A resounding indictment of the Russian leader into whose soul George Bush recently peered and pronounced himself satisfied.
That was the wrong conclusion to draw, to trust Novaya gazeta correspondent Politkovskaya’s furious attack on the person and government of Vladimir Putin. The leaders of the West, she writes, have found it useful to pretend that Putin merits their respect, and with their crowning him an equal “Putin’s reign reached its high point, and almost nobody noticed.” The former KGB general made it clear that enemies of his regime needed to take notice, however; by Politkovskaya’s account, his years of rule have been marked by a return of Stalinist measures ranging from the imprisonment of political enemies in psychiatric hospitals to the show-trial persecution of men and women above suspicion—all very familiar to older Russians who grew up under Sovietism. “Nobody has any hard facts,” she writes, “but everybody is frightened, just as people used to be.” But there’s a big difference: whereas the pride of the USSR was its military, today’s Russian armed forces are staffed by brutal officers who rob their subordinates and sometimes kill them for pleasure, or, at the opposite extreme, by dedicated, brilliant officers who go unpaid and near-starving, maintaining their men and equipment through the charity of their neighbors. Who profits by undermining Russia’s security? The same mafiosi and oligarchs and developers to whom Putin has handed over control of the economy, Politkovskaya thunders, thereby satisfying one of the three preconditions for getting ahead in today’s Russia: “First, you have to initially get a slice of the state pie—that is, a state asset as your private property.”
Looting the public coffers? Influence-peddling? Corruption? Putin’s government sounds positively Western, though the author suggests that it’s the same old oriental despotism—and urges that her readers, Russian and otherwise, not allow “political winter” to descend again.