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Cold War Warriors

Putin the Great?

Commander John Murphy, USN Ret.

Russia is a nation that has been treated cruelly by their neighbors and history through the ages. It has been overrun, conquered and exploited by invading armies from the north, south, east and the west. Little wonder that the Russians seem paranoid and have developed a fortress (i.e. Kremlin) mentality. A review of their history over the last 1500 years shows that they have been the stomping ground for everyone from the Mongols to the Tatars and Turks, the Swedes, Lithuanians, Poles, Napoleonic France and Nazi Germany. To the Russians, it must have seemed that they were just recovering from one foreign invader when the next was about to arrive. And when no foreign threat presented itself, they became their own worst enemy. So it was in 1993 when Boris Yeltsin was trying to guide Russia out of the morass of communism, a homegrown threat-the Russian oligarchs arrived. The New Russians! I was quick to learn that this was not a positive term to the man in the street- who was struggling to survive.

I was in St. Petersburg and Moscow about this time and we should have foreseen what was about to happen. It was 1917 in reverse. The transition from one major system (i.e. communism to capitalism) with all that entailed (e.g. privatization, state property transfer, market ‘shock therapy', economy demilitarization, political control etc.). As it turned out, the biggest challenge was in controlling economic factors such as entrepreneurialism, workforce reallocation, and the transition from a police state to a market economy. What I saw in 1993, was a nation that was literally living in a power vacuum that was being run by old-style, communist-era bosses who were trying to act like businessmen. I thought of them as "the wild and crazy guys!"

For the most part, they lacked mentors that they could trust. Also, there was a sense of avarice everywhere and the Russians seemed to lack a basic sense of morality and ethics. It somehow was not a part of their genetic code. It was like our 19th century "Wild West" when everyone was out for themselves. The USSR had been driven out of business by the capitalists so now they would try to become just like them. How ironic- after feeding their people propaganda over the years about the evils of the capitalist system!

Now the most aggressive and unprincipled among them were becoming fat and rich with money hidden from the state in offshore bank accounts. No one was paying taxes and the legal system was dysfunctional. You to can become an oligarch! Former top scientists and managers became lost and total alcoholics. By the mid ‘90s we could see the mortality rate for the Russians was climbing dramatically. There was little or no hope for them in the future. It was sad. I could see it in their eyes. They had their pride, but no real vision for the future. All they knew was the past. The old Russian dilemma of " What to do?" was back.

I wondered "why are the Poles and the Czechs doing so well and the Russians so poorly?" For me, part of the answer was in the fact that the Poles and Czechs were "being mentored by their Polish-American and Czech-American cousins" who they trusted. You probably have heard someone say "there are more Poles in Chicago than in Warsaw". The Russians had very few Russian-American cousins to mentor them. The 1917 Bolsehvik Revolution refugees were long gone, and the 1980 Soviet Jewish emigres had no love for their native land. Again, how ironic… It would be the Soviet- Jewish emigres in America that the New Russians would turn to in the early ‘90s when they tried to develop better business relations with America and the West.

Even religion that was the bedrock of Polish and Czech morality- was not there for the Russians. The Russian Orthodox Church had become an obedient servant of the government- be it Tsarist or Soviet. My impression of the new Russia was formed in the early1990s- before the oligarchs appeared. I saw small, mobile kiosks on the streets of St. Petersburg where you could buy everything from water, Pepsi Cola and vodka, to cigarettes, Russian and foreign newspapers, a piece of sausage or bread, fresh fruit or top quality, scale models of the latest Soviet MIG fighter jets and nuclear submarines. " Hey Joe! You wanna buy ‘Red October'? How about official KGB emblem?"

These kiosks were an initiative of their visionary Mayor Anatoliy Sobchak (1991-1996).. There were Marlboro and Pepsi Cola billboards everywhere. Large, bright and colorful … "just like Broadvay!" Soon "mom-and-pop" grocery stores began to replace the kiosks along Nevskiy Prospekt. In Moscow the woman were dressed in clothing from the best stores in Paris and London. People were walking fancy, pedigreed dogs that looked like they had just come from the Westminster Dog Show. Some Russians, were obviously making the transition from communism quite well.

Everything was moving at a very fast pace. I remember having lunch with "Vladimir", a former Soviet scientist, at the historic, Astoria Hotel in St. Petersburg. He noted "Hitler wanted to have lunch in this very room AFTER he had conquered Leningrad. He never made it!". Vladimir's wife was the Executive Assistant to Mayor Sobchak who was the first democratically elected Mayor of St. Petersburg. He also was the mentor of future Russian Presidents Vladimir Putin and Dimitriy Medvedev. In the early 90s, Sobchak was the co-author of the new Constitution of the Russian Federation. A truly important and historic event.

Sobchak died unexpectedly of a "heart attack" in 2000 while on a trip to support Putin's Presidential campaign. Strangely, two of Sobchak's aides also died of heart attacks at the same time. Three men dying of heart attacks simultaneously? The names of two other men in the Sobchak party (who survived) have never been disclosed. Sobchak was on a path, to become one of the great men in Russian history. A visionary. So close, but now- a mere footnote in Russian history, like Alexander Kerensky in 1917.

Trends in Russian History

Modern Russia has its roots in Kiev in the 8th and 9th century. Before then, Russia was a land of wandering nomadic tribes. A world of mystical beliefs that were rooted in cults such as the Cult of Earth and Stone and the Cult of Trees and Plants. "Mother Russia" was ever present- looking out for you. You came from her soil and you would return to it - for eternity.

Kievan Rus'

By the 8th century the southern and eastern Slavic world was centered in Kiev. At the same time, modern-day France and Germany were being overrun by the Goths and Huns (4h-7th centuries). The Roman empire was gone. In Kiev, a people known as the Rus' (Swedish for "red") or the people with red hair emerged. A characteristic they inherited from the wandering tradesmen from Sweden that were working the major, trade route from Scandinavia down to Constantinople on the Black Sea.

In the 9th century the Princes of Kiev, such as Vladimir and Yaroslav the Wise, were creating a kingdom known as Kievan Rus'. The Northern Slavs were still under the influence of Rome. They had adopted Rome's Catholic religion and its Roman alphabet. The Princes of Kiev looked at the Polish experience and said to themselves "we are Slavs and we want to remain Slavs. We do not want the Bishop of Rome controlling our lives or our culture. We need our own religion and our own alphabet." They sent emissaries to the far corners of the earth studying their cultures- particularly their religions. When they were done, they decided that the Greek Orthodox Church in Constantinople was the best model for them. "We will create our church based on the Greek Orthodox model and we will call it the Russian Orthodox Church. Also, we will have our own alphabet with which we will record all important, religious and secular events. "

It was a plan that was assigned to the devout monks of the Crypt Cave monastery in Kiev for implementation. They did their job very well over the next 200 years. Students of the Russian language today still benefit from their work. It was particularly unique when compared to Western, monastic archives because they contained secular works as well as religious, something thought to be irreverent by the monks in France, Germany, England and Ireland. I particularly remember a work known as the "Song of Igor" which was the tale of a military adventure by the Prince of Kiev on the Dnieper River in the 11th century. As students, we were delighted to hear the onomatopoeia (i.e. sound effect) of horse hooves as they galloped into battle. Also we learned that 9th and 10th-century Russian had the nasal sounds of modern-day France. Something that would be lost by the time the Mongols (the "Golden Horde") came rolling westward during the 13th century- destroying all in their path. The Mongols had already devastated China and now they turned their attention towards the riches of the West- beginning with the feudal state of Kievan Rus'. For all intents and purposes, the cradle of Russian culture was destroyed.

Moscow and Ivan the Terrible (15th and 16th centuries)

Kiev never fully recovered from the Mongols, and the Tatars controlled most of southern Russia. Meanwhile, a small, country crossroads known as Moscow (Moskva in Russian) began to take form. Their leader, Ivan the Great (Ivan III), claimed to be the true heir of Kievan Rus'. He stood up to the weakening, Mongol horde, and laid the foundation for the future Russian state. His work was continued by Ivan the Terrible (Ivan IV) in the 16th century. Incidentally, the term "Terrible" is a weak translation of the original, Russian word. I prefer "Ominous" or "Threatening".

It is more appropriate when describing a man who was immense… reportedly 6'7" tall - in a day when the average Russian male was about 5'4". Ivan was known for his paranoia and signs of mental illness. He is the first Russian to choose the name Caesar or Tsar as his title. His European counterparts were not pleased. They recognized that he was claiming to be an Emperor. Ivan IV didn't like the big government of his day. He had the good sense to realize that Russia had fallen behind the European monarchies. He set out to streamline his central government and tried to bring in many foreign specialists in the fields of medicine and business. A move that his European cousins opposed. They preferred that the Russians remained backward and vulnerable.

When Ivan's own nobility, the Boyar class, opposed his ideas, Ivan replaced them with a new nobility that was loyal to him. He conquered the regions of Kazan, Astrakhan and Siberia. This expansion transformed Russia into a multi ethnic state of over one million acres. Towards the end of his life, Ivan became so disgusted with his life in Russia, that he turned to his cousin- Elizabeth the Great of England for asylum. She refused his request and Ivan the Terrible died of a stroke while playing chess at the age of 53.

Peter the Great (1672-1725)

To me, Peter the Great was the greatest Russian leader of all time- thus far. The first, truly effective "Westernizer". Like Ivan the Terrible- he died at age 53, but he greatly expanded the Empire handed him by his predecessors. It was an empire that extended from the Baltic Sea in the west to the Pacific ocean in the east. He established Russian settlements in the Pacific in the mid-17th century. Also, he set out to bring Kiev back into the empire. In 1721 Tsar Peter went to war with Sweden in order to gain unfettered access to the Baltic. He won convincingly and he built a new capital on the Baltic, called St. Petersburg. It was his window "upon Europe". Then he completely reorganized his government based on European models. The Orthodox Church was brought into this administrative structure. When Peter the Great died in 1725, Russia had become a great power.

Soviet Era (1917-1991)

As good Cold War Warriors, we knew most of these latter day Russians all too well. Okay, so the Tsars weren't always that enlightened, but look at what we got as replacements? The Soviets created the world's first socialist state- based on a road map given them by Karl Marx in Germany.

Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov (Lenin) began as a Westernizer, because of his many years spent in exile in Europe before the 1917 Revolution. He was a strong supporter of the working class, but became known for his excessive human rights abuses in the 1920s. A brutal program of torture and mass execution known as the Red Terror was conducted by the Soviet Secret Police led by Felix Dzerzhinsky. Lenin was the mold from which future Soviet leaders were cast- a total autocrat. His ideas had a strong impact on other communist revolutionaries such as Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh.

Joseph Stalin - A Slavophile from Georgia created a strong, centralized government that sent millions to the Soviet labor camps in Siberia. He took control of Soviet agriculture and created great famines in the Ukraine. He probably would have self-destructed had it not been for World War II that gave him- and Mother Russia a purpose. To survive the invasion by Hitler's armies in 1941. Russia emerged from World War II as one of the world's two superpowers. Russia and America were allies in World War II and Stalin paid us back by laying the groundwork for the Cold War.

Nikita Khrushchev picked up where the ‘Man of Steel' left off. This peasant from the Russian-Ukrainian border town of Kursk, took charge of the collectivization in the Ukrainian west after World War II and led the slaughter and deportation of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians between 1944 and 1952. His love affair with modern technology nearly sent the world up in smoke in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. He desperately sought respect for the Soviet Union, but his bizarre and unpredictable, leadership style counterbalanced the good that he did (e.g.exposing Stalin's excesses and his "Cult of Personality").

Mikhail Gorbachev came out of nowhere and surprised us with his new ideas (e.g. glasnost' and perestroika). An attorney that was the product of the prestigious, Moscow State University who ran into an American, movie star turned President named Ronald Reagan. Reagan literally priced the Soviets out of the Cold War. Stalin's top down, centralized economy could not keep up with the western, military-industrial complex. With a little help from Boris Yeltsin and the Soviet Army, Gorbachev turned over the keys to the Kremlin to Boris Yeltsin on New Year's Eve in 1991. The USSR was history!

Boris Yeltsin became Russia's first truly elected leader and President. He served from 1991 to 1999 and turned over the Russian Presidency to Vladimir Putin. Yeltsin's 1993 Constitution was the first real Constitution that the Russian people had ever known. Then he became lost in the transition from a communist state to a market economy. By 1997, it became brutally apparent that he was in over his head, and the oligarchs were taking over.

Vladimir Putin is now Russia's man of the moment. The western press loves to point out Putin's KGB background. Actually he was a relatively junior (16 years of service), KGB Lieutenant Colonel at the time of the abortive August 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev. The view from Putin's KGB Headquarters in Lyubyanka Square was not good. The KGB had a reputation for brutality, lying, cheating, propaganda and disinformation. This was the New Russia and the very word KGB was a pejorative term - synonymous with the failed, Soviet past.

A flourishing souvenir industry emerged in Moscow where you could buy authentic-looking KGB lapel emblems, KGB identification cards and hip looking KGB T-shirts. I know because I bought quite a few of them. Even the "Iron Felix" monument to Soviet Secret Service founder Felix Dzerzhinsky in Lyubyanka Square was torn down. The future in a KGB career was not good. Maybe it was time for a career change? Putin quickly found a staff position working for the dynamic, Mayor Anatoliy Sobchak in his hometown of St. Petersburg. A smart move at age 39. In five short years he would head to Moscow for a career enhancing position in President Boris Yeltsin's administration.

Like any sharp, young, political operative he would use the uncertainty and change going on in Moscow as a way to quickly rise to the top. He has been the President of Russia for about 10 years (2000-2008 & 2012 to present) and is thought to be positioning himself for a third term. Putin showed great promise during his first term as President. The economy grew dramatically. Things are not looking so bright, as he approaches his third term. As current events unfold in Ukraine and Crimea, one wonders how his story will play out? Will he become Putin the Great?

Rating the Russian Greats

There is no universal standard for great leaders. In some worlds it's a mixture of traits that include intelligence, assertiveness and physical attractiveness. In the business world it is a mix of honesty, ability to delegate, communication skills, ability to inspire, and creativity. There are also different styles of leadership- authoritarian, democratic, task oriented, and narcissistic…..just to name a few.

I have created my own rating system that includes such traits as Style (good and bad); Intelligence; Creativity, Attitude, Intuition, Communications, Inspiration and Legacy.

The Best Russian Leaders- I have four men on my short list of Great Russians- two Tsars and two Soviets.

  1. Peter the Great - Visionary. Highly intelligent, creative, inspirational and left a legacy. Built an empire from West to East.
  2. Kievan Rus' - Yaroslav the Wise and other Princes of Kiev (8th to 12th Centuries). Accepted western religion, but with caution. Readily accepted Western business practices. Valued literacy and enlightened scholarship.
  3. Boris Yeltsin - Had the courage to dissolve the USSR. Created a real Constitution. Personally stood up to raw Soviet military power in the coup attempt of 1991. Set up real elections.
  4. Mikhail Gorbachev - Had the guts to allow the USSR to be dissolved. Courageous and visionary. Highly intelligent.

The Worst Russian Leaders - All are flawed because they were authoritarian and left Russia worse off than when they found it. My candidates for the worst are all from the Soviet era. Revolutionaries at heart- that were total autocrats.

  1. Stalin - Highly authoritarian. Dishonest, no legacy, no delegation. Poor communications. Narcissistic, brutal, with a top-down management style.
  2. Khrushchev - Risk taker. Narcissistic and unpredictable. Nearly destroyed the world in Cuban Missile crisis. The 20th Century's Ivan the Terrible.
  3. Putin - Bright and dedicated but not forward thinking. Wants to take Russia back to its Soviet past …at a time when Russia really NEEDS a Great, visionary leader.

The Next Great Russian?

Putin still has a chance to become one of the Greats of Russian history, but his magical moment is rapidly slipping away as he drifts into a morass in Ukraine and Crimea. He did restore pride to the Russian people during his first presidency. But, his current leadership is taking Russia backward… not forward. He could have become the solution to Russia's problems, but it now appears he is becoming a major part of the problem itself. The Russian people do not want to return to Communism and the USSR. He should look to his own history and treat Ukraine with the respect that it is due- as the cradle of Russian culture. He owes them that much.

Putin is the wrong man for the 21st century. His bullying, narcissistic and authoritarian style may appear to be working in the short run, but will lead to economic and political problems in the very near future.

What Russia needs now is a 21st-century leader who is of and for the times. Someone born after 1980 who only knows the Cold War from history books. A person with the vision of Peter the Great and the courage of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. One who has the ability to inspire the Russian people. Maybe the Russians should look to the east and China and see how they have become a 21st-century economic power- despite their communist underpinnings.

I believe in Russia's greatness. It just needs to find the right leader to take them there. I hope it happens soon…. for the world's sake.

Read other articles by Commander John Murphy

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