Patrick Armstrong is a former political counselor at Canadian Embassy in Moscow
The idea for what follows came from a Facebook discussion. One individual, certain that Russia was to blame for the situation in Ukraine, said, among other things, that Putin claimed the biggest mistake was the collapse of the USSR and that he wanted to restore it. I said Putin did not say anything like that and challenged him to find the original. I was hoping to make a point and lead him to understanding something for himself. He dug up a number of statements from the Western media saying the Putin had called the end of the USSR the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the Twentieth Century”. Not so hard to find examples: Google returns 15 pages of hits for that exact search, starting with the BBC and ending with it used as a put-down by a commentator on a mildly approving Polish newspaper piece about Putin. The phrase has now become something like what Pravda used to say when it wanted to spread a lie, but had no real evidence, как известно: as is well-known. Over and over we see it used as the triumphant final proof of the argument. "Putin wants a new Russian empire”; "Ukraine PM: Putin wants to rebuild Soviet Union”; "Putin longs to be back in the USSR”; "Putin’s obsession is the restoration of Russia’s pride through the restoration of its imperium.”
Perhaps the most interesting reference my correspondent pulled up, however, was this from an essay by Anders Åslund:
In his annual address in April 2005, Putin went all out: ‘the collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical disaster of the century.... Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory...old ideals [were] destroyed.’ He presented himself as a neoimperialist.
What is interesting about it is that he actually footnotes the original source. I assume Åslund expected that no one would bother to look it up or be unable to find it. But it’s out there on the Internet.
So it is now perhaps time to see what it was that Putin actually said. Here it is: first in Russian, "Прежде всего следует признать, что крушение Советского Союза было крупнейшей геополитической катастрофой века.” and then in the official translation into English,"Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.” Hyperlinks take you to Putin’s Address to the Federal Assembly on 25 April 2005 on the Presidential website. That is the "original source”.
Not the greatest; not the most important; not the largest of anything. Not Number One. Not the superlative. One of many geopolitical disasters of the century, but a "major” one. If you like, you could argue with Putin about whether it was "major” or "minor” – here are his reasons for putting it on the "major” side of the list; you put yours:
As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself. Individual savings were depreciated, and old ideals destroyed. Many institutions were disbanded or reformed carelessly. Terrorist intervention and the Khasavyurt capitulation that followed damaged the country's integrity. Oligarchic groups – possessing absolute control over information channels – served exclusively their own corporate interests. Mass poverty began to be seen as the norm. And all this was happening against the backdrop of a dramatic economic downturn, unstable finances, and the paralysis of the social sphere. Many thought or seemed to think at the time that our young democracy was not a continuation of Russian statehood, but its ultimate collapse, the prolonged agony of the Soviet system.
(Note, by the way, how deceptive Åslund was with his second ellipsis).
Certainly big; anyone would agree that it was a bad enough disaster at least for those who lived through it. But bigger than any other disaster? No, but Putin isn’t saying it was. It ought to be perfectly obvious what he’s talking about: not a desire to re-create the USSR but an accurate description of how miserable the 1990s were for Russians (and, actually, for most other people in the former USSR). But, read on. This statement was part of the orator’s pattern, after the bad times, things are getting better: "Our society was generating not only the energy of self-preservation, but also the will for a new and free life. In those difficult years...”. And so on. Ex tenebris lux, or something like that.
The message is plain: Putin thought Russia was over the worst and better things can now happen (he was right, wasn’t he?). To use this as "proof” that he wants the USSR back, or is a "neo-imperialist” is wilfully to misunderstand what he said.
But just think how feeble your assertion that Putin wants to re-build the empire would be if the only quotation direct from his mouth that you had to nail your argument down tight with was "Putin did say that the collapse of the USSR was a pretty big disaster because people lost their savings, a lot of crooks stole stuff and many other sufferings ensued”. Doesn’t have quite the same ring does it?
So, the point that I was trying to get my correspondent to understand is that you simply cannot trust Western media reports on Putin or Russia. There is so much distortion, mis-quoting and outright falsifications that nothing you read in your newspaper, see on your TV or hear from your politicians can be accepted at face value. This particular quotation was ripped out of its context and made to serve another purpose; then it was endlessly repeated to cap the assertion that Putin is the world’s enemy because he wants to conquer his neighbours. The history of its use is a perfect illustration that the default position is always anti-Putin. No secondary source can be trusted, always go to the original: is it an accurate quotation? what is the context? If you cannot find the original (both President and Prime Minister have a site in English, by the way; it’s not that hard to find the original), then doubt.
But there is a greater point. The West, NATO, the USA and its followers, we are at war with Russia. A rhetorical war with economic aspects at the moment but it may already be a shooting war by proxy. It will get closer to a real war if the Russian Aggression Prevention Act of 2014 is passed. The authors of the bill are quite certain that Russia is expansionist, aggressive and wishes domination over its neighbours. The famous quotation is not in the bill but it is alive in the US Senate:
"The reality, however, is that Putin is not concerned with international law or historical justice. His sole focus is on correcting what he considers to be the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century’ by reassembling the Soviet Union.” (Sen Ted Cruz)
"He sees the fall of the Soviet Union as the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.’ He does not accept that Russia’s neighbors, least of all Ukraine, are independent countries.” (Sen John McCain)
"His grip on the Russian presidency is central to his designs to restore Russian dominance. After all, Putin once described the collapse of the Soviet Union as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe’ of the last century’.” (Sen Roger Wicker)
An influential mis-quotation, wouldn’t you say? Creating and supporting anti-Russian propaganda since 2005. It would, of course, be wrong to say that we are creeping closer to war with Russia only because of a mis-quotation, but the mis-quotation has certainly played its part in the creep.