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The best way to understand Russia’s historical legacy today is to examine its president’s background and personality, because in many respects he incorporates its recent past. A child of his time, for all his power and success, fundamentally he is a bitter, profoundly resentful man. He comes from a lower-middle-class background, and his family suffered grievously in the siege of Leningrad. An elder brother died and his parents were crippled by hunger. The young Putin was a proud if undistinguished member of the KGB, but his patriotism took a blow as the Soviet Union disintegrated around him when he was 38, and its intelligence services — briefly — lost their dominating hold.

As a result of these and other experiences he has inherited many of the nationalistic, bar-room veracities of his countrymen: the spiritual superiority, the anti-Western grievances, justified or not, the paranoia about being surrounded, or the imminence of a liberal uprising conceived and plotted in the West. In Putin’s Russia cynicism and nihilism can be seen in his far-right intellectual backers, such as Alexander Dugin, a self-confessed former fascist, for whom postmodernism is a licence for governments and their leaders to lie.

Vehement denials and vicious innuendo by Russian spokesmen over the Salisbury spy affair should be seen alongside Putin’s rejection of any connection to the tragedy of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, shot down in 2014 with the aid of Russian troops, killing all 283 passengers. Or remember him denying with a straight face that Assad, his Syrian client, had used poisoned gas.

These are not the routine evasions of embarrassed statesmen. Putin, a KGB man to his soul, is genuinely indignant at such accusations, not because they are not true but because he cannot allow the truth to be used as a weapon against himself or his country. He sees the world through the prism of his security services, where truth denial is the point. If the FSB, successor to the KGB, says it didn’t happen, in Russia’s parallel world, it didn’t.

When Angela Merkel said of him that “he lives in another world”, this is what she was getting at: a world of institutionalised mendacity. His attempt to interfere in the US election is another example of nihilism. To an extent he succeeded, and humiliated his American adversaries, but at what cost? Not even Trump can deny that it happened, and the idea that there can be a new beginning in Russian-US relations based on mutual trust while Putin is in power has finally gone. Not so smart.

Giving short-term intelligence coups like this precedence over Russia’s long term interests is a manifestation of a small man’s psyche — something to remember when Western magazines pronounce Putin “statesman of the year”. Russia’s strategic nihilism shows in the destructiveness of his foreign policy, notably on the EU. Anything that damages Western interests is fine by him, even if it does little to enhance his own.
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Julian Pardoe
May 1st, 2018
9:05 AM
This is really a question for GW. Is there a reference for the story about "Russian children maturing quickly"? I put it to an acquaintance who studies the history of the PCF and he was doubtful. It would be of interest to us both to have a date or some other way of verifying it.

Peter Kolding
April 1st, 2018
3:04 AM
The author warns against any nationalist tendencies in Western policy to counter the threat of Russia and China. Yet he ignores entirely that the strength of both these countries has always depended upon the unifying strength of nationalism. The Russians have always fought for Russia first, the Chinese have always been Chinese, the inheritors of the Middle Kingdom. The West, on the other hand, has dedicated itself to 'post-nationalism' and looks upon national loyalty in consumerist terms. (Look at Brexit, with all the rage centred not on the peace and tranquillity that democracy is supposed to promise, but economic advantage instead.) In short, the East is supported by a fundamental loyalty from its people. While the West, a mercenary contract. This is important because the East has retained its populations' loyalty even after suffering millions of deaths at its own governments' hands. The West, on the other hand, cannot even control its borders without being condemned and subverted by much of its own population, without the least concern for the interests of their countries. Worse, in response, their governments take the path of appeasement and slowly, but surely, lose territorial control. It is this loss of territorial control in the West, caused by the policies demanded by post-nationalist ambitions, that have provoked the imperialist designs of Russia and China into action. The argument of the author that it's the personalities of Putin and Xi that propels their actions, but it is the territorial weakness of the West that has allowed this. The West, and especially Europe, has built a society that for all intents and purposes is made up and designed for the exercise of power by an assortment of fifth-columnists-in-waiting. The signal for treachery is simply a refusal by the government to devolve territorial authority to them. Currently, these politically powerful identity groups are happy to allow a limited power of arbitration to the government. But with the example of Corbyn, we see them exercising a far more direct demand for mercenary power. It may be an archaic observation to the post-nationalist mind, but God is always on the side of the big battalions. And the West is determined to be ruled by small tribes and gangs.

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