the russian front: Putinĺs Colossal Anti-Magnitsky Blunder
Published: January 16, 2013 (Issue # 1742)
President Vladimir Putinĺs initial response toáthe Magnitsky Act was right onáthe money: toáaccuse theáU.S. government ofámonumental hypocrisy byáfocusing attention onáWashingtonĺs record ofátorture andáillegal rendition ofáterrorism suspects. That reaction also had theátit-for-tat structural symmetry that is standard inásuch cases.
More important, it allowed theáKremlin toátake territory it had not occupied since Soviet days: theámoral high ground. Back then, Soviet officials would counter U.S. criticism ofáhuman rights violations with theástandard question, ôAnd what about your blacks?ö Historian Martin Kenner even contends that progress ináthe civil rights movement was accelerated byáthe criticism fromáMoscow, aásort ofásocial justice race running parallel toáthe arms andáspace races.
Apart fromásymmetry andáhigh ground, there was also anáexcellent contextual reason toáattack theáU.S. foráits practices ofátorture andárendition. Theásubject is very much ináthe air again because U.S. President Barack Obama has nominated John Brennan, currently his chief counter-terrorism adviser, toábe theánew CIA director. Four years ago, that nomination proved impossible because ofáBrennanĺs favorable remarks about rendition andáwaterboarding. Ináaddition, theánew film ôZero Dark Thirtyö detailing theámanhunt foráOsama bin Laden was controversial even before its recent release because its violent opening scenes ofáwaterboarding suggest that this torture led toáactionable intelligence. This was anáideal moment foráPutinĺs attack toáresonate with U.S. popular cultural as well as onáCapitol Hill.
Aásignificant percentage ofáAmericans, especially among those who voted foráObama ináNovember, are still angered byáthe damage that former President George W. Bush andáVice President Dick Cheney caused toáthe U.S. global image. If Putinĺs idea was toástick it toáthe U.S., heá couldnĺt have found aábetter means andámoment toádo it.
Yet Putinĺs big mistake was when he turned his initial symmetric response intoáa foolish asymmetric one. Byádenying Americans theáright toáadopt Russian children, theáreasoning must have been some combination ofáôThe Americans are sentimental, thisĺll hurt them!ö andáôWho do they think they are, coming here andáshopping foráour blond, blue-eyed darlings!ö
Ináthe end, ofácourse, it is Russiaĺs own orphans who will suffer theámost. Theáold Russian saying, ôBeat your own so others will fear you,ö was probably not designed with kids inámind.
Patriarch Kirill has called onáRussians toáadopt more children. Itĺs aágood idea. This is also aámoment where theáopposition or spontaneous groups that are changing Russia slowly fromáthe bottom up could come forward with aámass adoption program. But it seems that they, like Putin, are also letting aárare andávaluable opportunity slip by.
What makes this whole business even odder is how adroitly Putin dealt with French actor Gerard Depardieu, grabbing world headlines andáchanging theáperception ofáRussia as aáplace where artists like theápunk group Pussy Riot are persecuted toámaking it aárather safe haven foráinternational movie stars fighting foráreasonable income tax rates.
Yet only time will tell whether Putinĺs play onáDepardieu was smart. It may turn out that, like many post-Soviet people, Putin has thrown out theádialectical baby with theáMarxist bath water. Dialectics stressed that things inevitably turned intoátheir opposite. Russian citizen Depardieu may yet end up onáRed Square protesting theáarrest ofásome fellow ôRussianö artist, aásight theáworld media would gobble up. Stay tuned.áááá á
Richard Lourie is theáauthor ofáôSakharov: AáBiographyö andáôThe Autobiography ofáJoseph Stalin.ö