David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Putin on the Same Old Threads


Investigation into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko has simply run into the sands.  British detectives in Moscow were not allowed to work freely there, and the Russians in retaliation are pushing to send their detectives to London to build the case they make that Boris Berezovsky ordered the murder – he is a former oligarch who befriended Vladimir Putin but began to oppose him politically and therefore had to flee for his life. In the gathering circle of Russian exiles in London, he befriended and employed Litvinenko, and the idea that he wanted a hit on Litvinenko is on the face of it absurd. But not a surprise. An old Leninist trick, perfected by Stalin, is to displace on to someone else, preferably the victim or his associates, the responsibility for the crime you have yourself just committed. This worked well throughout the Soviet era.

But there are indications of a psycho-political change of climate in the Kremlin. Take Nashi, which translates more or less as “For us.”  This is a movement of young men, outwardly civilian, but evidently Kremlin storm-troopers. One of their standing orders is to picket and intimidate the British ambassador, Anthony Brenton. They harass him wherever he goes. One reason is because the British are trying to pursue the Litvinenko case, and also refuse to extradite Berezovsky. And take the row that has blown up in Estonia. The Soviets invaded that Baltic country in 1940, were driven out by the Germans but returned in 1944. By the time the Soviets had fully swallowed up the country, they had killed somewhere between a third and a half of the population, and installed large numbers of Russian colonizers. In the centre of beautiful and historic Tallinn, the capital, they erected an outsize bronze statue of a Soviet soldier, supposedly a liberator to them but in the eyes of the locals a real killer. Estonians have a very strong and patriotic national identity, they are free people, and their parliament voted to remove the statue to a war cemetery. This perfectly polite compromise has prompted Kremlin shrieks that the Estonians are neo-Nazis, and Putin is threatening sanctions.

Same old trick. Who is closer to Nazi practices here, the Estonians or the Kremlin? In any case, other cities in eastern and central Europe have been getting rid of similar mendacious and forcibly imposed public symbols ever since the Hungarians in 1956 destroyed the gigantic statue of Stalin that disfigured Budapest.  (In contrast to the Estonians and everyone else, the Austrians are too lily-livered to take down the statue of the Soviet soldier that remains one of the tallest and most visible monuments in central Vienna, and their abiding badge of subservience.)

On a wider scale, Putin is proposing to found a cartel of gas producers on the lines of OPEC. He protects North Korea and Iran, providing the latter with nuclear scientists and anti-aircraft missile defences. Evidently the hope is to build another anti-democratic bloc. The size of the country, its immense natural resources, and perhaps some sense that the task of evolving a decent civil society is for ever beyond reach, seems to impel whoever is in the Kremlin to resort to naked power. The rest of us had a respite after the fall of Communism, but this was evidently too good to last. 


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