Adam Sweeting

Why Putin is even less of a human than Stalin was

Plus: Jonathan Powell delivers an extraordinarily generous gift to scheming Blairites three months before the election

Why Putin is even less of a human than Stalin was
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LBC likes to tell us it’s ‘Leading Britain’s Conversation’, though in the case of weekday pre-lunch presenter James O’Brien you’ll have to sit through a series of bombastic monologues from the host before any punters get a word in edgeways. O’Brien knows everything, and he doesn’t mind telling you. Still, I understand that running a talk show is no job for timid introverts who might burst into tears if callers start giving them a hard time. The trick is pretending to listen sympathetically while being ready to drop the guillotine without compunction (after all, these people aren’t your friends, they’re just statistics for the business plan). Anyway, after last Thursday’s programme I could forgive O’Brien a lot, even the number of times he says ‘if you will’, though largely because he’d brought a guest into the studio.

It was Bill Browder, the American turbo-capitalist who set up the vastly lucrative Hermitage fund in Moscow in the mid-1990s. Browder invested cannily in the Russian stock market and eventually amassed $4.5 billion in assets, despite the fact that he was operating in an environment that made the Wild West look like Trumpton. However, after a honeymoon period in which he managed to convince himself that Vladimir Putin was a Good Thing for Russia and was trying to curb the powers of the oligarchs who had bought control of everything from the oilfields to the interior ministry, it all went to hell. Browder had been publicly exposing the depredations of the oligarchs (his ‘stealing analysis’ revealed that the management of Gazprom had pilfered oil and gas equivalent to the output of Kuwait), but when he turned the spotlight on Putin the going abruptly got rough. Browder had to flee the country, but his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was imprisoned and beaten to death with rubber batons.

Browder tells all this in his new book Red Notice, but hearing him recount it in person made for enthralling listening (listeners were pelting O’Brien with texts telling him he needs more guests like this). This was on the morning when the Ukraine ceasefire had been announced, but Browder dismissed this as a mere stalling tactic by Putin. ‘He’s a mafia boss with all the powers of a state on his side,’ he said. ‘This guy has got his finger on the nuclear button ...if it came to his own survival and pressing that button, he would press the button.’ O’Brien put the devil’s advocate view that the Russians felt threatened by the EU and its allies sitting on their doorstep. ‘The European Union doesn’t have the capacity to be on anyone’s doorstep,’ scoffed Browder. ‘They barely have the capacity to organise themselves for lunch.’

This chilling encounter felt like getting a bloodstained rock thrown through the window straight from the front line. But is Mr Putin really the new Stalin? A little oblique light was thrown on the question by Daniel Kalder’s World Service documentary Digitising Stalin, the intriguing story of how 400,000 pages from the Great Dictator’s archives have been made available online.

Apparently, the evidence therein does not paint Stalin exclusively as a blood-drenched ghoul in a butcher’s apron. Indeed, historian Professor Sheila Fitzpatrick noted the meticulous competence with which Stalin wrote marginal annotations to himself and edited the writings of his correspondents. Many jocular exchanges are recorded between, for instance, Stalin and his buddies who would watch movies together after a hard day of collectivising Soviet agriculture or signing death warrants. He even deleted grovellingly obsequious descriptions of himself by cowering functionaries, preferring to be seen as ‘the mere modest agent of a huge historical process’. Professor Fitzpatrick suggested that ‘the monster is also part of the man’. In Mr Putin’s case, they seem to be having trouble locating the ‘man’ part.

I was intrigued by the idea of Radio 4’s Read My Lips: Why Politicians Speak The Way They Do, a documentary about politicos’ rhetorical tricks presented by Jonathan Powell. But Powell used to be Tony Blair’s chief of staff, and the aura of impermeable entitlement common to Westminster insiders has never left him. There was no danger of an anarchic onslaught on our entire political class as he trotted out a hackneyed list of popular political soundbites (Blair’s one about feeling the hand of history on his shoulder, for instance, or Margaret Thatcher’s ‘the lady’s not for turning’). There were some amusing snippets about bumbling Boris and Ed Miliband’s ludicrous speech about chance encounters on Hampstead Heath, but Powell fatally torpedoed himself when he wheeled out his old chum Alastair Campbell as one of his star witnesses. Gasbag Ali was given great prairies of space for a self-promoting lecture in which he stressed how marvellously professional and effective the thrice-elected Blair administration had been, even though malicious cynics blame Campbell & co. for their invention of spin. Months before the election, this was an extraordinarily generous gift to the scheming Blairite faction.