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Rusology Review 1: 2007 Fred Hiatt Washington Post “Myth of the Strongman”

by Gordon M. Hahn

The following is the first installment in what may become a regular series of re-publications of review articles — occasionally revised and amended — that I wrote from 2007 to 2010 for ‘Russia – Other Points of View‘ ( They, like the site, are no longer available on the Internet. The review articles demonstrate the unprofessionalism, inaccuracy, and bias of the US mainstream media, academia, and elite regarding Russia. Good policy cannot be based on bad facts. Putin’s Russia is a somewhat effective, soft authoritarian regime that wants friendly states on its border. It is most certainly not a totalitarian regime seeking expansion or on the verge of collapse under an incompetent leader, who does not understand or connect with his country, as Western media, academia, and governments portray it. The text of articles under review are in dark gray text. My review comments are in [[double brackets]] and red text.

The following article, “Myth of the Strongman,” by Fred Hiatt appeared in the Editorial section of the Washington Post on Monday, 24 December 2007, p. A15.

So Time magazine is the latest to swoon at Vladimir Putin’s “steely confidence and strength,” his “chiseled facial features and those penetrating eyes.” The Russian president is a man of “contained power,” Time finds, whose gaze says: “I’m in charge.”

Time’s elevation of Putin as Person of the Year is not all hagiography by any means. The designation is reserved for consequential but not necessarily beneficent figures. Time found Putin to be charmless and humorless, a czar who has “dramatically curtailed freedoms.”

But the magazine buys into the central myths that Putin has fostered, that the Bush administration consistently has promoted and that increasingly are accepted as historical truth.

Foremost among these is that, by transforming democracy into autocracy, Putin also transformed chaos into stability. Russia a decade ago, Time senior editor Nathan Thornburgh observes, was “a rudderless mess, defined most by a bestial crime rate and Boris Yeltsin’s kleptocracy in the Kremlin.”

In fact, crime worsened after Putin succeeded Yeltsin as president in 2000, as did corruption. In a useful corrective to the conventional wisdom just published by Foreign Affairs magazine, Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss of Stanford University cite official Russian statistics to show that the average annual total of murders increased from 30,200 between 1995 and 1999 to 32,200 between 2000 and 2004. Meanwhile, in 2006 Transparency International ranked Russia at a new low of 121 out of 163 countries for corruption, the Stanford experts point out, “putting it between the Philippines and Rwanda.”

And, while soaring oil prices larded the Russian treasury and the government payroll more than doubled, Russians were dying younger (life expectancy for Russian men is 59 years [[Women’s life expectancy of  72 years and average life expectancy at birth of 65 years has been steady during 2001-2006 (World Bank Data Statistics for Russian Federation)]], getting sicker, having fewer children and drinking more [[The birthrate of Russians already was falling dramatically in the 1960s, moving from 23.2 per 1,000 population at the beginning of the decade to 14.1 in 1968. By 1983 the rate had recovered to 17.3 per 1,000, stimulated by a state program that provided incentives for larger families, including increased maternity benefits. Another decline in the birthrate began in 1987, and by 1993 the rate was only 9.4 per 1,000. According to the projections of the Center for Economic Analysis, after reaching its lowest point (8.0 per 1,000) in 1995, the birthrate would  have risen gradually to 9.7 per 1,000 in 2005. According to the CIA World Fact Book, the birth rate for 2007 was estimated at 10.92 births/1,000 population.]].

What then is the basis of the myth? Russia is more prosperous today than when Putin took over, and Russians at all income levels have benefited. Like all post-Communist countries, it endured a rise in poverty and political upheaval in the first half of the 1990s. In 1997-98, Russia along with other “emerging markets” suffered a financial crash. Yeltsin appointed a new prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, who restored fiscal solvency and began Russia’s recovery, before Putin appeared on the scene. The forlorn babushkas selling their personal effects that many foreigners remember were ancient history by the time Putin took power.

Putin continued the economic reforms in his first years, to good effect. But as he clamped down on political freedoms, he also went after independent businesses [[Many if not most of these “independent businesses” are acknowledged by almost all experts to have been oligarch businesses that had been stolen from the state or entrepreneurs, had been stripped of all value, had moved their moneys off-shore, did not pay taxes, and main drivers of corruption and criminality]] and began to resocialize the economy [[“(T)o resocialize the economy” is not defined or detailed. (This charge is particularly curious given the historical record of The Washington Post supporting universal health care and other socialist-oriented changes to the American economy.)]],dampening investment [[The “dampening” of investment was a temporary phenomenon connected with the clampdown on some of the corrupt oligarchs. Investment now is among the highest among emerging markets and far exceed levels for Russia upon Putin’s assumption of power. According to data presented by the opposition newspaper Novaya gazeta foreign investments in Russia totaled just under $11 billion in 2000. In 2007 foreign investment in Russia reached al all-time post-Soviet high of over $87 billion. See Aleksei Polukhin, “K nefti legko primazat’sya,” Novaya gazeta, No. 1, 10-13 January 2008, p. 6.]]. Stunningly, even with all its oil, Russia’s rate of economic growth fell from second among the 15 post-Soviet republics in 2000 to 13th in 2005 [[First time in history, Russia has outpaced China in the Goldman Sachs (GS) rating of emerging economies. GS has been releasing the Growth Environment Score since 2005, compiling it in view of macroeconomic stability, macroeconomic conditions, human capital, political conditions and technological capabilities. The index covers 181 states overall. Russia has climbed from the 140th position to the 66th one over ten years. It has outpaced China in the latest rating and emerged as a new leader of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China).]]. “If there is any causal relationship between authoritarianism and economic growth in Russia,” McFaul and Stoner-Weiss conclude, “it is negative.”

Russia, like Poland, Estonia and many other countries, went through tough post-Communist times. It was approaching a safe shore by the time Putin took office [[The claim that Russia was “approaching a safe shore by time Putin took office” is clearly marred by one-sdied perspective and overstatement. In 1999 Russia was anything but approaching a safe shore. One important statistic bears this out sufficiently: 42.3 million Russia citizens were living below the poverty line. By 2007 that number had been nearly halved to 21.2 million. In 2000 inflation reached 20.2 percent but in 2007 was only 12 percent despite the massive influx of petroleum and gas dollars and global dynamics driving inflation. See Aleksei Polukhin, “K nefti legko primazat’sya,” Novaya gazeta, No. 1, 10-13 January 2008, p. 6.]]. Yeltsin’s greatest sins involved impinging on democracy — not allowing too much of it — but he nonetheless bequeathed Putin a country with a lively press, competitive political parties and an energized civil society. Like Poland, Estonia and the rest [[The impression left here is entirely unsustainable. The “rest” of the post-communist world at the time would include hard authoritarian dictatorships, such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well as more soft authoritarianisms such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.]], Russia could have opted for prosperity and democracy [[The comparative foreign policy context is left out in which Russia was rejected NATO membership while Poland was invited into NATO and Estonia was given to know it would be invited early on during their transitions. Moreover, Putin’s predecessor, President Boris Yeltsin was no less opposed to NATO expansion and showed limited interest in having Russia join NATO, given domestic opposition. which NATO expansion only intensified]]. Putin made a different choice.

Why then is he so popular? There’s the oil boom, of course, and the fact that government-controlled television — the only kind now — lionizes him ceaselessly. But maybe the better question would be: Is he so popular?

Generally, an answer could be derived in two ways. One is polling. But the Kremlin has gradually sapped the independence of Russia’s polling industry [[This is thoroughly misleading, the Levada Center is independent, and other polling agencies to varying degrees dependent on state funding produce legitimate polling results similar to Levada’s. Indeed, when ‘useful’ the Washington Post and Fred Hiatt make use of their surveys]], just as it did with the media, and it’s fair to ask how honestly respondents will be evaluating — publicly, speaking to strangers — a leader whose enemies tend to end up poisoned, shot or in prison.

The other method is elections, and here perhaps we should defer to Putin’s considered judgment. Garry Kasparov, the famous chess grandmaster, wanted to run for president against Putin’s handpicked successor. A candidate must be nominated at a public meeting, but no one would rent Kasparov a meeting hall. Officials menaced his wife and daughter when they sought to fly out of the country. Kasparov himself was jailed when he attempted to take part in a political demonstration. Ten days ago, he finally gave up[[Putin’s ‘considered judgement’ allowed another pro-democracy candidate, Grigorii Yavlinskii, to run for the presidency. The general point is well-taken: Russian elections are usually not sufficiently fair. However, there are no real elections at all in many countries but only Russia is being surrounded by NATO. Saudi Arabia, a US ally, has no real elections and scores far below Russia on every democracy indicator: rule of law, media freedom, freedom of association etc., etc.]].

Why would a leader of such steely confidence, heroic achievement and massive popularity be so afraid of political competition? Perhaps he will explain at Time’s awards banquet.


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California,

Dr. Hahn is the author of Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War (McFarland Publishers, 2017) and three previously and well-received books: Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002);  Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007); and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media and has served as a consultant and provided expert testimony to the U.S. government.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Kennan Institute in Washington DC as well as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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