History never repeats itself precisely, but there are parallels between Russia now and pre-war Italy, says Allan Massie
The popular version of the murder of Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, had the king, Henry II, furiously asking “will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Whereupon four knights took him at his word, set off for Canterbury and killed the archbishop in front of the high altar of the cathedral. Henry protested later that he hadn’t meant to be taken at his word, and accordingly did penance. He may even have been speaking the truth.
Likewise Russian president Vladimir Putin may not have ordered the murder of the opposition politician, Boris Nemtsov. Indeed it’s unlikely that he did so. Nevertheless it is probable that at some level of the regime, probably within the FSB (the chief organ of the Security Services) someone decided that the president would rather like Nemtsov to disappear. It’s well-known that there is no documentary evidence directly linking Hitler to the Final Solution. There is no such evidence because there was no need for it. In Nazi Germany people spoke of “working towards the Fuehrer”. By this they meant interpreting his wishes and acting accordingly. It’s probable that in Russia today, people in like manner are accustomed to work towards the president.
If the state wasn’t directly responsible for the murder, it’s difficult to believe that the Secret Service was taken by surprise. Nemtsov, as a leader of the opposition, was under constant scrutiny, his every move watched, his commun-ications monitored. He was shot within sight of the Kremlin, but – fortunately? – the security cameras were all pointing the wrong way. Nevertheless it would be no great surprise if the gunmen were identified, arrested and even put on trial. It would be a very great surprise if the person or organisation that hired them was brought to justice. In this respect Nemtsov’s murder will probably remain an unsolved crime – like the murders of other critics of the regime.
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Putin’s Russia is not the Stalinist Soviet Union reborn, and it is not a Russian version of Nazi Germany either. The protest march in Moscow on Sunday, originally intended by Nemtsov and others as a demonstration against Russian military involvement in Ukraine, then transformed into a protest at his assassination, is proof of that. No such demonstrations were permitted by Stalin or Hitler. Putin’s Russia is an authoritarian state, where, all too often, the law is what the Kremlin decides it should be, but it is not a totalitarian one. Limited opposition is permitted. There is no Gulag , no identification of social or racial groups as “enemies of the people”.
In truth, if Putin is to be compared to any of the inter-war dictators, and his regime to any of theirs, the true comparison is with Mussolini and Fascist Italy.
The cult of personality is similar. Putin, like Mussolini, loves to be photographed bare-chested, and engaged in manly activities; he goes in for judo, Mussolini went in for fencing. Like Putin, Mussolini was often photographed posing with dangerous wild animals. Putin values direct communication with the people, as did Mussolini. He spoke to huge crowds from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia, Putin addresses his subjects from the television studio. Putin created his own political party; so did Mussolini.
Putin’s opponents are harassed by the FSB; Mussolini had his own secret police, the OVRA. Mussolini reconciled the lay Italian state with the Catholic Church, signing the Vatican Concordat. Putin has restored and supported the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church. Mussolini boosted the popularity of his regime by imperialist adventures: invading Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia), engaging on the Nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War, and seeking to annex Albania. Putin has behaved in like manner: detaching a province from Georgia, intervening in Ukraine, annexing Crimea and supporting the Russian-speaking separatists. Mussolini spoke of making the Mediterranean Italy’s “Mare Nostrum”, “Our Sea”.
Putin regards former parts of the (Tsarist) Russian and Soviet Empires as Russia’s natural space. Mussolini played on the national resentment that Italy, as a victor nation, had done less well out of the First World War than she deserved; Putin resents the inferiority of post-Soviet Russia and believes that the US and the EU have not only profited from the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but have also broken promises not to expand Nato eastwards. Like Mussolini, Putin pursues an aggressive and self-assertive foreign policy in an attempt to boost his and his country’s standing and self-respect.
Fascist Italy was never as strong as Mussolini pretended it was; Il Duce played a game of bluff – though ultimately he was himself the person who was deceived by the bluff. It is true that his regime was never threatened till he was foolish enough to engage in a major war for which Italy was ill-prepared. Today Putin’s regime, reliant on the security services, looks every bit as secure as Mussolini’s did before he entered the war in 1940. Then it was shown to be a gimcrack ramshackle thing, ill-equipped for a major war.
The economy was far too weak. Russia’s economy, dependent on oil and gas, is similarly ill-balanced, and the sanctions imposed by the US and the EU are already weakening it further.
Of course history never repeats itself precisely and historical comparisons are never exact. Circumstances are different today. It is, for instance, impossible for a state to exercise the degree of censorship and control of opinion that was feasible in the mid-20th century.
Even China can’t do this, and the Chinese State and party far more powerful than anything within Putin’s control. He permits a degree of open opposition because he is too weak to repress it. Now that opposition recognises that his Ukraine adventure is doing great damage to Russia.
Putin may have come to understand this himself; hence his agreement to a ceasefire which, however he may not be strong enough on impose on the Ukrainian rebels. It may be a mistake to think he is pulling all the strings.
In 1940 almost everybody – both allies and enemies – overestimated the strength of fascist Italy. It may be that everyone is overestimating the strength of Putin’s Russia and its position today.