- - Tuesday, October 13, 2015


President George W. Bush, in a joking slip of the tongue, once referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as Rasputin, an association that may not be too far-fetched in terms of their similarities. Just in case President Obama, who has surfaced as a scholar of the Crusades and their harm inflicted on the Middle East, doesn’t know their shared ruthlessness, it might be good to unravel their history for him, especially given the total absence of an American policy toward Mr. Putin’s military backing of the Syrian regime.

Gregory Yefimovich Rasputin (1872-1916) was a self-styled faith healer who became the confidant of Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra. Like Mr. Putin, under whose watch opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated earlier this year, Rasputin believed that there no was salvation without dark secrets and sin. The more one sinned, the more likely salvation. So Rasputin was totally debauched (in fact, his last name was changed from Nouykh to Rasputin, which means “the debauched one”). He left his wife and children, had numerous affairs and drank excessively.

His attraction to the czar and czarina came through a theologian in St. Petersburg, who served as a royal confessor and noted Rasputin’s wide travels as a holy man to Greece as well as to Jerusalem. Such a holy man, it was believed, might display healing power. And it came about, first with a favorite hunting dog of the royal family and then with son Alexis, a hemophiliac. So enamored was the royal couple with Rasputin that Nicholas wrote in his diary on Nov. 14, 1905: “We have come to know a man of God, Gregory from the province of [Siberia].”

At first, Rasputin was put in charge of keeping all the lamps burning in the palace. But soon he, like Mr. Putin, who rose to become a KGB enforcer, was given the extraordinary power of appointing bishops, then even government officers, no matter the stories of his numerous sexual escapades.

If Vladimir Putin is known as a leader intent on building an empire, as illustrated by his actions in Ukraine and now in Syria, Rasputin was intent on exhibiting power and influence without concerns about Russia’s future. When World War I broke out in 1914 and Russian forces were deployed against the Central Powers of Germany and Austria, Rasputin was a critical factor in the ultimate downfall of the monarchy in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

The reason: Czar Nicholas took personal command of troops at the front beginning in 1915, leaving Rasputin as the major decision-maker at home. Rasputin’s appointees were corrupt and incompetent, and food shortages plagued domestic affairs, leading to the revolutionary fervor that made Nicholas the last Russian czar. In sum, Rasputin paved the way for the ultimate Russian regime that Mr. Putin now heads.

Unlike Rasputin, Mr. Putin is no mystic in the traditional definition. His religion is realpolitik. When President George W. Bush was in power, Mr. Putin realized the president was firm in his national security decision-making, and, although Mr. Bush’s initial view of Mr. Putin was that he was “straightforward” and “very trustworthy,” his subsequent actions saw the Russian leader with cautionary eyes. And Russia responded with an absence of military malice in the world.

With Mr. Obama, however, Mr. Putin has not only sensed weakness but an absolute disinclination to exert any military influence whatsoever on Russia’s aggression. When Mr. Obama talks about Russia being opposed by the rest of the world, Mr. Putin knows that the rest of the world will do nothing to halt his aggression. And Mr. Obama’s emphasis on diplomacy is just that: talk but nothing else.

Rasputin had a tragic end to his life. His conspirators on one fateful night put cyanide in some cakes, but somehow he was unfazed. Then his enemies urged him to drink poisoned wine. Again, he survived. Finally, he was shot and dumped into the water. But even then, autopsy reports suggest that he actually drowned while trying to free himself from the ropes that bound him.

Rest assure that Vladimir Putin has a similar determination to survive.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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