Book Review: “Putin and the Rebuilding of Great Russia”


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Фёдор Иванович Тютчев

“Putin and the Rebuilding of Great Russia” represents the first attempt by an appreciated mainstream editorialist and diplomat, the former ambassador of Italy to Russia, Sergio Romano, to depict President Putin not as an “autocrat”, “tyrant” or simply  one “who every week finds new ways to scare the world”, but as a “leader of a big country that has legitimate interests and understandable ambitions”. Romano, who is a columnist of the Corriere della Sera, tries to interpret the western anger against Putin and his Russia as a problem of the same western democracies: “We may deplore some aspects of his character and his politics, but I see always less people in the West with the right to impart to him lessons of democracy.” He adds: “I ask myself if democracy is still a virtuous model that the Europe of sick democracies and the US of the wicked Middle East adventures and the new racism have the right to propose to Russia?”. The result is therefore that: “we might ask ourselves if the very bad image that democracies are actually showing isn’t at the origin of the ‘authoritarianism’ of Putin”.

The book has to be considered not simply a biography of President Putin or a sort of humble apology of his figure. It is more than this: it is a well documented summary of the last 30 years of Russian history and a succession of brilliant considerations about how the distorted western perception has been unable to understand the “Putin phenomenon”. One of the axes of the book is the attempt to define Putin’s strategy to “rebuild Russia”. According to Romano we must go beyond the typical consideration on the reconciliation with the past, the restoration of the Church, and the edification of national consciousness. He actually believes that we have to consider a sort of new political and geopolitical ideology underneath Putin’s politics. Romano quotes in this case the annual address to the federal assembly that Putin delivered in 2012, specifically this part of his speech: “I would like all of us to understand clearly that the coming years will be decisive. Who will take the lead and who will remain on the periphery and inevitably lose their independence will depend not only on the economic potential but primarily on the will of each nation, on its inner energy, which Lev Gumilev termed passionarnost: the ability to move forward and to embrace change.”

This word “passionarnost” is able, according to Romano, to explain the “theories of the originality of Russia in a world dominated by trends and models made in the West, often with a clear American origin”. Passionarnost is for Gumilev - a major historian, son of the poetess Anna Akhmatova deported to Soviet labor camps during his early life - the essential power of ethnogenesis: “‘The formation of a new ethnos is always linked with the existence among some individuals of an uncontrollable internal drive towards a single-minded activity, always related to changes in either social or natural environment”.
Therefore, Romano believes that “Putin is probably convinced that is easiest to govern Russia from the Kremlin, if someone explains to citizens their originality.”.

Passionarnost also has to be considered the reason for Putin’s intervention in Crimea in 2014: “The Ukrainian coup, which as any coup is always judged with the criteria of convenience, was convenient for the states that preferred to keep Ukraine in the western field and avoid the possibility of it becoming a member of the Eurasian Economic Union.” Therefore, the decision of Putin to intervene in Crimea was in order to protect the “Russian diaspora” and to enhance the consciousness of the Russian nation. Naturally, the passionarity of Russia in the attempt to rebuild national consciousness is also a reaction to the threats posed by the West, in particular by NATO and what Romano in a recent interview defined as the “anti-Russian lobby”. In fact, “the mistake of the West was to let into the EU and NATO - two linked aspects - an anti-Russian lobby composed by four-five countries that consider Russia ‘the enemy’”. This anti-Russian lobby is mainly composed, according to the former ambassador, of the Baltic republics and Poland. This  assumption is confirmed, for example, by the recent approval by the European Parliament of a quite astonishing resolution that condemned  “Russian propaganda”, considered at the same level of “ISIS propaganda”. This resolution was proposed by a Polish bureaucrat, Anna Fotyga, that clearly demonstrate how the EU and NATO are hostages of this powerful Russophobic lobby.

The action of this lobby is, however, a sort of swan song of the “unipolar world” - to use a classic Putin expression - led by the United States. So if we might admit that “the United States isn’t anymore a guide to the world”, then we must also ask ourselves “is this really a bad thing?” And also: “A country that loses two wars, that is directly responsible for the financial crisis of 2007/2008, that, when it tries to reconsider its ambitions, makes new mistakes…can we leave to them the world leadership?”. NATO provocations assume a new perspective if we consider them to be final attempts to preserve US world leadership: “In his insatiable bulimia, NATO is ready to swallow two northern states - Finland and Sweden - that weren’t involved in the Cold War. Facing these maneuvers, Russia, not without reason, has launched a cry of alarm”. At the end, it seems that the West and mainly Europe are the victim of a wrong perspective: “With its fears and its dramatic history, Poland constrains us to see Russia with its eyes and the United States, together with other countries, are happy to still have an enemy”.

This new “Cold War” is not only a mistake, according to Romano, but a confrontation “that lost any nobility”: “it may seems a bit rhetorical, but there was in that clash of giants [the Cold War] a certain amount of nobility. Two big ideas - the dictatorship of proletariat and democratic capitalism - offered to the world two different routes toward a better future.” Today, “communism failed but also capitalist democracies are not in better conditions”. Summarizing his views, Romano thinks that if we want to understand the politician, the strategist, and the man Vladimir Putin, we must make a preliminary self-criticism of the conditions of our allegedly democratic systems. And we also must enter into the landscape of Russia, a complex and unique country that as poet Fyodor Tyutchev said: “cannot be understood with the mind alone” since “in Russia one can only believe”.