Vladimir Tismaneanu writes in American Purpose to denounce Putin’s claim that he is anti-Nazi. He is the author of “Putin’s Totalitarian Democracy.”

“Taming” Vladimir Putin is an impossible task, based on wishful thinking. Western democracies are procedural, contractual, constitutional arrangements. The FSB-controlled Russia is none of those things. Last month I watched the 2021 movie Munich: The Edge of War; Jeremy Irons plays Neville Chamberlain. I thought about the folly of putting trust in gangsters: A gentleman’s agreement with Putka the Bully is a stillborn project, a dead end.

Putka is a godfather, not a gentleman. To understand his “worldview” and modi operandi, read Mario Puzo and a history of the KGB, plus Karen Dawisha’s illuminating anatomy of Putin’s system as an authoritarian kleptocracy. For Putin, the legal person doesn’t exist. More, it should not exist.

In Putin’s Totalitarian Democracy (2020), which I wrote with Kate C. Langdon, we try to understand the origins and dynamics of Putinist political culture—its basic assumptions, conscious and subliminal goals, aspirations, apprehensions, affinities, and ambitions. Putin’s political hero is the late Yuri Andropov, who was the Soviet ambassador to Budapest when the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian Revolution in November 1956. Later, in 1968, Andropov was KGB chairman when Warsaw Pact tanks smashed the Prague Spring.

Putin, when in his early twenties, identified himself with the fictional Soviet spy Max Otto von Stierlitz played by the charismatic Vyacheslav Tikhonov in the legendary 1973 TV series, Seventeen Moments of Spring. Stierlitz was a master of deceit, self-control, and logical deduction. This is most likely how Putin sees himself. But in what the dissident writer Vladimir Voinovich aptly called the “anti-Soviet Soviet Union,” there are many Stierlitz jokes.

Another source of Putin’s worldview can be found in Nikolay Shpanov’s propaganda novels, published in the early 1950s. Shpanov, an immensely popular author of military thrillers, endorsed and enhanced the narrative of World War II’s being the result of a Western conspiracy to destroy the USSR. This political myth endured, espoused by successive generations of party, Komsomol, army, and KGB cadres. For the ultra-nationalists, whenever Russia or the USSR lost a war, it was the result of a “stab in the back.”

Putin claims that he is an anti-fascist. That is absolutely false. I come from an anti-fascist family. My parents fought in the International Brigades. We lost close family members in the Holocaust. To call Volodymyr Zelensky and his supporters “Nazis” is not just moronic but nauseating. We know who the real fascist is—the KGB thug in the Kremlin with his militaristic delirium, Slavophile delusions, and imperial obsessions.

Years ago, I wrote in the journal Orbis about the Pamyat’s “patriotic society.” Putinism is the updated version of the Pamyat’s phobias, neuroses, and hatreds.

My father was born in Soroca, which was then in the Russian Empire, on February 26, 1912. During the Spanish Civil War, he joined the International Brigades. He lost his right arm in a battle on the River Ebro in 1938. His older brother, Abram, his wife, and his two children died, burned alive, in the Odessa massacre, which was ordered, planned, and perpetrated by Nazi Germany’s ally, the Romanian government of dictator Ion Antonescu. When Putin maintains that the invasion of democratic Ukraine is meant to “de-Nazify” a country whose president is a Ukrainian Jew, he commits an obscene infamy. He offends the memory of the Holocaust victims, including members of Zelensky’s family. I take personal offense at this ignominy. The scoundrel Putin is an assassin of memory.

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