Putin’s Time

Time’s Person of the Year. Who would have thunk it? Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin joins Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, and Mikhail Gorbachev. Three other Russian leaders who’ve received the honor.

Stalin was named twice, in 1939 and 1942. The first for “dramatically switching the power balance of Europe one August night” when the vozhd’ signed the now infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact. “History may not like him” Time prophesied,”but history cannot forget him.” And how. Ironically, the 1942 honor came when Stalin became an ally of the United States against Hitler. According to Time, everything that happened that war plagued year–Chiang Kai-shek holding his own against the Japanese, Churchill’s victory over the Nazis in Egypt, Roosevelt’s bringing the full weight of the US war machine on the Axis–seemed small next to Stalin. As Time explained, “and, worthy though they may prove, they inevitably pale by comparison with what Joseph Stalin did in 1942.” The Red Army repulsed the Germans at Stalingrad, leading to four Soviet offensives that eventually pushed the Germans back to Berlin.

The garrulous Nikita Khrushchev was named “Man of the Year” in 1957. Nothing other than a little satellite that went “beep, beep, beep” gained him the accolade. Russia won the space race by launching Sputnik I and Sputnik II into the Earth’s orbit. But that wasn’t all the peasant’s son did in 1957. A year before he shocked the Communist world with his “Secret Speech” which denounced his mentor, Stalin. It also allowed him to politically outwit his rivals on the Politburo. He reached out to the Middle East by giving $563 million to aid Arab nationalism in Syria and Egypt. He achieved much more in that year even though he did “not yet have absolute power, [was] still best described as chairman of the gang.” Still, he proved politically wily toward his opponents, using a combination of guile and good old Russian muzhestvo to beat them. Said Time, “In 1957, Nikita Khrushchev outran, outfoxed, outbragged, outworked and outdrank them all.”

Mikhail Gorbachev was awarded “Man of the Year” in 1987 and “Man of the Decade” in 1989. So far Gorbachev has been the only person praised with the latter title. Not bad for a peasant born in the village Privolnoye during the nightmare of collectivization. But Time didn’t recognize Gorbachev for his background, or as a symbol of Soviet upward mobility (Khrushchev was probably a better symbol of the particular Stalinist kind). He was honored because he did the unthinkable. Although a Stalinist in his youth, Gorbachev instituted reforms that would eventually unlock many of the secrets of that ideology. Perestroika, which he argued was “to revive the spirit of Leninism,” was a kind of neo-NEP that sought to institute controlled market forces and decentralization into the stagnant Soviet economy. Glasnost turned much of the Soviet profane into the sacred. As a result, the “black spots” of Soviet history rapidly began to lighten. In the eyes of Time, all of this made Gorbachev “a new unfamiliar kind of leader” who recognized that “the old rules of dealing with that long-suffering land [were] suddenly outdated.”

But that was only the beginning of Time’s recognition of Gorbachev. In 1989, they saw him as the “Man of the Decade.” Why? “Because,” Time explained, “he is the force behind the most momentous events of the ’80s and because what he has already done will almost certainly shape the future.” And though Gorbachev didn’t “mean to abolish communism,” he learned that history is a real bitch to control. Right when you think you have it by the reigns, it violently bucks from your grip. Don’t think so? Just ask George Bush. The future Gorbachev was ushering, however, wouldn’t fully emerge until 1991, when the Soviet Union imploded. That historical act, which this year’s “Person of the Year” has called “the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century,” has certainly shaped our present. More than people seem to be willing to acknowledge.

In 1989, Gorbachev was still considered a positive revolutionary. Time compared him with all sorts of world historical figures. He was the “Copernicus, Darwin and Freud of communism all wrapped in one.” He was “Prospero in a realm ruled by Caliban.” He was “simultaneously the communist Pope and the Soviet Martin Luther, the apparatchik as Magellan and McLuhan.” Indeed, Gorbachev was in a sense a “global navigator” but one similar to how Viktor Chernov described Lenin in April 1917,

“He seems to be made of one chunk of granite. And he is all round and polished like a billiard ball. There is nothing you can get hold of him by. He rolls with irrepressible speed. But he could repeat to himself the well-known phrase “I don’t know where I am going, but I am going there resolutely.”

If Gorbachev didn’t have a clue where he was going and where he was dragging Russia behind him, this year’s “Person of the Year” has no doubts. Vladimir Putin is not so much dragging Russia as he is pushing it. True, he is not the first Russian Sisyphus, all those listed above were sisyphi in their own right. And if Time began their “Man of the Year” award three centuries earlier, it would have certainly recognized Peter the Great, Catherine II, Nicholas I, Alexander I, and Lenin among their honored. Some say Putin is a Tsar. The more idiotic call him a neo-Stalin. Putin, however, would be better seen as a manager, a CEO, and a sort of mafia don. Putin sees himself as a Russian Franklin Roosevelt. He has the insurmountable task of prosecuting Russia’s revival at the same time he has to keep his rival boyars’ corruption within acceptable boundaries. Putin is a pragmatist more than anything. And this requires him to pick his battles. Sometimes he does so with exactness. Other times hubris gets the better of him.

Putin is mostly demonized in the West. Nothing says this more than the fact that Time’s Adi Ignatius spent three and a half hours with the man, yet in the article we hear as many quotes from Garry Kasparov than from Putin. The response from the American political class on Putin’s recognition was predictable. Republican Presidential candidate Mit Romney called Time’s move “disgusting” instead designating the US military viceroy in Iraq General David Petraeus as more worthy. John McCain also thought Petraeus was a better pick. All McCain sees in Putin is “three letters – a K, a G and a B.” Then in his cowboy way McCain stated ““I would have had a much stronger response to Mr. Putin a long time ago.” If elected, it seems that hubris might get the better of McCain too.

But there you have it. Time has spoken and not without sparking controversy. That’s one thing it as its Person of the Year have in common. Putin is controversial the world over. And like Time, we can certainly count on him to continue speaking.