Anne Applebaum: Putin’s attack on Western values was familiar. The American reaction was not.
U.S. President Donald Trump, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin greet each other during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, Friday, June 28, 2019. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian scorn for liberal democracy has a long history, and a certain kind of Russian disdain for the West is nothing new.
As far back as 1920, Lenin declared that parliaments were “historically obsolete” and predicted that it was just a matter of time before they disappeared. In 1956, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev famously said that “history is on our side.” The Soviet Union was winning, he said, and the West was dying: “We will bury you.”
That's the historical background for the interview that the Financial Times conducted with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on the eve of this weekend's Group of 20 summit. The conversation ranged over many issues, with the curious exception of Ukraine, which the newspaper chose not to bring up. But in the course of the conversation, Putin returned more than once to a theme that Lenin and Khrushchev would have found familiar. The "so-called liberal idea," he told his interlocutors, "has outlived its purpose." A few minutes later he repeated himself: "The liberal idea has become obsolete."
But what is this "liberal idea" that has been consigned to the dustbin of history? In Putin's telling, it is an alt-right, far-right caricature. To Putin, the "liberal idea" means that "migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity"; it also means that "children can play five or six gender roles." The liberal idea, to Putin, has nothing to do with rights, or freedoms, or separation of powers; nothing to do with judicial independence, the rule of law, private property, or any of the other things that make liberal societies prosperous and free. The comments were telling: Putin's understanding of the Western liberal world and of Western liberal values is not, it seems, any more sophisticated than that of the Internet trolls whose wages he pays. Nor is it much more sophisticated than Lenin's or Khrushchev's.
But if the Russian attack on Western values was familiar, the American reaction was not. Khrushchev's "We will bury you" declaration provoked indignation, laughter, outrage: It was a challenge that American leaders had no doubt they could dismiss and defeat.
But Americans no longer have that kind of leader. The Financial Times interview appeared Friday morning. On Friday afternoon, President Trump appeared with Putin, laughing and joking. He waved away a group of journalists: "Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn't it? You don't have this problem in Russia, but we do."
Indeed, Russia has a different attitude to journalists: Periodically, they are arrested, harassed and even murdered by agents of the state. That’s what happens when you don’t have the rules and practices of a liberal society to protect them. It’s a world that is more comfortable for despots and dictators, but not for anyone else.
Anne Applebaum is a Washington Post columnist, covering national politics and foreign policy, with a special focus on Europe and Russia. She is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a professor of practice at the London School of Economics. She is a former member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.