The unusual personality of Vladimir Putin and his leadership ability are well evidenced in his major speeches as I seek to demonstrate in this analytic essay.
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
Like him or loathe him, President Barack Obama has won the respect of Americans across the political spectrum for his outstanding oratorical skills. It was those skills which first drew national attention to him when he was keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago. It was his stirring speeches in 2008 which made him front runner in the primary races, won him the party’s designation as standard-bearer and ultimately on November 8th gained him the presidency.
And this is as it should be. All the speculation we hear at election time about real or mythic executive experience of candidates is really beside the point. Most American presidents have been wordsmiths – lawyers by training, not managers, and the one recent case of an MBA in the White House should cure Americans of any infatuation they may have had with businessmen running the country for at least a generation to come.
Obama is doing very well emulating Ronald Reagan as the nation’s number one communicator and cheerleader. If he stays on track, he may not only leave office with a Nobel Prize among his memorabilia for the future presidential library but with the nation’s admiration for his speaking ability intact. This will be so even as the demands of his office, specifically the requirement that he have a learned opinion and sage counsel on every imaginable subject, have made him more a reader of texts drafted by others off a teleprompter than an independent creative spirit with mastery of the pen.
For the most part, Americans are indifferent to the rhetorical gifts of foreign leaders. Given the way most of my native-born countrymen avoid foreign languages, this is not surprising. There is always something lost in translation, and a speaker’s charisma is probably the first to go. Yet, foreign policy professionals do pay attention. For example, on October 7th the Financial Times built an article devoted to an expected reshuffle of senior officials in the Kremlin which was based solely on President Medvedev’s recent decision to change two of his speech writers. A ‘new ideological direction’ for Mr Medvedev was said to be in the works. And a political analyst from the Moscow-based Institute of Social Systems was quoted by the FT as observing that ‘changing speechwriters is a fairly important event.”
Against this background, I think it is essential to consider that the key speechwriter to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is most likely….none other than himself. Like his friend Silvio Berlusconi, Mr Putin seems to excel at thinking on his feet, at improvising and at speaking from the heart, whatever the fall-out. In our day and age of spin doctors and public relations handlers at the elbow of most senior politicians worldwide, this kind of behavior is extraordinary.
Putin was not a born public speaker. It took several years for him to find his voice and his stride. When he was still relatively new to the limelight, he was cautious, at times embarrassingly so. His unintentionally droll answer to reporters’ questions about what happened to the submarine Kursk, ‘It sank,’ comes immediately to mind. But over time he developed an inimitable style which is not merely macho but authentically brave.
Putin’s speaking style at home, to Russian audiences, is generally considered to be effective. An accomplished athlete, he has a very physical presence and uses an occasional rude expression, often sexual, to drive home a point and to draw the sympathetic attention of his audience, acting as ‘one of the boys.’ He uses irony and derision against opponents, at home and abroad, but it is never delivered as an expression of personal arrogance, since he is speaking on behalf of the nation.
Though he is constantly in the media, there are some appearances in particular where Putin has reached for and exploited an historic opportunity. These moments have been irregular and never were part of his periodic official addresses to the parliament or to the nation. To a certain extent, they played on populism, appealing to domestic patriotism, as one might expect from a seasoned politician. But to a greater extent, they reached out to the world at large. I would call them the Russian leader’s equivalent of an Urbi et Mondi address from the Vatican.
One such moment was his appearance at the 43rd Munich Security Conference in February 2007. In the presence of more than 300 defense officials from around the world, Putin defied custom and delivered a speech of substance in which he challenged U.S. military and political domination of the globe since the fall of Communism and in particular the unilateralist behavior of this hegemon as enshrined in the foreign policy of George W. Bush. In passing, he catalogued his country’s grievances against the United States and the international community acting under America’s instructions.
It is clear from video coverage of his delivery and from the written transcript of his speech that Putin was speaking from notes, not from a polished text. The occasional grammatical errors are highly revelatory in this regard. Underscoring this same point was the tentative beginning to his address. He remarked only half-jokingly that he hoped that the Conference’s organizers would not switch off his microphone once he got underway and would allow him to use this gathering to present something of importance for the nations of the world to consider.
The American delegation to the Conference was totally confused by the sheer impudence of Putin, by his calling America to account before its allies and client states. American media, citing official sources, commented on Putin’s speech at the time as having been meant for domestic Russian consumption although there was surely no need for Putin to go into the lion’s den abroad and risk public humiliation by his ‘bad boy’ behavior.
On the international stage, very few major politicians dare to publicly attack U.S. policies. Still fewer get away with it. It was not long before the U.S. media began carrying articles on Putin’s roll-back of democratic practices introduced in Russia in the 1990s under President Yeltsin, articles on the new authoritarianism in the Kremlin, on the values gap and….on ‘Tsar Putin.’
At home in Russia, his February 2007 speech did not signal any change of national policy and did not elicit much comment at the time. But it was not forgotten and it came into a second life following the war with Georgia of August 2008.
Russia’s chattering classes, including the habitually contrarian ‘democratic intelligentsia’ experienced a jolt of patriotic awakening from what the media called ‘Russia’s 9/11.’ President Saakashvili’s treacherous attack on the civilian population of the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali and on Russian peacekeepers on the night of August 8, 2008 left no one indifferent. More to the point, Russians saw the glaringly one-sided condemnation of their country by the entire American political leadership, followed by nearly universal blame in the American and Western press directed against Russia for ‘disproportionate use of force’ and were obliged to reconsider many of their basic assumptions about their country’s relations with the world and how these relations were being piloted by the Kremlin.
One year later, The Moscow Times carried an article on the lessons of the August war written by one of the country’s self-styled ‘democrats’ in which he admitted that the war and its aftermath made him go back and re-read Putin’s address to the Munich Security Conference and see in it what he had missed in February 2007. I wonder how many speeches by our Western European and American political leaders can be re-read with pleasure and admiration by the general public after some years.
Another major speech by Vladimir Putin which attests to his personal courage, intellectual seriousness and unusual rhetorical manner was his address in Gdansk, Poland on September 1, 2009 at the commemorative events marking the 70th anniversary of the start of WWII. Like the Munich speech before, it was delivered abroad in the company of European senior statesmen. The speech will likely be considered historic for highlighting the complexity of causality and shared guilt of world leaders, overturning the open and shut case approach of nationalist politicians across Europe and across the world to the casus belli of the Second World War.
Putin’s speech is all the more remarkable when compared to the timid if not simply incompetent speechmaking of fellow European leaders at the ceremony, who, for the most part did everything in their power to cover the wounds of Europe’s civil war from the 1940s in an antiseptic and sleep-inducing dressing. In this respect, I can cite the speech by French Prime Minister François Fillon which was obviously a team effort and was instantly forgettable.
The speech by the host of the ceremony, Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk, was somewhat more interesting. Tusk clearly authored his remarks. He worked from notes and he meandered, repeating himself several times. In the end, he delivered only one mildly controversial observation, the diplomatically couched acknowledgement that the Soviet Army cleared Poland of German occupation but Russian troops could not truly liberate Poland because they were not free themselves. This was a transparent allusion to Stalinism and the decades of Soviet domination of his country after the world war.
Apart from Putin and Tusk, the speaker whose every word drew attention was German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her very presence at the ceremony, representing the country whose shelling of the site 70 years earlier was being commemorated, was a novelty introduced by the Polish hosts as a token of reconciliation.
For her part, Chancellor Merkel’s address was well crafted. However, she read from a prepared text and was characteristically dull. Merkel headed off any possible reproaches to her country by unreservedly accepting blame for the tragic war and Holocaust which her forbears inflicted on Europe and the world. And then she quickly moved on to the present and bright future of European integration.
On the preceding day, Merkel had issued for domestic German consumption and within the context of her Right coalition’s campaign for the soon to be held national elections, a reminder of the injustice dealt by Poland and Czechoslovakia to the 12 million Germans they expelled at the war’s end. On the Westerplatte on September 1st, Merkel cut back this point to the slightest of coded hints and donned sackcloth before Polish and European colleagues.
It is a sign of how far revisionism has traveled and how politicized the past has become when serving today’s leaders in Central and Eastern Europe, that the country which started the war was given a pass by the organizers and media at the September 1st ceremony, while suspended judgment shifted to Mr. Putin, as if WWII were the fault of Stalin’s Russia and not Hitler’s Germany. Indeed, according to a poll conducted by the Polish newspaper Rzeczpolpolita, a majority of Poles hold Moscow to have been equally responsible with Germany for the outbreak of the war (Gareth Jones, ‘History Weighs Heavily on World War Two Anniversary,” Reuters, 31 August 2009).
In the weeks and months leading up to this event, there was an acrimonious exchange of views, a blame game, between government officials and private institutions on the Russian and Polish sides. The Russians released documents showing Polish complicity in the partition of Czechoslovakia after Munich and suggested there was proof of Polish encouragement to the Japanese for an attack the Soviet Union which would present the Stalinist Kremlin with a two-front war.
Meanwhile, the Poles concentrated attention on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact which had as a consequence the occupation of Eastern Poland by Red Army troops 16 days after the Germans began their invasion from the West. Indeed, on the very morning of the commemorative ceremony, the hot-headed and xenophobic Polish President Lech Kaczynski denounced the Pact and Soviet Russia for ‘stabbing Poland in the back’ in the days immediately following the declaration of war on Germany by France and the United Kingdom.
For his part, on August 31st, the day before the commemorative ceremony, Vladimir Putin published an article in the popular Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyborcze in which he made an important concession to Polish public opinion, stating explicitly that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was ‘immoral’ and had been condemned by the Russian parliament. This was not yet the apology which Poles demand from Russia, but it represented a big step forward in mending relations. In the same article, Putin called upon the Polish establishment to look beyond the past and to intensify their cooperation with Russia today and for the future.
Like the other speakers, Putin’s address on September 1st was brief. The published transcript covers just two and a half typed pages. His language was solemn, diplomatic and yet very transparent. He addressed both his domestic supporters and the world at large. He repeated the main points in the foreign policy of the Russian Federation and at the same time he tailored his comments to the circumstances of the commemorative event. He was conciliatory but he did not give up any essentials of Russian pride over its role in the liberation of Europe from fascism.
Putin dedicated his speech to both the victors of World War II with all their sacrifices and to the memory of the 55 million people who died in the war, more than half of whom, he reminded his listeners were citizens of the Soviet Union.
The so-called ‘lessons of history’ are the stock-in-trade of populist politicians everywhere. Putin did not dodge the issue of whether the past can and should inform policy today. He set as his main task not to repeat past verities or rebut revisionism but to argue against facile generalizations of every variety.
He tied several of the lessons which he sought to extract directly to the fundamental outlines of Russian foreign policy today: the insistence that the security of one nation must not be ensured at the expense of the security of others, that comprehensive collective security is a necessity, and that we all share the same value system. The additional lessons he cited arising from the specific issues of World War causality are to avoid arbitrary starting points for describing a chain of events and to castigate appeasement of extremism in all its forms.
Behind these principles we find the assertion that world leaders of two generations all shared responsibility for the outbreak of WWII: the root causes may be found in the humiliation and burdens which the Allies imposed on defeated Germany at Versailles and the immediate antecedents were in the policy of appeasement and redirection of Germany’s aggression to other, third parties for the sake of provisional peace.
Off the table but implicit in his remarks on a balanced approach to attributing blame, we have an assortment of questions such as the Polish occupation of Czech provinces in collusion with Hitler following the German takeover of the Sudetenland, the issue of the proto-fascist sympathies of Britain’s royalty and a large part of its aristocracy during the 1930s, all of which underlay the policy of directing Hitler’s war machine to the East to battle the Bolsheviks and many more moral complications contradicting any simplistic allocation of blame for the war.
Speaking as an historian, I find absolutely nothing objectionable and a good deal to praise in Putin’s even-handed excursion into my domain. For their part, the German media largely praised Putin’s speech as conciliatory (“The World from Berlin. ‘Putin Found the Right Words in Gdansk,’ 09/02/2009 Spiegel On Line). America’s leading newspaper of record, the New York Times was cautious and mostly stuck to factual reporting of Putin’s statements and the mixed reactions they elicited in Poland (Michael Schwirtz and Andrew R. Kramer, ‘Putin Praises Poland for Bravery in World,’ NYT, September 2, 2009).
However, in Britain, Putin’s words did not go down well. The chest-thumping tabloid Daily Mail did not mince words, as we see from the title of its feature article on September 2nd: “Putin blames Britain for Russia’s invasion of Poland on the 70th anniversary of WWII.’ The Telegraph was less inflammatory in its coverage but concentrated attention on Putin’s call for other nations to do as Russia did when it condemned the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and to own up to their own moral failings in dealing with German aggression in the years leading up to WWII.
In watching how Putin’s words discomfited certain Brits, I am reminded of the Russian tale for children about a gathering of animals around the table to discuss who could have made off with the chicken. The leader of the discussion looks around the table slowly and fixes his eyes on the fox as he says ‘without naming names, we have heard that the offender has a reddish furry face.’
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2009-2010
G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University. His latest book Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12 is scheduled for publication in April 2013 and will be available from Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.