The remains of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev were taken from Moscow’s Hall of Columns, where all Soviet leaders had once lain in state after their death. But all were buried with a State Funeral. Gorbachev was not. This, and Putin’s diary being “too full to allow him to attend” was a major snub of the only leader of real stature, one who had ended the Cold War and built links through a crumbling Iron Curtain.
The origins of Gorbachev’s mould-breaking career is seldom discussed. Born under Stalin in Stavropol, South Russia, his early childhood would witness the brutal collectivisation of the Kulaks and, at age 11, witness occupation by the Wehrmacht’s Army Group ‘A’ making Hitler’s lunge for Caspian oilfields.
Little wonder that, when he had the influence to do so, he looked for de-escalation and peace.
His rise through the Party ranks to take the Soviet Union in a different direction to his geriatric predecessors, risking all with his glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) was world-changing. Considered in the West to be one of the most significant figures of the 20th century, Gorbachev remains the subject of controversy in his homeland. Hardliners like Putin clearly se him as an aberration, someone who threw away the empire he is mow desperate to restore.
So Gorbachev is the exception, Putin is a return to the norm of Russian leader: a tyrant; a heartless despot, borrowing from repressive Russian leaders down the ages, with Stalin his poster boy. The thuggery of Chechnya, Ossetia, Crimea, Donbas and now Ukraine are just Putin’s desperate attempts to fill Stalin’s shoes as the most successful dictator the world has seen.
But it is Putin’s background in paranoid ambition, honed while scaring the bejasus out of hapless Ossis (East Germans) during the earlier part of his career as a KGB thug. That poorly-led troops have committed innumerable war crimes, that civilians have been brutalised, that nothing remotely resembling truth is ever announced. All are not new tactics, invented by Putin. They are straight out of Stalin’s playbook how to control a population by terrorising it.
“How many divisions does the Pope have?”—Josef Stalin, when asked to consider Catholic good will.
Repulsive though brutality not just sanctioned but planned and initiated by Putin may appear, he is an amateur when compared with events during the three decades his role model Stalin held sway. For example:
- Between 1929 and 1933, kulaks (prosperous peasants) were collectivised transforming traditional agriculture and centralising power. This process of “dekulakization” was pure political repressions, including arrests, deportations, or executions of millions of kulaks.
- In the summer of 1941, the invading German Army Group Centre uncovered mass graves in the Katyn forest, near Smolensk. They were Poles, taken when Stalin quietly occupied half of Poland in 1939. 8,000 officers, 6,000 police and 8,000 “intellectuals” were executed on Stalin’s orders “as they represented a threat”. When accused, Stalin blamed it on the German occupiers. The Allies hushed the while thing up to assuage Stalin.
- When the surrounded German 6th Army finally surrendered at Stalingrad in January 1943, over 90,000 half-starved, frost-bitten soldiers were marched off to Soviet gulags. Fewer than 10,000 ever saw the Fatherland again.
- In May 1944, after the Red army re-occupied Crimea, 200,000 Tartars—even party members and Red Army veterans—were forcibly transported to Uzbekistan in cattle trucks because Stalin suspected some of collaboration. Russians were given the empty farms and houses. Nearly 8,000 died during the deportation.
Whether the harsh Russian climate created a hardy race of tough people who need strong leadership to control them, or a litany of harsh leaders has created the phlegmatic resilience of the Russian people is not clear. Ivan the Terrible and even Catherine the Great set the tome, but none matched Soviet leaders for pitiless brutality. Though he fancies himself as Stalin’s successor who will restore Russia to its rightful empire, he is a wuss; his actions born of desperation, not dominance.
Even casual students of Russian history know, a century from now, which of Gorbachev and Putin will be lauded for contributions made to Mother Russia and civilisation. It won’t be a minor KGB apparatchik whose brutality got lucky.
“Those who vote decide nothing. Those who count the vote decide everything.”—Josef Stalin