"A riddle, wrapped in an enigma, inside a mystery" is how Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union. He was speaking in October 1939, right after World War II commenced in Europe, but his words have direct importance for current developments.
Just-concluded legislative elections in Russia have predictably reconfirmed the dominance of President Vladimir Putin, and also renewed controversy regarding vote fraud. The Economist magazine features an insightful statistical analysis. Russian authors Dmitri Kobak, Sergey Shpilkin and Maxim Pschenichnikov have produced a paper that highlights the abnormal recurrence of round numbers in reported election results, which implies tampering.
Even more intense controversy over fraud accompanied the 2011 legislative elections. Turnout this year was a record low 47.8 percent. Russian voters clearly believe participation does not much matter.
Yet Putin undeniably is extremely popular. Western analysts infer cynicism from low turnout. However, Russia and predecessor Soviet Union never have experienced the development of rooted representative government. Churchill was referring in part to the tradition of secrecy and dictatorship.
The election aftermath is playing out before a vast global audience, thanks to pervasive Facebook, Twitter and other electronic information media. This underscores how dramatically the context of politics has changed in Russia and nearly every other country. Russia’s government is clearly repressive, but can no longer operate in a society totally closed.
While Russian political culture remains autocratic, grotesque open lethal violence has faded. In early 2009, near the Kremlin on a sunny day on a public street, activist attorney Stanislav Markelov was murdered. Journalist Anastasia Baburova was killed as well while trying to aid him. The hit man was a practiced pro, his pistol equipped with a silencer.
Markelov had publicly denounced the early release from prison of Col. Yuri Budanov, sentenced to 10 years for strangling a woman during the war in Chechnya. Budanov claimed she was a partisan sniper, but the court rejected his defense. Granting him freedom stoked controversy. Budanov in turn was murdered gangland-style in Moscow in June 2011.
Baburova worked for Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya of that paper was very prominent in investigation of human-rights abuses in Chechnya. She was murdered in 2006. Three men were tried before a jury on charges related to that crime, including directly aiding the trigger man, but ultimately all were acquitted.
In a dramatic interview with Voice of America after the killings of Baburova and Markelov, Novaya Gazeta representative Nadezhda Prosenkova stated that the newspaper’s staff literally risked their lives simply by endeavoring to do their jobs.
The killings reconfirmed in bloody manner Russia’s ruthless repression, especially of the media. While print journalists occasionally have been gunned down, the Kremlin has been more systematically repressive regarding television, which has been brought back under direct state censorship
The United States has global media capabilities useful in highlighting political abuses in Russia. Long after the Cold War, Voice of America continues to have an important mission.
Churchill also observed that "the key" to Russia was national interest. Alliance with the Soviet Union was vital during World War II, when our interests joined.
Today, as during the Cold War, consistency and firmness are essential in dealing with Moscow. The economy remains weak, reinforced by decline in oil prices. Russian expansionism in Europe must be resisted by NATO. Middle East engagement provides opportunities for cooperation, notably in Syria.
Our policies must reflect firmness — and patience.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of "After the Cold War" (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact email@example.com.