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FEBRUARY 20, 2024
On the Prospect website
Prospect Live Weekly Roundup: The Biden Question
In our inaugural live YouTube show, our executive editor takes on the hot topic of whether Biden should step down from the ticket. BY PROSPECT STAFF
Dealing With the Bad Stewards
Bailing out a critical Massachusetts hospital chain should come with some consequences for the financial operators who put them in that position. BY ROBERT KUTTNER
The Unheralded Labor of Fighting Book Bans
Groups of educators, parents, and activists work tirelessly to expose the costs of the post-pandemic surge in book challenges. BY JACK STYLER
Breaking News!
Tom Tomorrow brings you This Modern World BY TOM TOMORROW
Meyerson on TAP
‘Useful Idiots’—Stalin’s Then and Putin’s Now
Russian anti-liberalism won the allegiance of Western communists in the 1930s and has won over Trumpist Republicans today.
As events would have it, the news of Alexei Navalny’s death came just two days after I’d finished reading the second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s biography of Joseph Stalin, which covers the period from Stalin’s consolidation of power and promulgation of the policy of industrialization über alles (1929) to Hitler’s invasion of Russia (1941). That is, the period that included Stalin’s war on the peasantry (conducted largely through forced collectivization and famines) and his subsequent Great Terror, which saw the execution of nearly one million Soviets, including virtually every other significant leader of Soviet communism and Soviet armed forces, on not only manufactured but patently absurd charges of their secretly working for Nazi Germany. The book is an astonishing work of scholarship, Kotkin having unearthed the minutes and notes from countless sessions of Stalin’s politburo and informal meetings with his inner circle.

If he’s done nothing else, Russian President Vladimir Putin has convincingly demonstrated that Russia’s brutal authoritarianism didn’t end with the death of Stalin, or Beria, or Suslov, or the USSR. The through line stretching from tsarism to Communism to Putinism is clear. Its common features include an opposition to Western liberalism and a corresponding belief in Russia’s mission as the guardian and promoter of anti-liberal orthodoxy, though the substance of that orthodoxy has varied from regime to regime. What hasn’t varied is that regimes based on orthodoxy defend that orthodoxy at home through authoritarian, sometimes autocratic and (under Stalin) totalitarian means. There were intermissions during the Bukharinesque 1920s, the Gorbachevian 1980s and ’90s, and the post-Gorbachev years of Yeltsin, though the kleptocratic capitalism and national decline of the Yeltsin period certainly paved the way for Putinism’s reversion to the murderous, authoritarian mean.

There’s another reversion to that mean that we’re seeing today, and that is the recurrence of Western apologies for that authoritarianism, and even enthusiasm for it. It was during Stalin’s reign that Western communist parties were at their apogee. In the years between 1935 and 1945 (with two years out for the bad behavior of Stalin’s alliance with Hitler between 1939 and 1941), the USSR told other nations’ communist parties to make common cause with social democrats, liberals, and just plain bourgeois parties to meet the threat of ascendant fascism. In the U.S. and other nations, party membership swelled as communists worked alongside socialists and others to build unions, campaign for racial equality, and support the fight against Nazi Germany. Those were also, however, the years (particularly 1936 through 1939) of the Great Terror in Russia, of the show trials in which the surviving leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet state before Stalin’s ascent, having all been tortured and seen their families threatened, confessed to having secret lives spent helping the Nazis, and were subsequently all executed. Such was the zeal, the blindness and obtuseness of Western communists at the time that they actually believed this horseshit, or at least excused it as somehow politically necessary.

Today, a latter-day version of support for authoritarian Russian orthodoxy has risen in the West and elsewhere, this time among reactionary nationalists whose base of support centers in rural, traditionalist, nationalist, xenophobic communities, all of them arrayed against what they see as liberalism’s threat to their values. That’s what unites Le Pen’s followers in France, Orban’s in Hungary, the AfD’s in Germany, and the Trumpified Republicans here in the USA, a large number of whom polls show to believe that force is necessary to repel that threat. As was said of Stalin’s Western supporters in the 1930s, so may we say of Putin’s today: They’re all "useful idiots," though some are also wannabe thugs.

For Trump himself, Putin-philia is more personal. It’s clear that his idea of proper leadership is autocracy and its accompanying use of force. That’s why he’s expressed admiration not only for Putin but also China’s Xi and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. No larger ideology clouds Trump’s vision; all events are funneled through his sociopathic narcissism. Hence his "response" to Putin’s apparent murder of Navalny, which was to allude to it indirectly and then directly compare it to the malign abuse he insists he’s the victim of by virtue of his conviction for financial fraud and his upcoming trials for illegally seeking to cling to power by overturning a presidential election.

If he truly believes he’s the same kind of victim as Alexei Navalny, he at least should have the decency to die.

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