Staunton, October 3 – In address to the Valdai Club, Vladimir Putin said many interesting things; but perhaps the most instructive were his comments about how he viewed the situation of the Russian Federation in the 1990s, a decade which he descried as “one of the most difficult” in the country’s history (lenta.ru/articles/2019/10/03/putin/?referrer=longgrid_1_14).
Specifically, the Kremlin leader declared:
“Russia really suffered in the 1990s, one of the most difficult periods of history. Along with the sharpest domestic political, economic and social crises, we were also subjected to aggression by international terrorism. Russia approached then to a very dangerous place beyond which could occur the worst thing for any people, for any nation and country, the collapse and disintegration of the state.
“This threat hung in the air and most people felt it. We then could have – this was real – have fallen into the abyss of a major civil war, lost state unity and sovereignty and ended on the periphery of world politics. And only thanks to the exceptional patriotism, courage, rare patience and hard work of the Russian people and the other peoples of Russia, our country was pushed back from this dangerous situation.”
Putin has been running against the 1990s for most of his presidency, contrasting how bad things were then to generate support for himself as the author of how good things have become since; and these words are completely within that tradition. But there are three aspects of his latest remarks that are worthy of note as an indication of his thinking that almost certainly have had and will continue to have policy consequences.
First, while he makes reference to domestic problems, the Kremlin leader gives primacy to terrorism from abroad as the force pushing Russia toward the abyss of civil war and disintegration, a way of avoiding responsibility for the decisions he and others made and a justification for the two Chechen wars and an ever more authoritarian regime.
Second, and this too is not entirely new, Putin speaks not of the multi-national people of the Russian Federation but of “the Russian people and the others peoples of Russia,” a locution which makes the former central and the latter peripheral and thus represents yet another departure from the country’s constitution.
And third – and this is the most disturbing – Putin’s words about the qualities of the population that allowed Russia to pull back from the abyss echo in disturbing ways the ones Stalin used in his victory toast to the Russian people after World War II, a parallel that will not be lost on Russians or non-Russians and must not be ignored.