By John Helmer, Moscow
Homer accords with the latest in canine science.
Because Odysseus raised his Argos as a pup from birth, the dog fixed on him as devotedly as he would, had his canine mother, or another human being, done the nurturing within the first ten weeks of the dog’s life. Odysseus, far too smug a character, thought the loyalty of Argos was his due, like everything and everyone else, gods included, on his destructive odyssey. And since he planned to murder everyone in the Ithaca palace who thought he had a chance to take the kingship, along with Penelope, wife and queen, he didn’t break his disguise to show Argos who he was. But the dog knew. He managed to prick up his ears and wag his tail, and then died.
You see, the loyalty of Argos was blind, reflexive. Odyssey had no reflexes, neither of the dog type, nor of the human. He was a schemer with super-human parts that were likely, he calculated, to ingratiate him with the jealous gods, and also with the horny goddesses. And that’s how things turn out in the saga, with Odysseus passing the buck to the heavens to justify every betrayal, misjudgement, folly and dirty trick he committed for the twenty years of his journey, until he makes his comeback.
The political application of this classical difference between the dog and the man is the announcement by Mikhail Gorbachev in Novaya Gazeta that he is “ashamed” of Vladimir Putin. The interpretation Gorbachev intends is that he’s the man, Putin the dog, and that the person who has forgotten himself, including the duty of loyalty, tail wagging, etc., is Putin.
Gorbachev: “This is shameful. And embarrassing. I, for example, am ashamed…I feel tied to Putin in the sense that at first, when he came to power, I actively supported him everywhere – both here and abroad. And now look.”
To feel shame requires that you feel honour first of all. Honour depends on personal promises accepted and exchanged in a society of people who value and keep records of promise-keeping as the source of reputation, and from that to power over others. To violate those undertakings is to dishonour reputation, forfeit power, deserve shame. There is no honour in the power of forcing people by threatening their lives or cheating them.
Gorbachev is saying that he pledged his honour, and thereby did Putin the special favour of supporting him in Russia and abroad. This is delusional. Almost all Russians think Gorbachev lost his honour in 1991 and before that, he had lacked even common sense. That he has accepted a sumptuous retirement for twenty years in return for opening and closing his mouth on cue hasn’t persuaded his countrymen otherwise.
They believe that his vouching for Putin inside Russia was as commonplace as, and with no greater effect than everyone else’s support for Putin. As for abroad, Gorbachev reveals what Russians also think him guilty of – betraying them and his country for a foreign reward, and being so stupid as to be outwitted by an even more self-serving and foreign-serving traitor, Boris Yeltsin.
In reality, Gorbachev has noticed that for all the publicity effect of the Moscow street opposition, there are already a number of crooks and thieves in the opposition lists. But noone quite as capable, Gorbachev thinks, of running Russia against the crooks and thieves in Putin’s stead as, er…. himself.
Gorbachev is probably right about the lack of national leadership capacities in the street opposition. That they have yet to publicly name a single oligarch among their targeted swindlers and thieves is a symptom of how little the difference in administration they aim to bring to the Kremlin, if they were to get that far. Equality is also not one of their shouting points. It ought to be .
These are such obvious facts to Russian voters that, even with a level of ballot fraud comparable to the first presidential round in 1996 (that was the handiwork of Anatoly Chubais, Alexander Korzhakov, Vladimir Gusinsky and if you believe him, Boris Berezovsky), this month’s Duma vote outcome came within the probability margins of most pre-election polls . That Russians prefer to split their ballots between parliament and presidency is also nothing new. It’s good politics to weaken the hand on the knout – every Russian knows that.
Only Gorbachev doesn’t.
He is right about one thing – it’s time that Russia’s leadership should hold itself accountable in honour and shame for a scheme of liberty generating inequality which ends up in corruption of everything. Since Gorbachev’s ouster, Russians have learned that democracy means the liberty to inflict inequality. They don’t want more of it. When they hear the cry “swindlers and thieves” in the street, they suspect the commotion, and keep a grip on their own pockets and purses.
Putin’s command remains popular and re-electable on condition he can demonstrate the power to reverse the inequality system. The street opposition isn’t targeting that or the oligarchs who run it; Putin can. Whether he wants to, or will, is a question worth asking before he is voted into the Kremlin in March. Within the six months that will follow, he will show what the man can do.
Gorbachev, by contrast, is showing what options an old dog has left. One so flea-bitten that only those abroad can recognize him. No Argos he.