Next week Donald Trump will get his fond wish to shake hands with Vladimir Putin, perhaps even to sit down and talk with him. For the rest of us it will be a perilous moment because Trump—and many Americans—seem to believe that the new Russia is rather like America and Putin roughly like Trump. They are not.
Since the fall of Soviet communism 26 years ago, a new generation of Americans became adults blithely assuming that since communism was replaced by free enterprise and Christian values were being “re-instilled in the public square,” there were probably gun rights and same-sex marriage, and Russia must be the kind of country we could befriend.
“There has been a change in the views of hard-core conservatives toward Russia,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California told The Washington Post. “Conservative Republicans like myself hated communism during the Cold War. But Russia is no longer the Soviet Union.”
Yes, Russia is no longer the Soviet Union. But the principles and mindset that drove the Soviet government from 1917 to 1991 were not invented in Soviet times. These were deeply Russian instincts dating back to Ivan the Terrible and before, instincts that drove the czars to fear civil unrest and behead perceived enemies, instincts that led Vladimir Lenin to call for a “dictatorship of the proletariat” not a democracy of the proletariat, and caused his successor Stalin to so fear the masses that he purged uncounted millions of citizens including political rivals and most of the country’s military leadership.
In the 1930s Russia sought to identify foreigners and particularly Americans who might be or become sympathetic, then sent agents to the United States to recruit American spies. Domestically the leadership always portrayed their country as endangered by enemies from the west, disrespected, looked down upon, and ridiculed. The leaders needed enemies to buttress their demands for unwavering discipline from the public.
The orthodox political belief was that Russia was building socialism and on one bright day would arrive at its goal, communism. On that day everyone would be equal. There would be no need for private ownership and thus no crime.
After tentative efforts under Nikita Khrushchev to relax Stalin’s brutal rule, Soviet leaders again cracked down on liberal thought and began arresting writers, historians, and others who resisted. Leaders in the Cold War years seemed constantly fearful, feeling endangered by any small sign of public protest or intellectual dissent to their policies, their ideology, or the totems of their faith.
Communism was the main totem, practice of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam having been officially banned. Patriotism was the second totem, symbolized by the Russian defeat of Nazism in what was always called The Great Patriotic War, an event as sacred to their narrative as Christ’s birth to Christians.
A weak Russian Orthodox Church was allowed to exist under the tightest discipline as was every form of publishing, journalism, and the arts. The level of distrust however was so deep that even in classical music the cultural custodians practiced censorship.
It was in this environment that Putin served his apprenticeship in the Leningrad KGB (now St. Petersburg), where one of his duties was to survey foreigners for possible recruitment. Like Soviet leaders before him, Putin brutally suppresses protest and chafes under the the belief that his country does not receive its due respect in the world, that it must replace American dominance with its own and, to that end, use very method available to create distrust of American leadership both abroad and in the United States.
Vladimir Melikhov, a business man who created a private museum preserving the memory of Russia’s anti-Bolshevik resistance, described the nature of the new Russia in an interview with The New York Times.
“The Soviet Union collapsed, but the Soviet system of rule and thinking has stayed the same,” he said. “There was monopolization of political power, monopolization of economic power, monopolization of mass media, monopolization of civil society. Today, the basic elements of this Soviet system are all being put back in place.”
Andrey Zubov, an historian who was forced out of a Moscow institute after comparing Putin’s seizure of Crimea to Hitler’s seizure of territory in 1939, said: “Communism is obviously dead as an ideology. There is no communism. But there is a Soviet way of thinking, a Soviet form of imperialism that survives that authorities want to protect from historical facts.”
Trump will arrive unprepared, but eager to please a leader he admires. He doesn’t read briefing papers and is impatient with detailed preparation. “There’s no specific agenda. It’s really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about,” said his national security advisor H.R. McMaster.
Putin will be meticulously prepared, with his own agenda and a singleminded will to achieve it, to demonstrate dominance over the United States.