Politics & Policy

Putin’s Useful Idiot

Oliver Stone in 2010 (Fergus McDonald/Getty Images Entertainment)
Oliver Stone is one of Putin’s biggest admirers — and it seems to be mutual.

Vladimir Putin has no greater friend in Hollywood than director Oliver Stone.

At a time when members of Russia’s parliament are calling for a ban on Hollywood films such as The Avengers and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, which “demonize Russia and Russians,” and when a prominent Russian director has advocated banning all American movies until Washington lifts the sanctions it imposed on Moscow in the wake of the annexation of Crimea, Stone sets himself apart as one of the few Tinseltown personalities still held in high esteem by the country’s state-controlled media (though he is not alone in this).

The leftist director, who is currently helping produce a documentary called “Ukraine on Fire,” about the region’s crisis, gave a lengthy and exclusive interview to the state-owned newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta. In it, he praised Putin’s authoritarian rule of the country, defended Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent aggression in Ukraine, and once again speculated about who really shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

Stone makes his enthusiasm for Putin quite clear in the interview. Like many apologists for the Kremlin, he justifies Putin’s erosion of democracy and consolidation of power as a legitimate response to the chaotic Yeltsin years of the 1990s. “I believe, though many feel otherwise, that Putin played a very important role in halting this [economic] slide of Russia, having said ‘no’ to the politics of Yeltsin, having laid down a new state order and new authoritarianism,” Stone says. “I think this returned a sense of certainty, harmony, and pride to Russians. In the Nineties the Russian economy shrank to the size of the Netherlands’. To recover the state from the hands of bandits was a very important step for Russia. In this sense, I admire Putin as a strong man.” (All quotes from Stone have been retranslated back from the Russian interview transcript; the original English is not available online.)

Stone’s admiration for Russia’s strong man hasn’t wavered in the light of Putin’s recent aggression in Crimea and Ukraine. If anything, it has grown. In Stone’s view, the true aggressor in Ukraine is not Russia, but rather the U.S.-led West. “I understand why Putin couldn’t abandon Crimea. Western institutions — the E.U., NATO, the IMF — would like to acquire influence in Ukraine, to control it. I don’t think this is good for Russia, which is defending the rights of people in southeastern Ukraine.”

Many Americans “don’t in the least understand Russia’s point of view,” according to Stone. He even goes so far as to call the U.S.’s successful push to sanction Russia for its aggression “shameful.” Not to worry, though; the director thinks such measures will ultimately prove ineffective. “Russia will be able to find new partners in the East and in Eurasia. Not long ago new trade agreements were signed with China. Russia will remain standing on her feet with sanctions or without them.”

When the subject turns to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Stone makes clear that he is an unabashed truther. A “neglected part of this story,” he says, “is why the U.S., which possesses . . . comprehensive intelligence capabilities around the world, and all the more so throughout Ukraine, at such an important moment never published any photographs [of the downing].” Who really shot the plane down? “My intuition suggests that it was ‘bad guys’ in the Ukrainian government. I’m not certain, but I suspect it was precisely that.”

When I last covered the state-controlled Russian media’s praise for Stone’s posting “alternative” MH-17 crash theories on his Facebook page, I joked that there was no word yet on whether Putin would “mandate Stone’s Untold History of the United States as required reading for high-school students.” Both Stone’s book and the ten-part documentary of the same name that it was based on lay out an “alternative” history of U.S. foreign policy in the 20th century that seriously downplays the crimes of the Soviet Union. As the historian Ronald Radosh has explained, Untold History presents a generally sympathetic view of Stalin on the world stage and recycles many points from old Soviet propaganda. (This includes blaming the escalation of the Cold War on Harry Truman rather than on Stalin.) While the book still hasn’t been mandated in Russian high-school curricula, Stone announced in the interview that Russia’s state-controlled Channel 1 — roughly equivalent in scale to CBS or NBC in the U.S. — will be broadcasting the Untold History series in its entirety.

Neglected in Stone’s series/book is any mention of “useful idiots,” those American and European intellectuals who turned a blind eye to the Soviet Union’s crimes and repression to stand in solidarity with its “higher cause.” Stone, whose own anti-American views happen to coincide with those of the Kremlin, would do well to research the phenomenon. He could start by looking in the mirror.

— Nat Brown is an associate editor of National Review Online.

Nat Brown is a former deputy web editor of Foreign Affairs and a former deputy managing editor of National Review Online.

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