Skip to comments.Look back at Weimar – and start to worry about Russia
Posted on 01/03/2005 8:15:09 AM PST by Valin
In an amateurish sort of way, I am a Russophile. It was reading War and Peace as a schoolboy that convinced me I should study history at university. My favourite film is still the Soviet-era adaptation of Tolstoy's masterpiece. Throughout my twenties, I was a Dostoevsky devotee. Even today, I can think of few pleasures to match reading the short stories of Chekhov. And then there is the music: for me, Shostakovich's chilling, haunting piano quintet will always be the signature tune of the 20th century.
Yet it was always possible to love Russia and to hate the Soviet Union. And it is possible today to love Russia and to hate what Vladimir Putin is doing to it.
I seldom agree with the New York Times, but Nicholas Kristof was pretty much on target the other day. ''The bottom line,'' he wrote, ''is that the West has been suckered by Mr Putin. He is not a sober version of Boris Yeltsin. Rather, he's a Russified Pinochet or Franco. And he is not guiding Russia toward free-market democracy, but into fascism.'' Correct - except that Russia is not Chile or Spain. Neither of those countries was ever in a position to pose a serious threat to our security; indeed, there were many conservatives who thought it preferable that they should be fascist rather than communist.
But Russia is different. According to Goldman Sachs, its economy could be bigger than Britain's and even Germany's by 2030. It remains the world's number two nuclear superpower. If Mr Putin's government is indeed turning it into a fascist regime, we should look elsewhere for parallels.
In 1997, I published an academic article - co-written with the Russian economic expert Brigitte Granville - entitled Weimar Germany and Contemporary Russia. I can still remember being teased by one of my brightest undergraduates - himself a German - that this was excessively pessimistic, at a time when Russia's economic recovery appeared to be gathering momentum. I had to remind him just how long the Weimar Republic took to dissolve into Hitler's dictatorship.
Born in 1919 in the wake of Germany's humiliating defeat in the First World War, the Weimar Republic suffered hyperinflation, an illusory boom, a slump and then, starting in 1930, a slide into authoritarian rule, culminating in 1933 with Hitler's appointment as chancellor. Total life: slightly less than 14 years.
Born in 1991 in the wake of the Soviet Union's humiliating defeat in the Cold War, today's Russian Federation has suffered a slump, hyperinflation and is currently enjoying a boom on the back of high oil prices. Its slide into authoritarian rule has been gradual since Putin came to power in 1999. Is it going to culminate - 14 years on - in a full-scale dictatorship in 2005? That is beginning to look more and more likely.
Hitler's power was consolidated after 1933 by the emasculation of both parliamentary and federal institutions. Putin has already done much to weaken the Duma. His latest scheme is to replace elected regional governors with Kremlin appointees.
Hitler's regime also rested on the propaganda churned out by state-run media; Putin already controls Russia's three principal television channels. And Hitler believed firmly in the primacy of the state over the economy. The Kremlin's systematic destruction of the country's biggest oil company, Yukos - like its effective renationalisation of the entire energy sector - suggests that Putin takes the same view and that, like Hitler, he regards both private property rights and the rule of law with contempt.
Hitler's arbitrary rule made him a mortal danger to many Germans. But what made Hitler such a threat to the rest of the world was his desire to extend Germany's power beyond her own borders. Here, too, Putin fits the bill. Just ask Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian presidential candidate opposed by Moscow, who was mysteriously poisoned. Even if the Kremlin did not order Yushchenko's murder, its overt interference in the Ukrainian election was a shameless attempt to reassert Russia's Soviet-era influence over Kiev. Only the unreconstructed fellow-travellers of the Guardian had the nerve to claim that it was the CIA that was seeking to overturn a legitimate victory by the Russian-backed candidate, Viktor Yanukovich.
Nor is this the only example of attempted Russian intervention in the affairs of former Soviet republics. Putin opposed, vainly, the Belorussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko's campaign for a third term in office. And he was hostile to the so-called ``Rose Revolution'' in Georgia that replaced the old Soviet autocrat Eduard Shevardnadze with the pro-Western Mikhail Saakashvili.
Faced with such insubordination from former Russian satellites, Putin has not hesitated to play the separatist card. He has sought to encourage Abkhazia to secede from Georgia. In Moldova, he has favoured autonomy for the enclave of Transdnistria. When eastern Ukrainians started talking about dividing the country in two rather than concede victory to Yushchenko, you didn't need a degree in Kremlinology to know who was feeding them their lines.
This is where the resemblance between Russia now and Germany in the 1930s seems especially apt. Back then, it was possible for Hitler to point to large German populations in Czechslovakia, Austria and Poland to justify his demands for territorial expansion. Today, the Kremlin can, if it chooses, play much the same game with the Russian minorities in Kazakhstan (where Russians are 30 per cent of the population), Latvia (just under 30 per cent), Estonia (28 per cent), Ukraine (17 per cent), Moldova (13 per cent) and Belarus (11 per cent). Somewhere in that list could lurk the Sudetenland crisis of the 2010s.
With its hands full in Iraq, the Bush Administration has until recently been reluctant to lean on Putin. At times, the White House has even seemed willing to accept the Kremlin's claim that its brutal five-year war against Chechen separatists is analogous to the American ''war on terror''. (To many ordinary Americans, the harrowing Beslan school siege did indeed look like a Russian 9/11.) Thankfully, however, the Ukrainian crisis elicited a stinging response from the outgoing Secretary of State, Colin Powell.
It hardly needs saying that appeasing dictators is a strategy with a dismal historical track record. Yet Washington needs to proceed with caution; rubbing Mr Putin's nose in the failure of his Ukrainian meddling might simply encourage him to become still more of a dictator.
We must all hope that events in Georgia and Ukraine will inspire a democratic revolution in Russia itself. But the Weimar parallel is not encouraging. Germany's descent into dictatorship went in stages: there were three more or less authoritarian chancellors before Hitler, each of whom sought to rule Germany by decree.
The question that remains open is whether Putin is just a more successful version of one of these authoritarian warm-up acts, or a fully fledged Russian führer. Either way, he is fast becoming as big a threat to Western security as he is to Russian democracy.
© Niall Ferguson. The author is professor of history at Harvard University and a senior research fellow of Jesus College, Oxford. His latest book is Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (Penguin)
Will he make the trains run on time...?
Bump for later.
Besides, the "cold war" was fun, kept our military sharp, and it will give us someone else to hate, besides President Bush.
I've always found Russia an enigma. Such a huge, robust land with so much individual dignity and pride, yet so misguided and ineffective. It doesn't appear to be the Russian people but their leaders. I wonder if the citizens stoically tolerate such inept, brutal rulers or if they choose them to punish themselves in expiation of some imagined sin.
Exxon got the heave ho on Sakahlin II and Elf, and other foreign companies are eagerly waiting in line to buy in.
"Sometimes a people get the leaders they deserve...."
What we may be seeing is the beginning of the equivalent of the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact. Sooner or later, however, those two will be at each other's throats. Overall, I think Ferguson is on to something. It's clear that Putin is moving in an authoritarian direction and that democracy as we understand it is well on its way to being ended in Russia. The real question is whether or not the various crises that Russia faces - demographic, rebellious ethnicities, Chechnya, etc. will turn it into a full-blown fascist state. I think Putin wants to preserve at least a superficial veneer of democracy in order to appease the West (at least for the time being). However, I believe that radical Russian nationalism (of the antisemitic variety), is lurking in the wings.
bump for read later
The possibility cannot and should not be discounted.