by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - July 30, 2007) Strolling down the wooded lanes of Kennebunkport, not quite arm in arm but still exuding a palpable togetherness, George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin could easily be mistaken for the Bobbsy Twins. They walk in lock-step, are similarly attired, and are protected by an impenetrable patina that conceals their true feelings. When, during their first meeting in 2001, Bush was able to look deeply into the eyes of the Russian leader and discern his "soul," the president may well have been projecting his own soul into the blank, hooded eyes of the Russian premier. Ex-KGB officers have been carefully trained to conceal their soul from the probing eyes of foreigners.
The similarities between the two men are striking. The American president feels he can blithely ride roughshod over the Constitution and decide which passed legislation he will allow and which he can ignore. Mr. Putin, the head of what has been called "a managed democracy" (a contradiction-in-terms if there ever was one) can just as blithely decide to shut down radio and TV stations that have the temerity to express criticism of his leadership. George W. has no hesitation in wiretapping American citizens without obtaining legal warrants and Putin has employed his heavies to uproot those recalcitrant citizens who buckle under his oppressive, KGB-trained methods -- even when they are highly successful businessmen like Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Granted, George W., unlike Putin, has not yet jailed business tycoons and appropriated their assets, although it is not beyond credibility that if he thought he could get away with it, he would take over The New York Times and oblige them to run only those stories previously approved by his administration stooges. He made a few tentative efforts in this direction a few years back when he felt he could buy the services of free lance reporters and have them publish government-scripted propaganda disguised as factual news stories. Mr. Putin is also suspicious of "critics" and believes the State has the right to impose only those views that will enable his "managed Democracy" to appear to be jolly and content. His directives to the media chieftains to publish "50 per cent positive news" and to refuse media access to those zealots who have the temerity to criticize his regime tends to generate a "hit list" that stretches from Moscow to the Urals -- and some would say, through London as well.
In short, the resemblance between Bush and Putin is not only appallingly similar but, in some instances, almost identical. These are two men who believe that the power to legislate the activities of their country rests essentially with themselves and they believe that so profoundly they will brook no interference from anyone who has other ideas. And for both men, secrecy is an irresistible aphrodisiac.
We have encountered this totalitarian mindset throughout history and not only among politicians. It existed in the minds and manners of the Nazi and Italian fascists; it was rooted in the Salem Witch Trials and in France both before and after the French Revolution -- almost equally among the rigid Royalists and the framers of the Reign of Terror. Many of us discern it in the edicts emanating from the Vatican as well as the pronouncements of more mundane demagogues whose lives are ruled by religious doctrine. It is a mindset -- dead set -- against contrarian views and terrified of dissent.
In both Putin and Bush, one finds that unbending tenacity that is devoted to projecting their sense of reality no matter how nakedly it is contradicted by events. And in both Russia and the USA, there are segments of the population that mistake this dogmatic obstinacy for dedication to principle. Once a demagogue has formulated a dogma, it is essential that he supports it with vigor, and if vigor alone is not sufficient, then with oppressive action.
The other great resemblance between Bush and Putin is the resistance that both of their leadership styles have called into being among the populace. The antiwar sentiment that feeds the anti-Bush fervor in America is mirrored by the anti-Putin groundswell, which that leader is desperately trying to suppress in Russia and which, from all one can gather, he is successfully silencing. There are no protected outlets for dissent against Putinism and so the state can easily impose its own dictates. In the U.S., one would believe the safeguards of the Constitution exist to counter the totalitarian tendencies of the Bush-Cheney regime -- and yet the so-called "opposition party" appears to be helpless in asserting what they themselves acknowledge is the will of the people as expressed in the recent congressional elections. It makes one wonder about the flaccidity of a Jeffersonian Democracy as opposed to the efficacy of a Stalinist state.
Both are masked men. Bush's mask is the simple, straightforward, "good ol' boy" countenance ("let's all have a barbecue or a little round of bowling") and Putin's, the "still waters run deep," quiet authority of the veiled demagogue ("I know what's best; don't argue, just trust me.") But behind both masks, there smolders violent passions against antagonists and nay-sayers; a steel-ribbed sense of complacency and an infuriating intolerance towards criticism.
Historians have often observed there are striking resemblances between Russia and America; the one that appears most apparent today is the inability of the citizenry of both countries to effectively counter the dogmatism of the State. It should be easier in a real democracy as opposed to a "managed democracy" -- but that doesn't seem to be the case.
Perhaps Putin and Bush, cornhole buddies as they are, could temporarily agree to change places allowing one leader to preside over the other's nation and vice verse. I wonder how much difference that might make -- in either country.
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