Unlike Russia, the US Has an Opportunity to Ascend Back to Democracy

Can you guess which country the following quote describes?

“We cannot abide this at all … key political institutions, the disciplinary structures of the states — the uniformed services, the army, the police, the secret police, and the corresponding means of ensuring political stability: prisons, preventative detentions, the tools of exerting rigid control over citizens’ behavior.

We also cannot abide by the forced civic passivity of the majority of the population as well as the total domination of the executive branch over the legislative and judicial ones.” [added emphasis]

Recently, in my nightly COVID cocoon, I came across this passage while plowing through books about corrupt societies and dysfunctional strongmen.

I admit this is not pleasant bedtime reading, but given the situation we currently find ourselves in the United States — a nation close to Balkanization, an executive branch out of control, a ravaging pandemic, an autocratic president, and the militarization of our police forces — I wanted to find a historical and an international context.

Russia and the Rise of Putin

I an avid reader in the range of 75-85 books per year. As is often the case, this year’s list includes almost all non-fiction, with a mix of new and past titles. An exception: I could not resist rereading The Collected Stories of Dorothy Parker because, well, I had not heard myself laugh out loud in months.

I am also a world traveler who is now prohibited from going abroad. Americans have the cooties. This is the first year in the last half dozen that I am not planning an overseas trip. A first-world problem? Absolutely. But still.

So instead of settling in to a glass of Merlot and a movie on an overnight flight to Dubai, Paris, or Delhi, I’ve been on political journeys to Iran, the Balkans, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and, most notably and most disturbingly, to Russia.

Given the persistent Donald Trump-Russian connection, I cannot seem to read enough about that nation and the rise of Vladimir Putin.

Understanding the Master Plan for the Russian Federation

In Heidi Blake’s riveting and incredibly sourced From Russia with Blood: The Kremlin’s Ruthless Assassination Program and Vladimir Putin’s Secret War on the West, I learned the chilling details of Putin’s hideous poisonings and other murders in the United Kingdom. Note this week’s disturbing news regarding the suspected poisoning of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. Putin’s fingerprints are all over this.

One can find out why the enemies of Putin keep falling “accidentally” from the upper stories of apartment buildings. No one is safe from Putin’s reach, even those in the United States.

Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West by Catherine Belton meticulously chronicles the unlikely ascension of Putin from an obscure KGB agent in former East Germany to his present position as president for-as-long-as-he-wants and possibly the richest leader on the planet.

The link between Soviet-style gangsterism, the government’s monstrous security apparatus, a thoroughly crooked judicial system, and the Kremlin is instructive, frightening and, closer to home here in the States, ominously predictive given the very real possibility of another four years of Trumpism.

Belton spent years as the Moscow correspondent for Financial Times, and her contacts would be the envy of any journalist trying to understand the master plan for the Russian Federation.

Belton’s book in turn led me to Luke Harding’s canon, including Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem, and Russia’s Remaking of the West. As the title suggests, Harding, a veteran Guardian reporter who was eventually expelled from Russia after years of psychological harassment from the Federal Security Service (FSB), provides the historic grist for how Russia has spent millions of dollars to interfere in our own 2016 presidential election, the UK’s Brexit movement, and the current nationalist trends in Europe.

Spoiler alert: Putin’s scheme is working out to his great advantage.

Surviving Autocracy

Next up on my shelf were two must-read books by the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen. The titles are Surviving Autocracy and Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.

Long before the media caught on Trump’s autocratic tendencies, Gessen knew what was coming. She had already experienced it in Russia. Trump capitalized on an America already in decline. As she writes in Surviving Autocracy, “He preyed on the fear [of immigrants and the outside world], he weaponized the hatred, and he filled the void left by the lack…

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