Tag Archives: Vladimir Putin

Autocrats On Parade

How did this expansive stretch of the world’s geography wither to the point where it is hard to remember that it once contained a culture of innovation?

Educators supposedly talk about “teachable moments.”  We are surely in the midst of one right now, at least if we are paying attention. Two authoritarian leaders—one representing a major power, and one seemingly intent on ruining what remains of a failing nation—are displaying mistakes that inform and shame at the same time.

China, of course, is the major power. But it would be a sobering lesson for President Xi Jinping to fully comprehend the disbelief of his nation’s trading partners over the misguided decision of quarantining cities like Shanghai because of COVID. Almost nothing else so clearly demonstrates the horrors of a totalitarian state than a YouTube video of faceless and white-suited minions ordering apartment dwellers to appear on their sidewalk to be tested. The quarantine in Shanghai has been so restrictive that some are unable to get the basic necessities of life, including food. This is all in support of Xi’s “zero COVID” dictum that was meant to display China’s better discipline in dealing with the pandemic. Yet his misguided policy has turned the idea of public health upside down, making the lockdown something worse than COVID itself. Nothing says “failed government” as quick as a visual display of compulsory submission that resembles nothing so much as a mandatory morning rollcall of prisoners. To say that this policy of process over compassion has gotten bad press in most of the world is an understatement. By any national standard, China has a tiny fraction of active cases. But, of course, there is apparently no one around to tell President Xi he has made a fool of himself and inadvertently helped spread the few cases that exist.  As a reporter from the Australian Broadcasting Company notes, people have been desperate:

But if the wrong-headedness of the Chinese President looks farcical to the rest of the world, the unilateral military actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin are far more troubling and despotic. Putin is still nearly mute head of a long-fading superpower at risk of devolving even further. By now the story of his obsession with the idea of rebuilding a fantasy empire is well known, if also badly out of step with the way the world works in the 21st century. Invading and slaughtering the residents of a sovereign nation is why the global order changed after the Second World War. We have to remind ourselves that the senseless Russian attack is real: a murder spree in plain view of cameras from around the world. Working alone in the tomb of the Kremlin and without a free press, Putin has lulled himself into believing that no one would miss Ukraine if it became a clone of an inert Russia.

But the young democracy has given him more than he bargained for. Ukrainians have what most Russians seem to lack: a sense of personal agency, and of participation in the civil life of a messy democracy. It’s little wonder they were ready to reject being taken over by their moribund neighbor.

No One Wants What Russia Makes

If Russia is not yet a failed state, Putin’s error, along with pushback from most of the world’s democracies, will soon yield that result. Even now Russia’s birth rate is below levels that can sustain it. Many of the young and the nation’s best and brightest have moved to less oppressive countries. And Russia remains a remarkably corrupt and unproductive place, having missed chances to foster tech and progressive innovators like its smaller neighbors of Finland and Sweden. As we all know now, Russia mostly keeps the lights on by falling back on old and sloppy extractive industries like timber, oil and gas. Value-added businesses that make good things are rarer. No one wants Russian cars, appliances, audio components or computers. And many of us are less than happy at the thought of stepping on to a plane maintained by a Russian ground crew. My guess is that even the country’s few remaining and clueless allies may even be rethinking their purchases of those “jack-in-the-box” Russian tanks.

How did this expansive stretch of the world’s geography wither to the point where it can be hard to remember that it was once home to innovative arts and sciences? Instead, the aging residents that have not fled remain mostly silent and too ready to again fall for the fictions of a delusional leader.

I hope we Americans are paying attention.  We have our own embarrassing parades of small-minded thinking that threatens long-held personal freedoms. But we are also at a perfect moment to witness the hubris of autocracy alongside the idealism of relatively new and cruelly-tested Ukrainian state. The twin tyrannies of Xi and Putin should remind us of just how much is at stake when small people with stale ideas seize power they have not earned.

Plurality, Triangulation and the Truth

Anyone in an open society has the advantage of seeing what Putin and his nation cannot. One of the glories of an open society is that information travels easily and mostly unencumbered.

American intelligence reports note that Vladimir Putin has functionally locked himself and his nation behind a media firewall, afraid to let his citizens hear what the world knows. The Russian dictator is notorious for keeping his own council.  But it seems worse this time, with many of his aides apparently willing to be the bearer of bad news. So even though he has initiated the human catastrophe of the Ukraine war, he and many Russians may still know little of the horrors that have been unleashed. As the New York Times’ Tom Friedman recently noted, “Putin, it turns out, [has] no clue what world he was living in, no clue about the frailties of his own system, no clue how much the whole free, democratic world could and would join the fight against him in Ukraine, and no clue, most of all, about how many people would be watching.” Meanwhile, most of the gains Russia achieved in the last 20 years are being rolled back by sanctions imposed by the world’s democracies.

By contrast, ordinary citizens in most of the rest of the developed world could fill him about the aimless marauding of the Russian Army. Most anyone in an open society has the advantage of seeing what Putin and his nation cannot. One of the glories of free societies is that information travels freely and mostly unencumbered. The democracies of the world take access to a multitude of sources doing credible reporting as their birthright. Individual sources may not always be accurate. But without much effort, citizens can “triangulate” between multiple sources to find truths that seem to be reasonably solid. If a conservative-leaning source confirms the same conclusion as a more liberal outlet, we can judge that the news is probably accurate.  If one outlet plays favorites, a thoughtful reader–and their are too few–will cross check with other sources before reaching a conclusion.

Now, imagine living in a prison where the only loudspeaker ever heard is controlled by the guards. Welcome to North Korea or Russia, trying to impose the medieval values of top-down control on their citizens.

In no particular order, here are some easily accessible news-gathering outlets, available mostly for free to Americans via their ubiquitous computers, and key websites like YouTube. All outlets on this partial list are doing original reporting in English from Ukraine and Eastern Europe:

  France 24

  BBC  (U.K.)

 Agence France-Presse (AFP)

  Associated Press

  MSNBC/NBC

  CNN

  New York Times

  NHK (Japan)

Washington Post

Reuters

The New Yorker

  Deutsche Welle (Germany)

  The Guardian

And there are so many more:  NPR, CBC (Canada), PBS, Fox News, Sky News, ABC, CBS, ABC News (Australia), The Atlantic, Channel 4 News (UK), ITV, and others.

Free access to the press is a good reminder of why we protect our freedoms. The media firewall denying Russian citizens the same kind of access is as good an indicator as any of a failed state.