Friday, October 21, 2022

Chris Trotter: The Two Vladimirs.

TWO VLADIMIRS, facing each other across a century of time: joined and separated by the Russian nation. Two Vladimirs – Lenin and Putin – around whose understanding of and aspirations for Russia the whole world has, reluctantly, been forced to circle. Two Vladimirs and their contradictory visions of Russia’s meaning dictating the fate of humankind. Two Vladimirs, more alike than either man would willingly admit.

THE FIRST VLADIMIR, Lenin, saw Russia’s potential. Not, simply, as an empire ripe for revolution in ways that the British and German Empires were not, but as a gigantic Petri dish in which something new and immensely powerful could be cultured.

As a dedicated Marxist, Lenin understood just how dramatically Russia deviated from Marx’s revolutionary schema. It was an quasi-feudal empire of peasants, only slowly beginning to industrialise – the starkest possible contrast with the advanced capitalist economies of the United States, Great Britain and Germany – places identified by Marx as the most likely locations for a humane socialist revolution. Lenin wasn’t bothered. A humane socialist revolution was not on his agenda.

In this respect, Lenin was all Russian. His revolutionary politics were shaped by its traditions of terrorist violence and the imposition of new orders from above.

There was a glittering seam of the most reckless nihilism that ran through Russia’s revolutionary rock. It shrugged-off ethics and laughed at caution, fostering an all-or-nothing approach to politics. Lenin mined that seam assiduously, becoming the most fearless political gambler.

He risked the accusation of being a German spy by allowing the Kaiser to facilitate his return to Petrograd. He risked everything on his Bolshevik Party’s coup d’├ętat toppling the Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky. He risked the survival of Russia itself by accepting the predatory terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, betting that Germany would not win the First World War, and would ultimately be forced to surrender its gargantuan territorial gains.

Having won Russia, Lenin then proceeded to abolish it. Not even its name remained. Lenin named his Petri dish the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Not that his socialism was all that socialist. He drew inspiration from the way the German war economy had been organised by Walter Rathenau. He admired Henry Ford’s assembly-lines. Had he lived, there is every possibility that he would have prefigured the Peoples Republic of China’s Deng Xiaoping, who famously responded to his party’s bitter internal disputes over which “road” to follow – communist or capitalist – by quipping: “I do not care if the cat is black or white – so long as it catches mice.”

What fascinated and inspired the first Vladimir were the glittering possibilities arising out of a political entity that encompassed one sixth of the planet’s land surface. An entity bursting with resources, and now, thanks to a revolution, a civil war, and the emigration of the Tsarist regime’s fondest supporters, an entity unencumbered by all the usual historical baggage. An entity whose people were a blank slate for his party to write on. An entity which, if it was as lucky as the man who created it, would go on to shape the destiny of the entire world.

THE SECOND VLADIMIR, Putin, looking back over the century separating him from the first, can see with equal clarity not only how much of Vladimir Lenin’s vision was realised, but also the dire, if unintended, consequences of that success. Though raised in Lenin’s Petri dish, and inordinately proud of its achievements, Putin is pinioned by the inescapable fact of its failure.

The Russian people: impassive, resilient, deeply cynical; but also mystical, superstitious and prone to dangerous enthusiasms; turned out to be anything but a blank slate upon which the Bolsheviks could freely write the future. Their country may no longer have been called Russia, but Russians they remained. Their empire also, which, thanks to their heroic efforts against the exterminationist Germans, expanded to encompass all of Eastern Europe.

No Tsar had ever wielded the power of Joseph Stalin. The Soviet Union glowered over Western Europe and the world through black, bear-like eyes: the object, alike, of humanity’s grim admiration and abiding fear.

Lacking in this Red empire was the first Vladimir’s readiness to wager everything to move the experiment forward. Stalin was ruthless, but he wasn’t brave. The man lived his whole life in fear, and made damn sure the Soviet people did the same. Lenin’s Petri dish was poisoned by his fear. The Soviet Empire that evolved may have been bigger and more terrifying that the Tsars’, but Homo Sovieticus was a pretty wretched specimen.

The second Vladimir, like the Russian Federation he rules, is a hot mess of geopolitical and cultural insecurities. He despises the late Mikhail Gorbachev for presiding over the dissolution of the Soviet Union. That event, according to Putin: “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.”

What Putin missed completely was the historical courage of Gorbachev’s all-or-nothing bet that the entity created by the first Vladimir might yet prove equal to its creator’s optimistic vision.

That Gorbachev lost the bet is, of course, the best possible proof that Homo Sovieticus was an evolutionary dead-end. That the Soviet Union’s successor states all became hopelessly corrupt kleptocracies merely demonstrated how degraded Soviet Man’s political and economic DNA truly was. That Putin rose to become Russia’s new strongman heaped irony on tragedy.

Because its all there in the second Vladimir: the nihilism, the cynicism, the existential wager on nothing more elevating that re-swallowing the Ukrainian people. First devoured by Lenin in the 1920s, and then eaten again by Stalin in the 1930s. The Leninist will-to-power is also there in Putin, but the dream is different. Not a speculative blueprint for humanity’s future, but a necromancer’s resurrection of Russia’s obscurantist past. Not the white-hot ripples of modernist self-confidence, but the poisonous fogs and vapours of the Middle Ages.

Chris Trotter is a political commentator who blogs at

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