- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Russia’s problems multiply day by day to a point where they seem insuperable. The ship is sinking, yet Vladimir Putin has world enough and time to do everything he can to restore Josef Stalin to an honored place in the Russian pantheon, this tyrant who killed more Russians and Ukrainians in a time of so-called peace than Adolf Hitler did in a time of war.

The BBC reports a war memorial stone block with the commemorative inscription “Volgograd” in Moscow’s Alexandrovsky Gardens has been replaced with a stone bearing the name “Stalingrad.” The name change, a small thing one might say, is significant because it was ordered by the increasingly anti-democratic President Putin. He has been openly criticized by Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, his predecessors, for concentrating more and more power in his own hands in defiance of the Russian constitution. The possibility of a civil society and a rule of law in Russia recedes day by day.

In dictating the name change, Mr. Putin has reversed the downgrading of Stalin begun by Nikita Khrushchev, Russia’s onetime communist ruler, with his sensational anti-Stalin speeches.

Following Khrushchev’s expose, Stalin’s mummy was removed from Lenin’s Tomb and reburied in the Kremlin Wall. Then in 1961 to further de-Stalinization, the city of Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd.

In ordering the inscription change, Mr. Putin claimed he was doing so on the eve of the 60th anniversary of a victory in World War II. In this way, Mr. Putin explains, the authorities pay tribute to those who took part in the battle of Stalingrad.

A thin explanation. Mr. Putin, who has invented something called “managed democracy,” has, almost from the beginning of his reign five years ago, been doing everything he could to restore Stalin as a Russian icon. Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian defense analyst, wrote in the Moscow Times, (Sept. 7):

“For Mr. Putin, Stalin seems to be something of a role model. In the Stalin era, anything that went wrong in the U.S.S.R. was blamed on foreign powers and their agents. The country, like Stalin himself, was paranoid and xenophobic. Mr. Putin seems to suffer from the same sickness, and is doing his best to make the entire nation paranoid along with him.”

A few months ago, one might have described in a spirit of ironic amusement Mr. Putin’s maneuvers as “Stalin lite.” Mr. Putin has moved in a direction where “Stalin heavy” has become more appropriate. Everything Mr. Putin has done since he took over at the beginning of the new century has moved toward recentralization of power in his hands. Is there an independent press? No longer. Is there independent electronic media? No longer. Does the national legislature, the Duma, have any control over Mr. Putin? None.

On Sept. 13, Putin announced a plan to eliminate the general election of regional governors and of independent seats in parliament, essentially removing the last real checks on what is becoming a personal dictatorship. So is democracy on the way out in Russia? And how.

That is why former Russian President Boris Yeltsin has warned, “We will not give up on the letter of the law and, most importantly, the spirit of the constitution our country voted for in the national referendum in 1993.” Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was even more direct: “I hope that politicians, voters and the president himself keep the democratic freedoms that were so hard to obtain.”

U.S. Secretary of State Collin Powell warned that Mr. Putin’s so-called antiterror program could take Russia off the path to democracy. He told Reuters: “We understand the need to fight against terrorism, but in an attempt to go after terrorists, I think one has to strike a proper balance to make sure that you don’t move in a direction that takes you away from the democratic reforms or the democratic process.”

During the Brezhnev era from 1964 to the end of the Soviet Union, the Russian word commonly used to describe the country’s miserable state of affairs was “zastoy,” stagnation. The term referred to economic stagnation. But “Zastoy” can exist in the political realm, too. “Zastoy” is possible even though the fanciest stores in the world — Burberry, Hermes, Christian Dior, Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci — are found today in and around Moscow’s Red Square:

In the Soviet Union, there was a saying: “A pessimist is someone who believes things can’t get any worse. An optimist thinks maybe they can.” Today we can, I think, apply this dictum to Vladimar Putin’s Russia. Like so many other observers of Mr. Putin’s Russia, I am an optimist.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times. His updated biography “Herman Wouk, the Novelist as Social Historian,” has just been published.

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