Time has crowned Vladimir Putin as its Person of the Year, with Al Gore, J.K. Rowling, Hu Jin Tao of China, and General Petraeus as runners-up.
In making its selection, Time has offered an interesting justification.
TIME’s Person of the Year is not and never has been an honor. It is not an endorsement. It is not a popularity contest. At its best, it is a clear-eyed recognition of the world as it is and of the most powerful individuals and forces shaping that world—for better or for worse. [Full text here.]
I agree with this basic selection criteria. As I often tell my younger history students, “Important is the most important word in history.” Similarly, as I am wont to explain, when someone is known as “the Great”–as in Peter the Great, or Frederick the Great–it doesn’t necessarily mean “the Good” or “the Bad,” but it definitely means “the Important,” and that means that they deserve our attention.
I do not, however, agree with the choice of Putin as Person of the Year. I certainly do not think he is good, and I do not think he is great in a historical sense either.
Time proposes that he has brought “stability” to Russia, and this means that he is thereby shaping the world. The truth is, however, that Russia remains fundamentally unstable, as is plainly evidenced by the fact that the Putin regime requires constant upkeep by a corrupt and oppressive apparatus. The press is censored and dissidents are intimidated and jailed. However inconclusive, the Litvinenko case, is also indicative of the nature of the Putin system of dealing with dissent. As Time’s Richard Stengel admits, it is an “imposed” stability–which means it is no stability at all.
Russia remains in transition from full Communism to what, unfortunately, it remains uncertain. Nationalism is now the main driving ideology in the culture. Putin’s rhetoric is always colored with it. It is the basic reason for his various international frictions with the United States and concurrently high popularity ratings among Russians. Most disturbingly, it is the essence of the pro-Putin Nashi youth movement.
But nationalism–a collectivist ideology which upholds the reality and value of the “nation” above that of its individual citizens–always acts as a host for socialism or fascism, i.e. government control of citizens through the “national” machinery of the state. Consequently, unless there is a significant ideological shift in Russia (and I don’t see how), it will continue to be a fundamentally statist country for the foreseeable future.
I suppose that is a kind of “stability,” if by stability one means constancy. But it’s not impressive by any historical yardstick I can think of.
(continued in Part 2)