It’s hard to believe Colin Thubron, writer, is more than eighty years old. In his latest epic – ‘The Amur River: Between Russia and China’ – we can wince as he describes carrying fractured ankle and ribs for several thousand miles from the swamps of Mongolia through Russian detention.
Thubron is really a historian of sorts. His longevity (personal and professional) and his absorption in the contested Eurasian borderlands allows him to interpret his interlocutors’ most painful memories.
Mikhail Gorbachev – who died yesterday – was another student of Russian history. Google has no record of the esteemed travel writer’s meeting the last supreme leader of the USSR (Thubron’s breakthrough work ‘Among the Russians’ was published in 1983) but one imagines he would have been uniquely equipped to distil the inherited memories of the Russian-Ukrainian family’s suffering during the Stalin famine.
Assuming that the politician would let him do so.
Gorbachev leaned on history to create a vision for a greater Russian state. But – like his predecessor Kerensky – he found neither state nor people would respond to his plan in a coherent fashion.
Odd you might think, because when the – perhaps inevitable – civil war broke out in August 1991, the old order vapourized in a few skirmishes. And despite being on the winning side (wasn’t everybody then), there was no following – or place – for Gorbachev in the new order.
Vladimir Putin also has a keen interest in Russian history. Indeed it’s the basis of his vision for the country’s future.
As news comes through that there is still no place for Gorbachev in the new order (the Kremlin won’t give him a state funeral), it’s ironical to consider that Putin is the Soviet leader who has managed to achieve a reformulation of the USSR. Gorbachev’s dream – now as nightmare.
If Gorbachev was the theorist with the plan, Putin was the pragmatist. Where Gorbachev fragmented the system and gave away both sticks and carrots, Putin – with the attention to needs of the most astute democratic politicians – painstakingly, and with a great deal of trial-and-error, built a durable coalition from old powers like the security services, the military command and ethnic bosses, and new powers, like the oligarchs.
Putin’s power grew as competing forces (including some former allies of convenience, like the oligarchs) were neutralised.
People from prosperous and gentle countries, like New Zealand, can be obtuse in coming to terms with the fact that both peaceful and violent societies need a dedicated cadre of public servants thinking about where to use violence and kill; on whom to inflict it; and by what rules and procedures. Indeed, it can be more complicated at the kinder end of the spectrum (ask our defence officials about their participation in the Russian-killing programme, for example).
Putin is one of those public servants. He joined the KGB, the Soviet institution which quintessentially embodied that responsibility.
While Gorbachev’s actions showed a tremendous desire to avoid the use of force to achieve his goals, it’s hard to say that about Putin. His record suggests an emotional attitude closer to Stalin’s, of whom the poet Osip Mandelstam (also one of his victims) said:
“He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries. / He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.”
One can imagine a powerpoint presentation in the Kremlin running through the kill-list, with Putin then leading a vigorous discussion on the appropriate toxins, calibrating the suffering to the crime. Personal justice demands personal attention.
But back to Thubron, whose ruminations remind us that sometimes – as with Gorbachev – you just can’t force some things on the Russians, and sometimes – as with Putin, and others – you can.
Thubron’s people are the descendants of camp survivors, war veterans, party torturers; those who endured the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ones born after; and those who just kept their heads down.
By getting into an extended war in the Ukraine, Putin’s ability to force things on Thubron’s people may be slipping. It’s giving them a choice: between an insular and – in some ways – more secure society, and a freer and, in social terms, less stable one. With the price paid in lives.
You can see that China’s General-Secretary Xi might have a keen interest in restricting the scope for choice in Russia and thus be anxious to help Putin redeploy Russian soldiers to the Ukraine from Colin Thubron’s Amur river.
With Ukraine’s attempts to recapture Kherson building up and reports of facilities to re-educate Putin’s ‘liberated’ Ukrainians, we get a step closer to an answer.