Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Self determination in the land of the Despot?

I've always had an interest in Russia -- it and Turkey are the two places overseas I really want to visit. A cousin of mine was even fortunate enough to spend time there teaching English. Well, she was fortunate enough to be able to afford it. The fact that she spent a lot of time and work on learning Russian might have had something to do with it as well. Nevertheless, I remain green with envy.

Therefore, when Time magazine announced today Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, as their man of the year [Edit: person of the year], I was interested. Interested, of course, to read their cover story. And the story about why they named him. I read these before I read a story about national identity in post Soviet era Russia. After I read those three, I read about the super glitzy nightclubs of Russia, where one night in the luxury suite can cost upwards of $40,000. There was also an interview of Kissinger about Putin. There was also an interesting piece about prognostications on Putin's place in history. Gorbachev also has a love letter for the president in the issue. Almost satisfied of my Putin-fix, I read on about economics in the Russian capital. And then, like at Christmas dinner, full to even the highest corners of my stomach, I saw one last piece of pie -- well, a hell of a large pie, and not even just a slice -- the complete transcript of the Time interview with the president.

Well, there are probably about 7,500 words that I digested. I'll cover the main points, or at least what I thought were the main points. A note: if you're going to read some or all of that material, I'd suggest both the actual cover story and the complete interview -- both are fairly long, but worthwhile. The cover story is worthwhile because it presents the back story in some places where it is helpful. The complete interview is a good read because it is the cannon, and because it is interesting (especially) side by side to see how Time parses Putin's words. The "excerpts" which I did not link to above are just a rehash of the complete interview.

Without further ado, my main points:

* Putin is Christian, a Russian Orthodox. He seems to be fairly devout -- but he also seems to maintain a balance between public and private:

You could say that it is my deep conviction that the moral values without which humankind cannot survive cannot be other than religious values. Now, as regards a specific church or other establishment, that's a separate matter. As somebody said once, if God exists, he does know that people have different views regarding church.
Now, does this not sound like a particular American candidate to you?

* Time's staff seem to have gone into this interview with unusual tenacity, offering probing follow-up questions when Putin seemed evasive. I just wish they used the same tenacity interviewing domestic pols. The president (our president) must have some really heavy duty security, since these guys weren't afraid to ask the tough questions of Putin even after being warned about snipers roving around outside the villa. Oh, and Putin is an nth degree black belt.

* Putin seems to believe -- and the ancillary stories to the cover package seem to back this up -- that the Russian people really do want him to be a strong-man. (At one point, Time writes that his internal popularity rating is holding at about 70%.)

Alright, three points are enough -- because I want to focus on the third.

The way that I understand things, and what I imagine is one of the underlying factors that lead to the great misunderstandings between cultures, is that some cultures have different values than our own. Duh! I know some of you are yelling at your computer screen. Some African tribes want to practice genital cutting (in some quarters referred to as genital mutilation), and some of us scream about how this is misogynist. (Or, there are now groups here that are calling for an end to infantile circumcision because they argue that such a decision should be made by the guy later on in life.) Some Native American tribes want to smoke peyote to get closer to their gods. And on and on and on.

But when we hear that some cultures value cultural stability at the cost of personal liberty we all throw up our arms and start the talk about exporting democracy to these poor, ass backward souls. A SCOTUS justice -- Oliver Wendall Holmes, methinks -- once wrote that democracy is the only system of government that contemplate its own demise. For example, we can vote in politicians who enact, for example, a monarchy. This could be done, quite legally, through a series of Constitutional amendments. Or we could suspect the Constitution. Or abolish it. Or something. But at any rate, just such a decision could be arrived at through the democratic process.

But now comes Putin and Russia, saying that stability and progress are worth more than freedom and stagnation. (It's the economy, stupid.) Some free markets are alright, with a strong hand to guide them. Before you get yourself all rilled up about that thought, recall that we've elected leaders in this country that have made a similar bargain: civil liberties for collective security. Regardless of which argument you feel is more compelling (Ben Franklin: Those who would give up a little freedom for security deserve neither), you must admit the hypocrisy to holler at the Russians when we've mad the same trade.


* (Point number four -- I just remembered:) Putin's core principle seems to be that of internal control. He refused to comment on the current presidential race going on here, because he thought it would be offensive for a foreign leader to make pronouncements about another nation's priorities. At no point does he ask that we follow the Russian system. He refused to criticize the electoral college -- but he brings up such refusal to point out what he perceives as hypocrisy. (You'll note from above, I am sympathetic to such a charge.)

Perhaps he is wrong, and, prima facie, individual rights should trump collective considerations. I happen to think that, that, is indeed the case -- I think Putin's system will crumble at some point. But at least he's consistent about his beliefs -- and perhaps we should become more so, as well.

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