Friday, July 03, 2009

Vladimir Putin as Grand Inquisitor?

I see that I'm not the only one reading The Brothers Karamazov these days, for David Ignatius of the Washington Post is drawing upon Dostoyevsky's famous novel to portray Vladimir Putin as "Russia's Grand Inquisitor" (July 1, 2009):
As Barack Obama packs for his trip to Russia next week, he should bring along a copy of "The Brothers Karamazov." For the modern Russia of Vladimir Putin is still struggling with the same political riddles that Fyodor Dostoyevsky described 130 years ago.

Human beings would happily trade their freedom for food and security, Dostoyevsky wrote in the novel's famous chapter, "The Grand Inquisitor." In place of this anarchic freedom, the Inquisitor offered the people "miracle, mystery and authority. And mankind rejoiced that they were once more led like sheep, and that at last such a terrible gift, which had brought them so much suffering, had been taken from their hearts."

There's a palpable sense here that Putin has brought "miracle, mystery and authority" to a Russia that was severely traumatized by the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. The country is certainly less free than it was under Boris Yeltsin, but Putin is immensely popular -- and nobody wants to return to the crazy, freewheeling time of transition.
Vladimir Putin as the Grand Inquisitor? But I thought that President Bush had looked into Putin's eyes and taken the measure of the man's soul. Apparently, Bush should have read Dostoyevsky first to acquire the properly standardized metric for measuring Putin to see how well the Russian leader's muscular frame might fit the ascetic Inquisitor's "coarse, old, monk's cassock" and how capable this former KGB agent might be of providing "miracle, mystery, and authority" for contemporary Russia.

Certainly, Putin has his authoritarian tendencies that have stood him in good stead in a culture that prizes strong leaders:
Putin is the tough guy who put a wounded country back together after the fall of communism. "Russia emerged from the chaos of 1991 with disproportionately large political and socio-psychological scars," explained Alexey Chesnakov, a former Putin adviser who is director of the Center for Current Policy. When Putin became president in 1999, he brought "authoritarianism by consensus," said the head of another Russian think tank.
Ignatius doesn't offer quotes on what the "miracle" and the "mystery" are. Perhaps the miracle was the oil-boom wealth and the mystery Putin's continuing popularity despite the oil-price bust. Or are the miracle and the mystery Putin's perhaps authentic affirmation of Russian Orthodox Christianity?

And who's Christ in this drama, anyway? In Dostoyevsky's version, the terrible Grand Inquisitor has to be confronted by the one "with a gentle smile of infinite compassion" that perhaps overcomes even the Inquisitor's cynicism. Would that be President Obama? I suppose that I could here descend to the level of joking about "Obamessiah" . . . but I won't. Instead, I'll simply quote again from the article by Ignatius, who . . .
. . . was pleased when yet another Putin adviser, a publisher who helped organize the conference, reassured the group that these problems [of freedom versus authority] go back more than a century: "This is a Russian conversation you can see since Dostoyevsky's time."
A conversation that sometimes grows as heated as an argument, admittedly. Anyway, I guess that I have chosen the precisely right time to re-read Dostoyevsky's great work since it's now required reading for Russia experts such as myself, and I trust that I am maintaining proper modesty in suggesting that President Obama ought to take me aboard as one of his advisors when he heads for Russia to talk with the inquisitive Putin.

Labels: , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home