What’s so evil about Vladimir Putin?

Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens recently challenged the Oxford University International Relations Society with this provocative question. Paul Hansbury comments on Hitchens’ talk.

Peter Hitchens Picture by New Canadian under creative commons license

Peter Hitchens
Picture by New Canadian under creative commons license

On a balmy spring evening, Peter Hitchens attracted a full house to the basement lecture theatre at Exeter College. The event had been advertised on noticeboards around the University with a portrait of Putin surrounded by a halo of white light.

The gist of Hitchens argument is that there are far worse regimes than Putin’s, and that the West’s major problem with Russia is that it stands up for its sovereignty. Hitchens warns us against rhetoric of a new Cold War, which contributes to dangerous tension between Russia and the West.

A focal point of his indictment of Western criticism of Putin is the absence of an alternative in Russia. The latest darling of the liberal Western conscience is undoubtedly Alexey Navalny. Hitchens waved newspaper cuttings before the audience to evidence his assertions that Navalny is ‘a nasty piece of work.’ It is true that Navalny has struggled to downplay accusations of racial bigotry in the past, and that recent media praise for his courage in opposing Putin usually neglects these accusations. Indeed, Hitchens might have noted this ‘hypocrisy’ with regard to many of the Russian opposition figures the Western press has embraced previously.

This willingness to overlook unsavoury histories may well be an aspect of ‘news-desk pressure’ that Hitchens referred to in another context. He described Western hopes for change during Medvedev’s presidency as the success of such ‘news-desk pressure’; stories about change are far more interesting than stories about continuity.

Given the absence of a viable opposition, Hitchens argues that Russia’s hopes are dependent on two elements: developing the rule of law, and the moral foundation of the Russian Orthodox Church. For Hitchens the two are necessarily linked, since he believes that moral law (and, in turn, order) is necessarily derived from God. The problem with this viewpoint is that it underestimates the proximity of the Russian Orthodox Church to the State and implications of its leadership in corruption.

The question and answer session revealed that Hitchens’ arguments are historically-grounded, and he made analogies with various moments in twentieth-century history. He tactfully brushed aside a question about a left-wing journalist’s claims that Russia mistreats Western journalists with (pretend?) ignorance: ‘He’s the Guardian bloke, right? I’ve not read his book.’ The indifferent remark reminded us that Hitchens’ experiences of living in Moscow in the 1980s and early 1990s give him an insight that younger journalists may well envy.

Hitchens provided plenty of sound-bites to engage his audience. His parallel between the Soviet Union and Mordor may not have met with the approval of J.R.R. Tolkien, who denied that his book was an allegory of any kind, but the real parallel Hitchens wanted to make was between Russia today and the USSR of the 1980s – a liberal, if chaotic phase.


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