The Wall Street Journal recently showed Vladimir Putin in Crimea. There was the saturnine Slav in an unusually ebullient mood. He was standing in front of a banner ostensibly celebrating the victory of the USSR in what Russians still call “The Great Patriotic War” against Hitler in 1945.
Of course, some would argue that the only reason Vladimir Vladimirovich appeared before the large red banner with its Communist Hammer and Sickle insignia is for historical accuracy. Those victory banners from 1945 have a long history in Russia.
Defenders of Putin’s public association with the symbols of Soviet power might say it is rather like us celebrating America’s victory at Fort McHenry in 1814 with a fifteen-star, fifteen stripe “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Or, we might see all this for what it is. Vladimir Putin is a KGB agent who thinks the collapse of the USSR was an historic tragedy. During the champagne-fizzy euphoria of the 1990s, Russia had a new flag and a new hope for democracy. Then, the woozy President Yeltsin charmed Westerners with his courage and his willingness to confront Russia’s grim Communist past. The Russian Orthodox Church even was allowed to recover the remains of the last Tsar and his family and re-inter them in sanctified ground.
In those heady days, the Moscow statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky was torn down. “Iron Felix” was the founder of the CHEKA. That was the predecessor of the KGB, where Putin trained. Earlier in this decade, however, Putinreportedly had a bust of Iron Felix restored to the Lubyanka, the main prison whose entrance was called, for generations of Russians, “the Gates of Hell.”
On New Year’s Eve, 2000, when the rest of the world was popping champagne corks and welcoming the New Millennium, Prime Minister Putin eased the bibulous President Boris Yeltsin aside and assumed full powers. Since that moment, he has been carefully re-building a Russian state based on the secret police.
President Obama must want this. He told Putin’s junior partner, Dmitri Medvedev, at a Seoul, South Korea G-8 Summit in 2012: “Tell Vladimir I can be more flexible after the election.” And his first-term National Security Advisor, Gen. James Jones (USMC Ret.), spoke to his Russian counterpart, The Washington Post told us, on an almost daily basis.
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