Meanwhile, Putin reduces the reputations of Zuma’s SA and Trump’s US to the level of his kleptocratic regime

About 120 years ago, my paternal grandmother, Tamara Drusinsky – then a babe in arms – left Russia for Constantinople, and eventually arrived with her family in SA

More recently, when President Vladimir Putin visited Parliament in Cape Town in September 2006 — after my ANC colleagues had burnished their Soviet Union credentials with him — I advised the Russian head of state that I could claim to be the only South African parliamentarian he would meet that day who had a Russian grandmother.

The hitherto intense and deadpan Putin became quite animated. When he asked me where in Russia my grandmother hailed from, I told him she was from Sebastopol in the Crimea. He responded to my somewhat shaky geopolitical grasp by informing me, via an interpreter: “Sadly, Crimea is no longer part of Mother Russia but is in the Ukraine.”

Of course, some eight years later, in March 2014, and with what The Economist magazine called “dazzling speed and efficiency”, Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula. In so doing, he also, the magazine noted, “has driven a tank over the existing world order”.

Just how kaleidoscopic this shake-up of the world order is manifesting right now is seen in the chaos and contagion gripping the US White House over Donald Trump and his family and campaign’s so-called Russian ties. At the end of this saga, the Trump presidency, if not entirely immolated, could well be irreparably singed.

Also, Putin and Russia’s reanimated global assertiveness offers perhaps a partial explanation for President Jacob Zuma’s otherwise inexplicable moves against two of his dethroned finance ministers.

But before examining this larger picture, last week – accepting Pravin Gordhan’s wise advice — I “joined the dots”, at least in terms of family miniatures. I visited Russia for the first time.

A few months after his trip to SA, Putin gave an interview to a Dutch television station. The world would have done well to have heeded his grim warning. He told his interviewer: “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the major geopolitical disaster of the [20th] century.”

Indeed, viewed through that lens, Putin’s grab of Crimea and his occupation of parts of Georgia in 2008 seem entirely logical, if not legal. But while Sebastopol and South Ossetia, for example, have moved in and out of the Russian orbit, St Petersburg, whose splendours I viewed a few days ago, has been incontestably part of the Russian motherland since Peter the Great founded the city about 300 years ago.

The centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, is marked in 2017, of course. But for the thousands of tourists who jostled alongside us in the magnificence of the Winter Palace and the Hermitage Collection and the Church of the Spilt Blood, the Soviet empire was not the attraction but the palatial, cruel and utterly self-absorbed Romanov order that preceded it. The very regime my ancestors escaped.

St Petersburg was where the first shots of the revolution were fired and the nearby Finland Station was the arrival point for the exiled Vladimir Lenin. Renamed in his honour as Leningrad, this Baltic port endured 872 days of Nazi bombardment and siege during the Second World War, during which upward of 3,000 of its residents perished every day.

A visitor from today’s SA can only gasp as our guide explains that the sumptuous grandeur of the Amber Room in the Catherine Palace — considered at the time of its construction in 1701 as the “eighth wonder of the world” — is, in fact, an exact replica of the original. The first iteration was looted by the Nazis and the current model was recreated, panel by panel, by the Soviet government, starting in 1979. It would, in perfect crafted detail, take a painstaking 24 years and billions of rand to complete.

By contrast, here in SA, the nihilists of the #RhodesMustFall movement have ensured that the controversial benefactor of the University of Cape Town has had his statue removed and treasured works of the university art collection, recalling a vanquished era, have been squirrelled away from both sight and the fury of the student mob.

This contrast led me to consider why it should be that the Soviet government went to such lengths and to such expense to preserve and display the very past their revolution intended to — in the aptly Leon Trotsky phrase — consign to the dustbin of history. And the government of Putin, a native of St Petersburg, has been even more energetic and extravagant in restoring the glories of the less-than-glorious Romanov empire.

On my return, and aided by Mr Google, I discovered that I was not alone in contemplating this strange paradox of why a revolutionary regime would so painstakingly preserve remnants of its hated predecessor. Back when the Communist government was still in place in Moscow, and straddling most of eastern Europe as well, the Christian Science Monitor was baffled as to why the Kremlin would go to all this trouble. It offered a complexity of reasons in a report datelined September 4 1985: to remind people why the revolution was necessary given the czars’ riches were acquired on the broken backs of the peasantry; or to show the Communists could rebuild what the Nazis had destroyed.
But most eye-catchingly, from the perspective of SA’s problems in dealing with its troubled history, was the answer offered by a Soviet official: “‘Why do we restore everything?’ asked Vladimir Popov, then deputy director of Leningrad’s architecture and planning directorate. His answer: ‘We take an important historic principle into account: those who reject the past don’t have a future.’”

Much of the admiration for the vanquished Soviet Union, largely on the basis of whom it opposed and that which it replaced, can be seen in the slogans and iconography of some of today’s local campus protesters. But they clearly have never heard, nor have any interest, in how that regime dealt with its own history.

Meanwhile, Putin today is determined to create a moral equivalence between his own fraudulent version of democracy and the kleptocracy he presides over, and his nemeses in the West. His interference in the US election and other democratic exercises is massively assisted by his “hybrid war” of mixing hard military power with technology, media and cyber attacks.

Zuma usefully recently reminded his encircling enemies in his own party that he cannot step down since this would mean the capture of the ANC by the West. This plays directly into the current playbook of the Kremlin. The Economist editorialised it as “nurturing the idea that the West is just as corrupt as Russia, and that its political system is just as rigged”.

Trump and Zuma are both friends of Putin and neither of them uses e-mail. But the “active measures” the Kremlin has used in the recent US election and in the unexplained presidential insistence here on an entirely unaffordable nuclear deal will undoubtedly — over time — unravel through leaking or hacking from the hard drives of third parties close to them both.

Clearly, Russian “active measures” are far more sophisticated than the “check mate” intelligence report cooked up as one of the bases to remove Gordhan as finance minister in April. This was correctly described as “semiliterate”.

But Gordhan himself had, on the very visit to London from which he was abruptly and infamously recalled, poured cold water on any Treasury support for the nuclear deal behind which the Russians stand. A few days later, he was fired. And as he famously counselled us: “Just join the dots.”

  • Featured in Business Live