Vladimir Putin: He’s No Thomas Jefferson

Back in 1982, America’s more gullible reporters were gushing over the new Soviet communist party boss, Yuri Andropov, describing him as an English-speaking renaissance man who partied with dissidents and who relaxed by reading Western popular novels.1

In fact, Andropov didn’t party with dissidents – he jailed them.

Russian leaders should be seen as they truly are, not as we wish them to be. Vladimir Putin’s no Andropov, but he’s also no Thomas Jefferson.

Professors James M. Goldgeier and Michael McFaul, authors of a new book on U.S. policy toward Russia, wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “More than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the job of democracy-building in Russia is not only incomplete; it is becoming more difficult.”2

Goldgeier and McFaul provide a damning indictment of a Putin regime that seizes independent television stations, silences newspaper editorial boards, harasses human rights activists, trumps-up criminal charges against political opponents, commits massive human rights abuses, intervenes in elections and limits Western contacts with Russians.

Under Putin, they note, the Peace Corps has been tossed out of Russia, and the AFL-CIO’s representative in Moscow has been declared persona non grata.3

The human rights situation in Putin’s Russia is such that Great Britain recently responded to a Kremlin request for the extradition of Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky, an active Putin critic, by granting asylum instead. The Kremlin says Berezovsky illegally acquired 2,000 automobiles and abused his cat; Britain thinks it’s a case of political persecution and said “nyet.”4

Last year Denmark similarly turned down a dubious Kremlin extradition request – also with political overtones – after one of the supposed victims of a man the Kremlin accused of murder turned out to be alive.5

When the international freedom of the press organization Reporters Without Borders published its first worldwide press freedom index in October 2002, Putin’s Russia ranked 121st out of 139 nations listed. The group says that, in Russia, “it is still difficult to work as a journalist and several have been murdered or imprisoned. Grigory Pasko, jailed since December 2001 in the Vladivostok region of Russia, was given a four-year sentence for publishing pictures of the Russian Navy pouring liquid radioactive waste into the Sea of Japan.”6

Don’t look for Greenpeace to set up a Moscow headquarters anytime soon.

Putin famously declares Russia to be a secular state, but he isn’t describing an American-style system in which the federal Constitution forbids the establishment of a state religion. Putin’s Russia has four state religions: Russian Orthodox, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. Don’t expect full rights, though, if you’re Catholic or Baptist or belong to some other “unofficial” religion, and, as Putin’s state security services are known to use anti-Semitic allegations to undermine the work of Jewish human rights activists, it’s still somewhat like the bad old days if you’re Jewish, too.

Although relations between Moscow and Washington are far less tense than they once were, Washington is gravely concerned about Putin’s plans to sell nuclear fuel to Iran beginning early next year.

Russian chess champion Gary Kasparov summed up the security issue this way in the Wall Street Journal: “The bottom line is the collapse of infant democracy in Russia is contrary to vital U.S. interests. With de facto liquidation of the institution of a free press (hardly noticed by the U.S. State Department) and increasing power of the former KGB, now called the FSB, Russia is increasingly overloaded with anti-U.S. hysteria.”

The Russian people deserve the same freedoms we take for granted: free elections, a free press, freedom of religion and a right to fair jury trials. Under Vladimir Putin’s administration, all have been undermined.

Thirteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union is long enough for the West to stop celebrating the fact that Russian leaders are no longer as cold and ruthless as Andropov and Stalin. It’s time to hold Russian leaders to the same standards routinely observed by George Bush and Tony Blair. Human rights are not for English speakers only.

Amy Ridenour is President of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. 


1 Edward Jay Epstein, “The Andropov Hoax,” The New Republic, February 7, 1983, available at http://edwardjayepstein.com/archived/andropov.htm as of October 14, 2003.

2 James M. Goldgeier and Michael McFaul, “‘New Russia’ Ailing; Stand Up, Mr. Bush,” Los Angeles Times, September 21, 2003, p. M2.

3 Ibid.

4 Yulia Latynina, “Prosecutors’ Incompetence or Brilliant PR?” The Moscow Times, September 17, 2003, p. 10, available at http://www.themoscowtimes.com/stories/2003/09/17/007.html as of October 14, 2003.

5 Ibid.

6 “A Four-Year Prison Term for Grigory Pasko: A Warning to All Russian Journalists,” Reporters Without Borders, Paris, France, December 10, 2002, available at http://www.rsf.fr/article.php3?id_article=4478 as of October 14, 2003.

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