David, you say in this new piece that Vladimir Putin’s resentment of the West is rooted not in ideology but in his experience of the decline and fall of Russian power and pride. So can you explain what that sense of the loss of Russian power and pride is about?
.. And Vladimir Putin was not a liberal intellectual. He was somebody who volunteered for the KGB as a teenager, whose father was a badly, badly wounded veteran of the – what’s called the Great Patriotic War, second world war in Russia. And he experienced that as a KGB officer who saw that Moscow had lost its grip not just on Warsaw and Budapest and Berlin, but also on Georgia and Azerbaijan and Armenia. And even within Russia there was talk of Russia itself breaking into smaller components. This is the drama he experienced.
And then in the ’90s, he saw the Yeltsin government, under the name of Demokratiya – Demokratiya kind of fail on its promise in so many ways. And an economic depression came along that for many people was incredibly painful, like the ’30s in the United States. So, again, a lot of people in Russia, exemplified by Putin, saw this as a crash followed by chaos, followed by poverty. And that’s a very different view than most Americans see 1991 as.
.. And Putin was blessed, you know, when he came to power in 2000 and eventually in 2003, 2004 not only by an increasing stability in society but also oil prices shot through the roof. And that benefited the Russian economy, especially the cities, especially people in the main industry, which is oil and gas. But it’s proved illusory because the Russian economy, once oil and gas prices have declined, showed its weakness. And so eventually, Putin not only became more and more disenchanted with the West, he also decided that he needed an operating ideology.
.. And I don’t know how sincere he is in this. But it’s certainly – there’s a greater sense of conservatism, that’s what that anti-gay legislation was about, to put it in opposition to the libertine, you know, decadent West, and growing nationalism, patriotic pride. You go turn on Russian television any night, there’s an enormous sense over and over of Russian-ness, of Russian pride, of patriotism in a way that there was not in the ’90s.
.. So when Americans giggle at him doing the butterfly in the middle of a roaring river or strip to the waist on a horse or, you know, kind of like a James Bond villain, you know, in some sort of weird craft in the ocean, Russians see that as a kind of machismo version of Russian statehood.
.. Here is our man. He speaks bluntly to the West. He doesn’t take any guff from the West. He’s not swallowing stuff the way Yeltsin did. He is standing up for us, for Russian-ness. And everything that we’re doing to them is something that they’ve been doing to us for generations. So the title of our piece is called “Active Measures.” This is not a one-way street. The United States has been fooling around in – it doesn’t take propaganda to say this is true.
.. Yes, it’s true that Russians have been involved in all sorts of Cold War missions, but so have we. We have given ample evidence to Russia and else and the world to show that in the past, the United States got involved in elections, got involved in regime change. And, you know, Iraq and Libya are only the most recent evidence of it. So as Ben Rhodes, a Obama administration official said to us, you know, we give him enough rope to hang us, in a certain sense.
.. What Vladimir Putin fears most of all is internal chaos. So when he looks at Tahrir Square…
GROSS: Like people defying him…
REMNICK: Absolutely. So when he looks at…
GROSS: …Rebelling against him.
REMNICK: When he looks at Tahrir Square in Cairo, when he looks at Maidan uprisings in Kiev, closer to home, and when he looked at the demonstrations in Moscow on the Bolotnaya Square, what’s called Swampy Square in 2011, he sees those as rehearsal for the – for a regime change in Moscow. And he thinks that not only is the United States a part of this and behind this, that Hillary Clinton gave, quote, unquote, “the signal” to demonstrators in Moscow in 2011. That’s why – that’s part of why he despised Hillary Clinton so very much.
.. He wants no more expansion of NATO to say the least, and he would like to see greater dissent and dissention within Western institutions.
He is delighted to see the rise of not only Donald Trump in the United States, which I think he sees as causing us chaos and for us to look more and more inward and to be more and more divided. He also is delighted to see the rise of nationalist politicians in France, in Germany, in Holland because what happens as a result is that there’s more, therefore, fractiousness and chaos within those countries. And institutions like NATO, the European Union are called more into question. That’s his motive.
.. But when it comes to television, it is neo-Soviet. There’s no question about it, and there are certain people that are just never going to be invited on television, and you are not going to hear Vladimir Putin criticized. That’s that’s the be-all and end-all.
And so when people go on and on, as does Trump, about how unbelievably popular Putin is and he has an 85 percent popularity rating, no small part of that is the information space of television. Now, there are other elements of it too. I have to readily admit his popularity is not just rooted in propaganda, but that’s a big element of it.
.. On February 17, he tweeted (reading) the fake news media, failing New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS, CNN, is not my enemy. It is the enemy of the American people.
REMNICK: Yeah, what a phrase, the enemy of the people.
GROSS: Yeah, I know. That goes back to Stalin, right?
OSNOS: I recognize that from somewhere.
REMNICK: Well, it goes back to Robespierre. It is an ugly, ugly phrase. I don’t know how self-aware Donald Trump is of that kind of phrase. I guarantee you Steve Bannon knows what enemy of the people means. Stalin used it to keep people terrified. If you were branded a vrag naroda, an enemy of the people, you could guarantee that very soon there would be a knock in the middle of the night at your door and your fate would be horrific.
To hear that kind of language directed at the American press is an emergency. It’s an emergency. It’s not a political tactic. And if it’s a political tactic, it’s a horrific one. And that needs to be resisted not just by people like me who are, you know, editors or writers but all of us. This is part of what distinguishes American democracy. And it’s untenable, immoral and anti-American.
.. it’s the kind of language that autocrats use in the beginning. And where it will go, we don’t know yet. But he is obviously – this is beyond dog whistles. He is signaling to the base that your enemy, your enemy is those people.
That’s how autocrats behave. They create an other. Whether it’s the press, whether it’s ethnic or otherwise, it’s the creation of an other. And I find it – I just, you know, it has to be stood up against.
.. Some of the worry of people who are concerned about our behavior vis-a-vis Russia now is who’s going to talk up about human rights? When Alexei Navalny, the one person who seemed to be ready to run against Putin in a presidential race in 2018, was eliminated from consideration by a court, which is very much under Putin’s control, and his political possibilities were erased – and by the way, Navalny’s brother is in a prison right now – when that happened, did the White House say a single word about this? Not a word, not a word.
.. It was very interesting to see George W. Bush, who was criticized quite a lot in the pages of The New Yorker for eight years and more, go on “The Today Show” the other day and in no uncertain terms – and this is a guy who was hammered by The New York Times, by The Washington Post, by The New Yorker and God knows who else – speak up for a free press, speak up for the role the press plays in the functioning of a flawed, yet healthy American democracy or any kind of democracy.