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Stocker: Vladimir Putin should not be admired

Alexi Stocker, Columnist

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In 2014, Forbes named Russian President Vladimir Putin the most powerful man in the world for the second year in a row. According to Forbes, “powerful” refers to one’s ability to wield “hard power,” the kind “that shapes and bends the world, and moves people, markets, armies and minds.” Although I disagree with Forbes regarding Putin’s ability to move markets, considering the Russian economy’s fragile state, one thing is certain: Putin, through the self-image he has so deftly crafted over the past decade and a half since he took power in 1999, moves minds.

Putin is popular at home in Russia. Many Russians credit him with bringing Russia stability in the early 2000s following political, social and economic turmoil in the 1990s. Moreover, the Russian people feel he has stood up to the U.S. and restored Russian military might. Above all else, Putin follows in the “strong man” tradition of Russia’s most effective leaders. The Russian president’s love of hyper-masculine activities —– horseback riding, hunting, snowmobile riding, hang-gliding, submarine diving and judo, to name a few —– has established him as an exceptionally “manly” world leader.   

Although Putin’s popularity in Russia is completely understandable, he has also gained a following in an unlikely place: the United States. Putin, the leader of the United States’ main “geopolitical foe” (to quote Mitt Romney), is revered by a large number of Americans, especially conservatives. The Washington Post catalogued more than 900 comments to a piece it ran on the Russian president, most of them stunningly pro-Putin and scornful of U.S. President Barack Obama. A sampling reveals a number of disturbing trends. Commenters referred to Putin as a “man’s man,” a “real professional,” and “highly intelligent.” Disparaging President Obama, many commenters declared Putin a superior leader in “every way,” sometimes expressing longing for the Russian president to take the place of our current commander in chief.

American politicians, pundits and celebrities sometimes praise Putin. In 2014, following Russia’s invasion of Crimea, conservative politicians gushed with admiration for Putin: Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani called Putin “a real leader,” and former Gov. Sarah Palin praised his masculine pastimes. Fox News analysts and hosts praised Putin’s leadership capabilities while belittling President Obama. Following Russia’s commencement of airstrikes in Syria, conservative pundits applauded Putin’s ability to “outmaneuver” the Obama administration in Syria.

Here at Northwestern, I hear praise for Putin. I’ve heard him described as a “true leader,” a “decision-maker” and a “political genius.” I know some of my fellow students’ remarks are intended to be ironic, a hallmark of millennial culture. At a certain point, even ironic admiration becomes genuine. Too often I hear the refrain, “sure, you can’t call him a good guy, but you have to admire — or at least respect — him.”

There is nothing admirable or respectable about Vladimir Putin. His machismo image is the basis of a cult of personality that blinds supporters and fans to the reality of life under the autocratic Russian president. Putin heads a murderous, tyrannical regime hell-bent on silencing critics and political opponents through any means necessary. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer turned Putin critic living in the United Kingdom, died of polonium poisoning after meeting with former colleagues. This past March, Boris Nemtsov, a political opponent of Putin, was shot to death in front of the Kremlin. Numerous journalists, human rights activists and other opposition figures have been murdered under Putin’s reign. Dozens of others have been imprisoned, including Alexei Navalny, a popular opposition leader, and the members of punk rock band Pussy Riot, who were jailed for an anti-Putin performance in 2013.

Putin’s expertise in silencing critics has become more important as the Russian economy continues its perilous slide deeper into recession. Rising inflation, increasing poverty rates and shaky state finances are severely wounding a nation dependent on oil revenue, which has dropped with the price of oil. Nonetheless, Putin continues to pump money into vanity projects and military adventures in other countries.

To praise Putin as a great leader is to mock leadership. Great leaders unite their followers around a common purpose and work with their political adversaries and critics to move forward together. Putin is a violent tyrant, not worthy of anyone’s admiration or respect. The history of autocracy teaches that strongman rule is never sustainable and that true leadership depends on cooperation, trust and compassion.

Alexi Stocker is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at alexistocker2016@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern

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