Monday, May 09, 2005

Putin, Stalin, Mussolini, and the Trains

AFP/Getty Images
Just when we're thinking how bad US leadership is these days, along comes Vlad Putin pining for the good old days of Joe Stalin, the KGB and total control.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, joined by President Bush and dozens of other leaders, commemorated the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany today with a resplendent military parade in Red Square that was steeped in Soviet symbols and new Russian pride.

Standing in front of Lenin's Tomb - not on it, as Soviet leaders once did - Mr. Putin expressed no contrition for the Soviet Union's domination of Eastern and Central Europe that followed the end of World War II, as some leaders there had hoped he would. Instead, he said that that war's legacy had demonstrated the necessity for a new unity with Russia against new threats "It is our duty to defend a world order based on security and justice and on a new culture of relations among nations that will not allow a repeat of any war, neither cold nor hot."--New York Times 5/9/2005

For "world order" read "Stalin," murderer of 8 million souls in the Gulag as well as political dissidents and other enemies of the state. Hitler couldn't hold a candle to the enormity of running a front against his own huge Nazi military machine and killing millions at the same time. Plus, the Red Army overtook Eastern Europe and helped win WWII for the allies. Hitler killed millions, but not as many as Stalin, and he lost--Stalin was on the winning side.

Yet Bush and many other heads of countries attended the gathering amidst images of Stalin without cringing. They surely would have cringed had it been a German reunion with pictures of Hitler held high. Of course Stalin was our ally against Hitler in WWII, right after he signed the non-aggression pact with Germany NOT to fight against them--it's all very complicated. Then right after the allies beat the Nazis, Russia got the A-bomb along with the US, and we were all terrified of each other and the ultimate cataclysm which seemed right around the corner. Stalin was no longer our hero but our enemy. Hitler was history.

I asked a taxi driver in Rome in the 1970's what he thought of politics in Italy. His answer immediately was that what his country needed was another Mussolini. I didn't expect that response. I knew Mussolini was allied with Hitler in WWII, and I knew he was a villain who was hung after the War. I didn't realize that so many Italians felt a pang of nostalgia about their former fascist dictator. I asked the fellow why he liked Mussolini. He said that there was order, everyone knew what to expect, and the economy was a sure thing instead of ups and downs. The question of dictatorship and oppression was not an issue for this taxi driver. The old line was no matter how bad Mussolini was, he did make the trains run on time. The order and control of a society under a dictatorship can mesmerize any individual into forgetting that freedom has its responsibilities, and pitfalls.

Putin may be hoping for a similar sentiment for order and control in Russia today. He went even further, calling the dissolution of the USSR a "disaster." Remember President Reagan's famous cry, "...tear down this wall?--Now the Russian head is saying that wasn't such a good thing.

Putin and Bush are publicly at odds over these concepts of democracy and freedom. They do get along personally. Bush really likes the Saudi royals too, and they adore him and his whole family. He was in with the CEO's too--Kenny Lay of Enron and whoever--they're all under indictment for cooking the books. With that kind of camaraderie, where's the folks like me supposed to fit in? I don't want to sound like Andy Griffith playing country bumpkins, because I really think I know what's up. And if it's obvious to me, where are all my fellow Americans to call to muster our elected representatives, including George W and company?

Bush and Putin and all the self-interested power-mongers have no clue of the shining light of possibilities. They are mired in cross-purposes with nuclear proliferation, contradictory entanglements and innocent people suffering in Africa, implied threats like North Korea, Syria, Iran, and of course real interventions with thousands dead in Iraq.

There is one reality of purpose. President Kennedy said the famous and over-quoted phrase, "Ask not what your country can do for you..." for which I don't have a deep sentiment, despite what the right-wing hard-liners warped it into: "My country, love it or leave it." If Kennedy were here to offer a piece of advice today, it would be the next sentence of that speech, after "ask not":

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.--JFK Inaugural Address 1/20/61

Kennedy would have been proud of his Irish compatriot, U2 lead singer Bono, who has recently put wings on how high we can aspire:

You see my country, Ireland, is a great country, but it's not an idea. America is an idea, but it's an idea that brings with it some baggage, like power brings responsibility. It's an idea that brings with it equality, but equality even though it's the highest calling, is the hardest to reach. The idea that anything is possible, that's one of the reasons why I'm a fan of America.

George W--are you listening?

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