Fond Memories of Stalin

“Remember that the two presidents do not know each other,” one official cautioned the New York Times. “Mr. Putin,” opined their correspondent, “seems unlikely to achieve with Mr. Clinton the easy-going ‘Boris and Bill’ chemistry that dominated during Mr. Yeltsin’s two terms.” Reuters put out a similar warning in the opening of one of its dispatches (titled “Bear Hug Era Over at Clinton-Putin Summit”): “The normally gregarious U.S. president appeared cautious and on guard at his joint news conference with Russian president Vladimir Putin … the body language and manners of the two leaders throughout the summit were friendly and polite, but lacking spontaneity.”

For his part, President Putin felt obliged to reassure the waiting cameras that “we’ve established now not only good business ties, but also personal ones,” just in case anyone should doubt it—for clearly, it matters if they do. When Clinton meets Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor, no one cares if the two strike up a friendship or instantly hate each other. Nor is much interest raised by the warmth, or lack of it, evinced by the American president toward his French counterpart. True, photographs have been taken of the Clintons eating dinner with the Blairs, but these seem to have been carefully designed to boost Tony Blair’s image as a “statesman” in Britain and have had no impact whatsoever in the United States, where no one knows Tony and Cherie from Sonny and Cher.
But Russia is different: When the American head of state meets the Russian head of state at a meeting which we still insist on calling a “summit,” everyone instantly feels compelled to talk personalities, friendship, small talk, and bear hugs, or absence thereof. The habit dates from the days when Kremlinology—the science of who sat next to whom at the funeral—was our principle means of analyzing the internal workings of the Soviet elite. So addicted did we get to the idea that whoever was in power had to be our president’s friend, and whoever was not in power ought to be treated with utmost suspicion, that, once upon a time, the funerals of Soviet leaders were actually genuinely sad occasions—for us.

On the occasion of the death of Stalin, one of the most horrific dictators of the 20th century, the Times of London (I once looked it up) described him as “successfully piloting his country through periods of crisis” and remembered him fondly as a man whose “hair was gray and stiff as a badger’s … he spoke softly, moved slowly, but his expression was quizzical, like a man enjoying a hidden joke.” Although there was no mention of Stalin’s fondness for little children and flowers, there was, nevertheless, a word of warning about the unknown “hard-liners” who might now be waiting in the wings. Admittedly, it was easier in those days to be fooled. But virtually the same language, I am sorry to say, was used 30 years later when Brezhnev died (assuming he had actually been alive for the previous decade): “He was, above all, more predictable … he has helped to give the Soviet Union a degree of stability,” opined the Times, before moving on to ruminate about the “hard-liners” of whom we must now beware.

Unfortunately, since the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly a decade ago, we haven’t managed to kick the habit: We still need to feel some personal attachment to whoever is ruling Russia and to interpret smiles and chitchat as signs of international “warmth.” The Bush administration, still obsessed with the hard-liners in the wings, duly lauded Gorbachev when he was on the inside and made a point of snubbing Yeltsin—refusing him an official White House meeting—when he was president of a Russia which was still part of the U.S.S.R. Later, when it was Yeltsin on the inside, the Clinton administration, lulled by those bear hugs, directed vast quantities of money and energy into ensuring that “the president’s friend” stayed in charge, at one point urging the disbursement of a disputed International Monetary Fund loan just in time for Yeltsin’s re-election campaign—and just in time for Yeltsin to quickly hand out months’ worth of unpaid salaries to millions of state workers. When Yeltsin won, everyone felt relieved that someone we “knew” would still be in charge, all the while failing to notice the growing corruption around Yeltsin, the endemic cronyism, and the mysterious absence of the “reforms” that the IMF loans were really meant to be promoting in the first place. Yeltsin, in the end, became so closely associated with the United States that it gave the United States a bad name in Russia.

Not much better, on another level, was Al Gore’s equally ill-advised “friendship” with Viktor Chernomyrdin, a Russian prime minister and natural-gas mogul whose links were even shadier than Yeltsin’s. So eager to please was the vice president that one could switch on a press conference of the “Gore-Chernomyrdin commission” and mistakenly believe one was watching Gore ask Chernomyrdin for a job. Famously, so angered was Gore by a CIA memo warning the vice president of rumors of corruption swirling around Chernomyrdin, that he is said to have scrawled the word “bullshit” across the top: That, after all, is what honorable men do when their dear friends are slandered.

But why should our leaders be “friends” with Russia’s leaders? Why our insistence on warm personal relations with this particular set of foreigners? Partly, as I say, it’s got to be a Cold War hangover. Partly, perhaps, it is something to do with legitimate fear of Russia’s nukes. Yet this isn’t sufficient either: The Cold War has been over for a decade, and although the Chinese have nukes too, you don’t hear anyone worrying about how Clinton is going to get along with Jiang Zemin. My last guess is that it is something to do with a subliminal American longing to have a “soul mate” in Europe: not some ditsy country the size of Alabama, full of dukes and duchesses, but another big, multiethnic land mass with a president, lots of time zones, and acres of empty space.

Unfortunately, Russia is never quite the way we imagine it to be—nor are “friendships” between statesmen worth much if they blind us to what is actually happening abroad. We shouldn’t be supporting individuals in Moscow anyway, only policies. The lack of positive body language at the weekend’s latest “summit” ought to be seen as step forward: If the arrival of the distinctly impersonal, uncharismatic, and unfriendly Vladimir Putin helps rob us of the illusion that, deep down, the Russians are just like us, perhaps that is no bad thing.

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