A New North Korea?
The Risks of a Russian Pariah State
According to Russia expert Clint Ehrlich, appearing on Tucker Carlson Tonight, the answer is a hard yes. No surprise there. As any Russia expert knows, this is a country that still takes deep pride in surviving the Siege of Leningrad, living off rats and sawdust and sending waves of babushkas armed only with pitchforks at Nazi machine-gun nests. (Perhaps Mr. Putin should have realized that the Ukrainian people—those that weren’t collaborating with the Nazis anyway—had also fought courageously against the German onslaught, their stand at Kyiv being a prime example, and might be just as steadfast in the defense of their “rodina” in the face of a modern Russian invasion.)
In my first essay as part of the MSc curriculum in Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at the London School of Economics, where I wrote my thesis on the Soviet KGB, my assignment was to answer a simple question: “Was Stalin a popular leader during the Great Patriotic War?” My initial gut-instinct, having heard the stories of the purges that preceded the war, and the barbarism of NKVD troops lining up behind the front-lines to machine-gun anyone who retreated, was: “Absolutely not.” There was no way that anyone could possibly support a leader who did that. They merely fought the Germans because they must have perceived them as something worse—just like we did in the West. I quickly discovered otherwise. Stalin became very popular during the war not in spite of such actions, but because of them. The Russian mindset, on a totally different wavelength than the Western outlook, was such that if “Comrade Stalin feels it necessary to put machine guns behind us to ensure we only move forward, then that is how grave the situation, that is how great the threat to our survival, so we must move forward.” Za rodinu! Za Stalina! For the motherland! For Stalin! That was their war-cry. In fact, many victims of the purges themselves, including Sergei Korolev, the brilliant rocket scientist who himself had lived through the horrors of Kolyma, the Russian Auschwitz, to become the father of the Russian space program that sent Yuri Gagarin into the cosmos, always believed that it was others who had signed off on his years of torture—that “Comrade Stalin would never do such a thing to his people” and couldn’t possibly have been aware.
Today’s Russian people might not be so blind, but as Ehrlich rightly makes clear, even those that might otherwise oppose their country’s actions in Ukraine, are still throwing in behind Putin because who likes their country being treated like a pariah state—or pariahs themselves?
Where’s the end-game here?
Do our leaders and decision-makers even have one?
Where’s the out for Mr. Putin and the Russian people?
Alex Holstein is the co-author of Warfighter: The Story of an American Fighting Man, due out May 15, 2022, from Lyons Press. He holds an MSc in Russian and Post-Soviet Studies from the London School of Economics, where he wrote his thesis on the Soviet KGB.