Friday, July 31, 2015

Idiots ‘Useful’ and Otherwise on the Rise in Russia and the West

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 31 – Idiotism is on the rise in both Russia and the West, with its spread in Russia having transformed that country from “a land of liars to one of idiots,” according to Vitaly Portnikov, and in the West having become the latest iteration of the “useful idiots” Lenin and the Bolsheviks always viewed as among their most useful, albeit tactical allies.

            But as a third commentator, former Russian deputy prime minister Alfred Kokh, has noted, pointing this development out may be dangerous because “psychiatrists do not advise telling their patients unpleasant things directly as that may result in seizures” or worse (

            Nonetheless, because of the dangers such “idiots” Russian and Western present, it is important to keep track of such trends, even if, as Kokh notes, one must be as polite as a Swiss journalist was when he remained silent after Vladimir Putin asked rhetorically, “do you consider me a madman?”

            The occasion for Portnikov’s observations on what has happened in Russia is the divergence between the official position of Putin as shown in the Russian veto of a UN Security Council resolution calling for an international tribunal on the downing of the Malaysian airliner and the attitudes of Russians about such a step (

            What Putin did makes perfect sense, the Ukrainian analyst says. He “understands perfectly well” the problems such a tribunal could create for him and his regime. But the view of many Russians that such a tribunal should be established because it would find the Ukrainians and Americans guilty is not only less easily explained but more frightening.

            Born in the USSR, Portnikov says, he “grew up in a country of liars” and understood from childhood that not only for advancement but even personal security “it was necessary to say one thing, do another and think a third.”  And that understanding was almost universal, even extending into the ranks of “Pravda” journalists with whom he once worked.

            “It turned out,” he continues, “that in the main paper of the country, there was not a single communist true believer.” Like any group, the journalists of “Pravda” were a varied lot, but “the main thing which united them was a lack of faith in official information, in that which “Pravda” published.”

            In Soviet times, Portnikov adds, “no one believed anything from top to bottom despite the fact that there was no Internet, that the authorities concealed information about the catastrophes and crimes of the authorities themselves,” and that it was difficult to listen to “Western voices” through jamming.

            Despite all this, “we all the same knew that they were deceiving us, that such a power could not speak the truth. We always knew this and to such an extent that we did not believe the authorities even in those rare moments when they ceased to lie,” the Ukrainian commentator recalls.

            But now in Putin’s Russia, things appear to have changed – and not for the better. The Levada Center poll results are shocking. Of course, people sometimes lie to pollsters because of fear, “but then they would lie in harmony with the official line.” The line on the tribunal has failed to convince Westerners, but more seriously, it has failed to convince Russians.

            To the extent the poll is correct, Portnikov says, what this shows is that today those in Russia who think Ukraine or the US shot down the Malaysian plane and that an international tribunal would show that are not cynics or liars; they are idiots.  “This is much more dangerous” because “this is a completely different community of people than the Soviet one.”

            Morever, it means that it is “a completely different country. Not a country of liars. [But] a country of idiots.”

            “We, the Soviet people,” he argues, “knew precisely that it wasn’t we who were idiots. The idiots were those who ruled us. Some even liked that. Others tried not to notice. And stome attempted to struggle against that.” But this understanding was “an important unifying and restraining factor.”

            It is why when the CPSU was banned on August 24, 1991, “no one, let us repeat, not one individual” went into Red Square to protest, and it is why when on December 25th of that year, when the Soviet flag came down over the Kremlin, not “even Comrade Putin came out into Red Square to tell his compatriots about the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”

            “But what is the situation now,” Portnikov asks, “if the majority of Russians are so certain that they live in a kingdom of infallibility,” they think that they can ignore the warnings of their “national leader” against the formation of an international tribunal on the shooting down of the Malaysian aircraft?

            And “how will “this majority react when the kingdom of infallibility collapses on its head?”  Some of course will say they really didn’t know what was going on, but others, and this is “much more realistic,” Portnikov suggests, will tell their children that “Putin was great, the Yukes downed the Boeing, Crimea is ours. And the Donbass is ours. And Finland too.”

            Such a country is not the Soviet Union: it is much more dangerous and for a much longer time into the future.

            Igor Yakovenko focuses on the other side of this rise of idiotism, that of “useful idiots” among Western elites.  In a commentary on, he points out that Russia’s veto of a resolution calling for the creation of a tribunal to examine the shooting down of the Malaysian airline highlights Moscow’s isolation (

            But at the same time, he notes that “democracy and freedom of speech in the West gives to opponents of democracy the right to freely use these opportunities to undermine the foundaitons of democracy. And in Europe and in the US, there are many politicians and intellectuals who in fact are playing into Putin’s hands.

            Some are doing so for domestic political advantage, Yakovenko argues others out of self-interest as in what he calls “the ‘Schröder-ization’ of European elites; and still a third are doing so because they do not understand what the Putin regime in fact represents and thus speak out in its defense.

            He does not address the fact that in all too many cases, these are interrelated and mutually re-enforcing factors. Instead, he suggests that the first two categories are of less interest and should be dealt with by the citizens of the countries involved.  But the third category, which “Lenin crudely but precisely called ‘useful idiots’ is interesting” because one can interact with it.

            Yakovenko discusses the recent work of two British writers, but his comments about them could be extended to many others in Europe and the US.  He says that is clear that “part of the Western establishment still does not understand who is Mr. Putin,” that it fails to recognize what is driving him, and that it acts as if the West is somehow responsible for what he does.

            The clear evidence that “namely he led the forcible annexation of Crimea, the unending lies about miners and tractor drivers on tanks” and much else besides “does not convince these ‘intellectuals’ that this man and his closest entourage understands only the language of force and uses negotiations only for cover.”

            “These people,” he continues, “apparently are not in a position to understand that anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism form the main foundation of Putin’s domestic rather than his foreign policy” because he needs an enemy to mobilize people. Consequently, for him, it doesn’t matter what the West says: “Moscow will nonetheless claim that the West for a thousand years has been trying to destroy Holy Rus.”

            Moreover, such people, the analyst continues, fail to understand that what Putin is doing reflects his personal grandiosity, a grandiosity bordering on the psychopathic much like the feelings of Osama bin Laden or others who take pride in being “number one” in something regardless of what it is – and are more worried about being feared than respected.

            And these “useful idiots,” he points out do a real service for Putin by arguing that any effort to stand up to him will only make the situation worse. That is certainly what the Kremlin leader would like people to believe – it makes his task easier – but it is exactly backward given his lack of respect for anything but toughness.

            “The only means of removing the threat to humanity which today emanates from the Putin regime is to seek the dismantling of this regime,” Yakovenko says. “For this, there needs to be a consolidation against this threat of the entire civilized world, one that will require the ability to call things by their proper names.”

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