Oliver Stone’s series of interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin – conducted between July 2015 and February 2017 – has garnered a lot of attention, albeit in most cases not for the right reasons. In a much-noted appearance of Stephen Colbert’s comedy show, the liberal host attacked Stone for not confronting the Russian leader for his alleged crimes – which simply shows that Colbert didn’t bother seeing the interviews, because Stone most certainly did question Putin about this and other related matters. A review in Salon follows a similar pattern: the reviewer apparently did view at least some parts of the interviews, but predictably focused on the most superficial material: Putin loves Judo, he’s not a feminist, and won’t be marching in any Gay Pride events. Shocking!
In the present atmosphere of Russophobic hysteria, no honest account of what is happening in Russia or what Putin is really all about is likely to be taken at face value. What’s astonishing, however, is that this four-part documentary was even made at all– and shown on Showtime, where it is currently playing. Less surprising is the fact that the interviews contain several news-making revelations that the “mainstream” media has so far largely ignored.
It gets interesting right from the beginning when Stone delves into Putin’s early career. As a KGB officer stationed in East Germany, then the German Democratic Republic, he describes the GDR as entirely lacking the “spirit of innovation,” a “society [that] was frozen in the 1950s.” Hardly what one would expect from the caricature of a Soviet apparatchik Western profiles of Putin routinely portray. And also right from the beginning there is a tension between Stone, with his often archetypal liberal-left views, and Putin, whose perspective – if it has any American equivalent – might be called paleoconservative.
When Stone tries to identify Putin with Mikhail Gobachev, the Soviet liberal-reformist leader – “he has a resemblance to you in that he came up through that system. Very humble beginnings” – Putin rejects this outright with laconic disdain: “We all have something in common because we’re human beings.” Gorby, a favorite of American liberals, is seen by Putin as someone who “didn’t know what [he] wanted or know how to achieve what was required.”
Putin is routinely described by Western journalists as someone who wants to restore the old Soviet system, or at least restore the empire that extended over the countries of the Warsaw Pact, but what isn’t recognized is that he opposed the failed coup that sought a Soviet restoration: he resigned from his KGB office when the coup plotters briefly took over. And so Stone asks him, “But in your mind, did you still believe in communism? Did you believe in the system?” Putin answers: “No, certainly not. But at the beginning I believed it … and I wanted to implement it.” So when did he change? “You know, regrettably, my views are not changed when I’m exposed to new ideas, but only when I’m exposed to new circumstances.” Here is Putin the pragmatist, the man of action, who wants results and not theories: “The political system was stagnating,” he says, “it was frozen, it was not capable of any development.” Just like East Germany, which he had recently come from. And therefore he concluded that “the monopoly of one political force, of one party, is pernicious to the country.”
Still, Stone insists that “these are Gorbachev’s ideas, so you were influenced by Gorbachev.” Yet Putin contradicts him: “These are not ideas of Gorbachev,” who was merely trying to reform a system that was rotten at its very core: “The problem is this, this system was not efficient at its roots. And how can you radically change the system while preserving the country? That’s something no one back then knew—including Gorbachev. And they pushed the country towards collapse.”
It was the country versus the system – the latter was destroying the former. So how to preserve the Russian nation in the midst of so much turmoil? That was the problem that Russia faced as the Communist colossus was falling, and it is still the conundrum at the heart of Putin’s concerns. Putin greatly resents Gorbachev because the would-be Soviet reformer was pushing the system toward its ultimate demolition without regard for the consequences.
And why was this a disastrous course in Putin’s view? Not because the old Communist dream was exposed as a nightmare, but due to the fact that the nation – as opposed to the system – was dismembered. “To start with,” says Putin, “the most important thing is that after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, 25 million Russians – in the blink of an eye – found themselves abroad. In another country.”
Imagine waking up one morning and finding that you’re not a citizen of the United States, but instead come under the control of some foreign entity that never existed in your lifetime. That’s what happened in the old Soviet Union. And the consequences of that historic implosion are still reverberating some thirty years later.
A key part of the mythology surrounding Putin is that he’s a power-mad dictator, the reincarnation of Stalin, and yet the facts – little known, of course, and not reported in the Western media – give us quite a different perspective. For example, I’ve never heard a single news story about Putin’s career report the fact that he initially refused President Boris Yeltsin’s first offer to appoint him Prime Minister. He didn’t trust Yeltsin, with good reason, and to underscore the dangers inherent in the office at that point he says: “And there was only one thing I was thinking about back then: Where to hide my children?”
This is not someone who wants power for its own sake. Indeed, Putin comes across as a modest man, driven by a sense of patriotic duty rather than lust for power, prestige, or pelf. He looks askance at praise, such as when Stone says: “You’re credited with doing many fine things in your first term. Privatization was stopped. You built up industries … a real son of Russia – you should be proud. You raised the GDP,” etc. etc. A Stalin type would simply have accepted this adulation, and yet Putin disputed Stone’s key point:
“Well, it’s not exactly like that. I didn’t stop privatization. I just wanted to make it more equitable, more fair. We put an end to some schemes – manipulation schemes – which led to the creation of oligarchs. These schemes that allowed some people to become billionaires in the blink of an eye.”
Here, again, we see the tension between Stone’s left-wing economic views, and Putin’s perspective, a theme played out in the entire course of these interviews: Putin continually insists that he is for private property, and that the “privatization” schemes he denounces were all due to the oligarchs’ connections to the state apparatus, which handed them control of entire industries for pennies on the dollar. The oligarchs were made possible by government control of industry and a rigged system, the exact opposite of a market economy. Putin clearly understands this when, later in the interview, he says:
“Do you know who was not happy with the new laws [which opened up the bidding process for state-owned industries]? Those who were not true businessmen. Those who earned their millions or billions not thanks to their entrepreneurial talents, but thanks to their ability to force good relationships with the government – those people were not happy.”
I said there was some real news buried in these interviews, which has gone unreported for the most part in Western media, and toward the end of the first interview there’s a real shocker when Stone says:
“Five assassination attempts, I’m told. Not as much as Castro whom I interviewed – I think he must have had 50 – but there’s a legitimate five that I’ve heard about.”
Putin doesn’t deny it. Instead, he talks about his discussion with Fidel Castro on the subject, who told him “Do you know why I’m still alive? Because I was always the one to deal with my security personally.” However, Putin doesn’t follow Castro’s example. Apparently he trusts his security people: “I do my job and the security people do theirs.” What’s interesting is that the conversation continues along these lines, in the context of attempts on Castro’s life. Stone is surprised that Putin didn’t take Castro’s advice on the security question, saying “Because always the first mode of assassination, from when the United States went after Castro, you try to get inside the security of the president to perform assassination.” “Yes,” replies Putin, “I know that. Do you know what they say among the Russian people? They say that those who are destined to be hanged are not going to drown.”
While I’m not prepared to interpret this Russian proverb, or its relevance to what is an astounding revelation – five assassination attempts! – Putin’s willingness to contradict or correct Stone, and the absence of any objection to this line of questioning on his part, looks very much like an endorsement of Stone’s contention. To my knowledge, CBS – which owns Showtime — is the only major media outlet in this country (aside from a brief mention in Newsweek ) that reported it, and then only perfunctorily.
So who tried to kill Putin? From the context of this interview, the clear implication is that it was the US, or its agents, but we don’t know that for a fact. Indeed, the whole subject is something Putin – while he doesn’t deny it – doesn’t want to pursue to the end. This is, I think, in large part because – and this will astonish you – he’s very pro-American. This comes out in the beginning of the second interview, the next day [July 3, 2015], when, in the midst of a discussion about US intervention in Iraq in 1991, and Gorbachev’s withdrawal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe, a clearly frustrated Stone – who is not getting the expected answers from Putin – explodes:
“Let’s lay it on the line here. I mean, I was in the Vietnam War,. We sent 500,000 troops to Vietnam. That was outrageous and condemned by the whole world. After the détente with Gorbachev, Reagan and the United States put 500,000 troops into Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.”
To this, Putin raises his eyebrows — ever so slightly – and says:
“I know that you are very critical of the American government in many dimensions. I do not always share your point of view. Despite the fact that, with regards to the American leadership, we do not always have the relationship we would like to have with them. Sometimes decisions have to be taken which are not entirely approved of in some parts of society.”
After some confusion about what they’re talking about – Putin is referring to the 1991 invasion of Iraq by George Herbert Walker Bush, not the invasion and subsequent occupation by his son – Putin says “President Bush was quite right to do what he did, he was cautious. He responded to aggression and then stopped when the time was right.” The point here is not that Stone is wrong, but that the caricature of Putin as reflexively opposed to everything the United States does is inaccurate. Another indication of where Putin is really coming from is his habit – throughout the entire series of interviews – of referring to the US government as “our partners.” This really sticks in Stone’s craw, until he finally says:
“So stop referring to them as partners – ‘our partners’ – you’ve said that too much. They’re being euphemistic. They’re no longer partners.
“Putin: But dialogue has to be pursued further.”
The Russian President maintains this tone throughout. It’s almost wistful: speaking of “our partner,” Putin exudes the air of a disappointed lover, one baffled by the constant rebuffs, the refusals, the outright disdain coming from the object of his affections. He constantly refers to the mutuality of interests that exists, the common goal of fighting Islamic terrorism, and he simply cannot believe that Washington continues to deny this. He just cannot understand it: why, we could be so happy together!
Indeed, Putin chides Stone more than once for his “anti-Americanism” – a charge Stone comes back to late in the interviews, and heatedly denies – and this underscores my point: here is someone who is not the enemy he is portrayed as being. Despite the coordinated campaign demonizing him in Western circles, despite the relentless eastward advance of NATO, despite the new cold war being waged at home and abroad by American politicians, Putin is stubbornly pro-American. And that is the most surprising aspect of these interviews, one I’ll get into in more depth later as I continue this series.
Editorial note: This is the first part of a multi-part series on Oliver Stone’s “The Putin Interviews.” Future installments will continue throughout the week. Read the entire interviews, including unaired content, by buying the book.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.