Dmitri Shostakovich was among the most defiant individuals in the history of the USSR, never relenting in his battle against Joseph Stalin and other federal officials. However, Symphony No. 7, which was arguably his most beautiful and important composition, was decidedly dedicated to the people who died during or survived through the Siege of Leningrad.
If you have never heard of the Siege of Leningrad, it was likely one of the more abhorrent events of World War 2, during which Nazi forces surrounded the city and cut off all resources and communications for nearly 900 days.
One might think that after all the horrors of the second World War, the human race would learn to get along at least enough to not start more wars.
Regardless, the following is meant to be a contextual piece that sheds some historical light on the situation in the Ukraine, and how it is playing out on socio-political levels around the globe. After all, the only proper way to view current events is through the lens of history, and failure to do so will often lead to mindless, senseless and unproductive babbling.
If you have turned on network news stations recently, you know where I am coming from.
*Disclaimer: I cannot promise that type of digression or tangential reasoning will not occur in the following content.
Comparisons are (mostly) pointless
I have seen a relatively constant stream of images and commentary comparing Vladimir Putin to Joseph Stalin. There are plenty of similarities between Putin’s and Stalin’s approaches to territorial holdings, foreign policy and the like, but let us not get ahead of ourselves here.
Stalin was directly responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of Russians in a demonically vast variety of fashions. His actions did not only include hundreds of thousands of executions during the Great Purge, but also involved starving out entire regions of the country for one backward reason or another.
He sent droves of unarmed peasants to the front lines throughout World War 2 to fight well-trained and adequately equipped Nazi soldiers, artfully destroyed any chance of social commentary for decades to come and, of course, is the man behind the Gulag.
Historians and archaeologists are still trying to get a more accurate figure on the number of deaths that could be directly and indirectly tied to Stalin’s actions, and we are only talking about Russians. Only his own people. I have heard estimates that range between 20 million and 30 million.
Just to be clear, I do not personally enjoy Putin in any way possible. I do not think pictures of him riding a bear are entertaining or enjoyable. I think he is a terrible leader who is holding his own nation, as well as an entire region of the world and its peoples, back from enjoying a higher quality of living because of his own delusions of grandeur and obscene levels of greed.
However, the argument of who is worse, Stalin or Putin, is not an argument at all. It is sheer and misguided hyperbole – a false concern that detracts from more pressing matters.
Now, let me compare Putin and Stalin
For anyone who has studied the Korean War, the events that took place at the beginning of Russia’s recent actions in the Ukraine should have appeared all too familiar.
World War II had ended only a few years before the Korean War started to heat up. The world powers were highly reluctant to provide military support but, as is often the case, they just could not help themselves.
Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China were decidedly behind the North’s efforts, while the U.S. and Europe were backing South Korea. So as not to allow the North to lose, but also avoid another global conflict, Mao’s leadership disguised China’s armed forces as North Korean soldiers and sent them into battle. Hilariously, Stalin went the extra step, disguising his fighter pilots, planes and other units as Chinese, and sent them into battle.
In short, if the South Koreans were to shoot down what seemed like a Chinese aircraft, the pilot was more likely than not Russian, as was the plane. If the South Koreans were to shoot down what appeared to be a North Korean fighter jet, the pilot was more likely than not Chinese.
As of when this post was written, the Kremlin had still not officially and publicly stated whether those fighter pilots in Chinese and North Korean garb, 60 years ago, were Russian. Likewise, as of when this post was written, the Kremlin has still not officially and publicly stated that the ‘armed men’ who have seized two airports and other strategic locations throughout Crimea are in fact Russian soldiers.
Public misdirection is the name of the game when it comes to Russian foreign policy and militarily relevant decision making. We laugh sometimes as though it is a small child who is absolutely atrocious at hide-and-go-seek, but we should remember that this is a world power that has a very real ability, composition and willingness to wreak significant havoc.
Putin’s dark past of high-pressure situations
I have also read one analyst’s assertion that Putin will largely work off of public appeal in his decision making, meaning if he makes a move and it looks like a bust, he’ll count his losses and bail. I am sure that there are plenty of diplomatic actions that Putin has made to back this up, but I cannot help but think of his handling of the Nord-Ost Siege early in his leadership and the Beslan school hostage crisis two years later.
There is a lot of background into Putin’s war on Chechnya and I suggest looking into it but, for the purposes of this piece, here is a quick rundown of each aforementioned event:
- Dubrovka Theater siege: In October 2002, Chechen rebels took control of the biggest theater in Moscow with roughly 900 hostages inside. The separatists had one demand for Putin and the Kremlin: withdraw from Chechnya. After three nights and two days, special forces entered the theater, used chemical gas and took down the rebels. Roughly 133 hostages were killed the morning of the breach, along with all of the kidnappers. Today, survivors of the still gas, of which the composition is still classified – meaning doctors do not know what they are treating – are having significant and consistent health issues.
- Taking of Beslan’s School No. 1: Back in September 2004, a middle school in the Russian republic of North Ossetia, located in the Caucasus region, was taken by Chechen and Ingush separatists on the first day of classes. In many regions of Russia, the first day of school is a bigger deal than in the United States, with most families from the community attending in a festive engagement called the ‘First Bell’ or ‘Knowledge Day.’ Hundreds of children and parents were in the gymnasium, held by heavily armed separatists who had two demands: For Putin and the Kremlin to get out of Chechnya and the United Nations recognize Chechnya as independent. Putin never showed signs of obliging these requests, instead working under the common modern statement of “we do not negotiate with terrorists.” After a more than three-day siege, the troops were sent in. Not special ops, not a small machine gun team or the like, but rather tanks, rockets, heavy artillery. More than 180 children were killed, and a total of 334 hostages annihilated.
Again, if someone believes that Putin will bail in the Ukraine should he not believe he can win in the court of public opinion, I am sure that there is some foundation in reality for that argument. However, with these two events in mind, I believe that Putin, when backed into a corner with war in the conversation, will operate in a blindly steadfast and unpredictably vacant manner.
Now, let us step into the current…
Modern American politics
With the way media works in Russia, as well as in the United States, who knows what is actually going on in Crimea or the Ukraine. However, watching the reactions of our public officials to this crisis is truly awe-inspiring in its relentless insanity.
President Obama condemns the actions taken by Putin in Crimea, demands de-escalation. Okay. Republicans immediately lash out and go nuts about how weak Obama is and how weak we look to the world. McCain goes to AIPAC and literally trashes up the place with talks about how weak Obama is. Why? Why in the name of sweet Einstein is this happening?
What would FDR have to say to Putin, or better still, McCain, Obama and the whole lot of federal officials in Washington today? If I could hear one person’s opinion on these matters, it would be FDR’s.
Whichever way you slice it, there is no tact, patience or actual thinking behind the decision-making process anymore. There is no refrain, collaboration or substantive emotion behind our leaders’ statements and outcries. It is only a matter of who can react fastest with the most fiery, shrill and confident of tone. Look at Benghazi, we have now been talking about how long it took Obama to use the word “terrorist” in his opening statement for more than a year.
If you want to see something funny, follow this link to read GOP Senator Lindsay Graham argue that the Ukraine crisis “began with Benghazi.” Mind-blowing and sad, really. Remember, we the people write the checks for these elected officials, and they make more than most of us. I suppose we do vote them in, so at the end of the day, it is generally our fault and burden to bear.
Everyone in the world knows that we have a big military. Everyone in the world knows we try to juxtapose ourselves to Russia every chance possible, as if we are actually all that different. Whatever. The short and long of it is that we really do not have any say in the matter, because money is involved, and it certainly is not ours.
Here is what I would contend the United States should do: Back and consult our allies in their decisions, especially those in Europe and the Middle East, without suggesting anything or making plans or drafting our own sanctions or threatening to send armed forces. The U.S. and Russia have so few diplomatic ties, and even fewer economic connections, that it should confuse all of us when our government tries to lead this battle.
In short, we are essentially Michael Jordan in the early ’90s. We need to learn how to pass the ball to win championships and truly be the greatest nation on earth. Well, we probably need a lot more than just that, but it would be a brilliant start on the right path toward common-sense foreign policy.
Now, back to those European gas ties. I’m sure you could have guessed that money, money, money…money was going to enter this discussion…
Oil: Again and forevermore
What would a global crisis be without a little oil? It would probably seem too primitive or nonsensical if some fossil fuels were not at all involved in the decision-making of each embattled nation.
Russia supplies roughly 25 percent of the total continental demand for gas from Europe. This translates to roughly $100 million worth of barrels each day. What’s more, roughly one-third of Russia’s gas is shipped through the Ukraine.
Europe has certainly reduced its dependence on oil compared to a few years ago, and has been especially lucky this year with favorable weather, but every time Moscow cuts supplies in Kiev, Europe feels the sting. Maybe Europe is in a better position to act valiantly than it could be, but this is still not saying much.
Putin certainly knows this, as he strikes me as the type of fella who at least keeps his assets in order, balances the checkbook and carefully oversees the empire’s holdings.
Like the O’Jays suggested, people do bad things with [money].
Will it ever get better?
As of this moment in time, this writer would have a tough time making a case for a bright and beautiful tomorrow. Strictly speaking in terms of foreign affairs and the ongoing international military crisis that simply changes names and locales rather than actual meaning or cause, I fear we have not even reached that darkest point before the dawn quite yet.
When will we actually hit that sardonic nadir – the ebb which we look back upon years down the road and laugh at with a shrinking sense of terror and humility? Will we be holding hands with or pointing fingers at one another when The End comes?
The excuses are becoming fewer and further between every day, especially considering how interconnected we all are. By ‘we’ I mean ‘us.’ You know, people.
Perhaps Howard Beale was right all along, and we have finally turned into those dreadful humanoids. Transistorized, deodorized, whiter-than-white, steel-bolted-bodied, totally unnecessary as human beings and as replaceable as piston rods.
Maybe Gautama Buddha would have the wherewithal and breadth of perspective to explain why we are at this point in history and not ahead of it. Unfortunately, he could not be reached for comment.
For further reading on Putin’s Russia, I highly suggest “Kremlin Rising” by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser.