: “Mr. Putin, tear down this wall.” One can hear Obama say it, and one can see Putin’s flat line lips make that sinister smile.
Putin held a press conference this week. He announced grants of amnesty for a number of prisoners. One guy was an oil tycoon billionaire, Russia’s richest man. He went away because he’d challenged Putin politically ten years ago. For all his money, the oil tycoon, Khodorkovsky, forgot what others remember: Putin’s got friends.
Putin granted amnesty to the all-girl punk-band, Pussy Riot. They were doing hard time for some street theater they performed in a Russian church with the gold icons and an onion dome.
He also granted amnesty to some “hooligans,” imprisoned for their “hooliganism.” The hooligans were thirty members of a Greenpeace ship that probably sailed to close to Sarah Palin’s front porch.
Why is Putin letting these people out of prison now?
John Williams again. Hear the trumpets? Some say it’s a time honored tradition for a country to grant amnesty to prisoners before a grand event. The Olympics are a grand event. There’s more to it though. Talking Mark Twain once again: History does not repeat, but it does rhyme.
Travel back to the heady days of 1936 Berlin when National Socialism was deemed a miracle in the heart of Europe, when Adolph Hitler was Time’s Man of the Year, when all the Oktoberfest-gemutlichkeit of beer-women in dirndl, their hair in bread-braids, men in lederhosen, stone mugs, heavy fare with a starch bias, parades, banners, beer swaying: du du du du, and a night rally or two. Wilkommen, world.
Goebbels had his fingers on the dials. The world was coming to Germany and Putzi Hafstangel, the German American Harvard grad, piano player, court jester, and press secretary put a Black Forest smile on the new regime. For months prior to the Games and the influx of foreigners, the top dogs knew they had to clean up the place. This spoke to the German fetish for clean floors, streets, kitchen counters, sitting rooms, tea rooms, streets, sidewalks, old buildings and store fronts. Cleaning was the easy part, but what to do about all those nasty rumors that were especially problematic because they were true.
What to do about Dachau and the Jews? What to do about the tawdry nature of a regime that burned books and murdered the disabled, all as prelude to a greater holocaust? What to do with all that state sanctioned violence? What to do about a culture married to the darkness of night. What to do with the bully boys who beat up Jews and anybody else who didn’t give Hitler salute on time? What to do with all that darkness and heaviness when the Olympics were scheduled for the sunlight of summer? What to do with all the fear that had yet to objectify its source, but wafted about the bourgeois sidewalk cafés like an imminent storm, a breath of cold wind?
What to do about all of that?
Goebbels went to work.
Books, books, and more books. Who said books were banned? The government flooded the book stores with all the books they’d banned, recalled for the benefit of the visiting masses.
Dachau? Make a film if necessary. Show the world it’s nothing more than a kind of summer camp for adults, like those British Holiday Camps, where people learn skills they’d forgotten from living too long in dirty, complicated cities. Show them clean and well-fed campers without a mark on them, happy with the renewed and reborn spirit of the Volk.
As for the Jews? Clean the scrawls off the windows – for now. Let them open their shops and sell their goods. Let them gouge the tourists with their haggling and cunning. Yes, and because they have friends in the world out there, let’s not make their friends Germany’s enemies – not yet.
Amnesties? One or two or more. But always make the most of each one. Each amnesty has propaganda value. Hold press conferences. Announce the release with fanfare and modesty. Show mercy with a straight face. Show that the reborn and wide-awake Germany of 1936 is a nation powerful enough to be merciful when necessary – and merciless when necessary.
History’s rhyme is self-evident. Regimes that have been less than good, reasonable, judicious, tempered, sober, sensible, reliable, fair and responsive towards their own people, will always feel the need to clean themselves up for party guests. The question remains, what will the country look like after the guests leave? What will the Russian Federation look like after Sochi?
It’s a different time, and perhaps the free world isn’t as gullible as it was when it strolled down Berlin’s linden lanes in 1936. Perhaps Putin means well with the amnesty offers and the invite to Sochi. But one should not be fooled. Perhaps no people for so long have been more poorly served by those in power than those who found themselves behind Stalin’s iron curtain. Yes, times have changed, and things are better, but Putin’s shown himself to be a bully, and for bullies everyone is the “other.” For bullies even one’s own is the “other,” and the “other” is never safe. The “other” is always vulnerable.
Maybe next time the Olympic Committee should give the Summer Olympics to North Korea. Word is they have a hell of a basketball team and one wild American coach. Maybe they’d clean up nice before they light the Olympic fire. And maybe somebody other than the sponsors would benefit, if only for the cleaning.