Street Corner Soapbox: The Slumbering Russian Bear Awakens

Categories:      Opinion    News & Politics
Wednesday, March 19th, 2014 at 7:20 AM
Street Corner Soapbox: The Slumbering Russian Bear Awakens by Jay Stevens

Ever hear of Godwin’s Law? It’s an Internet meme that arose out of discussion groups in the 1990s, and it essentially says this: The longer a discussion goes, the more likely someone will make a comparison to Hitler and the Nazis. And as soon as you do, you lose the debate.

Why? That’s because if you’re comparing somebody to Nazis, you’re trying to shut down debate. They’re evil, and if you’re like Hitler…well, so much for you, right?

Which is idiotic. Unless folks are engaging in systematic, mass murder of millions based on ideas of racial superiority, they ain’t Nazis. Comparing, say, a democratically elected president who’s pushing for universal health care to Adolf Hitler…well, that not only shows a weak grasp of history, it also grossly diminishes the horror of the Holocaust, even if your health care plan was cancelled.

And now, since the Russian occupation of Crimea, Godwin’s Law is getting quite a workout.

“Now if this sounds familiar,” said former U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, of the Russian intervention in Ukraine, “it’s what Hitler did back in the 1930s.” “This is the same thing Hitler did prior to WWII,” said Sen. John McCain, “I’m pleased Hillary Clinton has commented on it.” When asked if he would compare Russian President Vladimir Putin to Hitler, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said, “it’s hard not to.” And they’re not the only ones who see a little of the German dictator in Putin: Sen. Lindsay Graham, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov, and former national security adviser Zbigniew Brezinski all agreed.

Here’s what they see: Hitler, in the 1930s, used the presence of German-speaking peoples in European countries to justify invading and occupying Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. Putin, in 2014, used the presence of Russian-speaking peoples in the Ukraine to occupy Crimea.

But Putin’s not talking about needing a greater Russia for pure Slavs to stroll about. He doesn’t have his eye on all of Europe. He’s not building death camps. Heck, from a geopolitical standpoint, Russia’s action even makes sense, especially if you consider Russia’s history has been all about getting access to a warm-water port. Crimea houses Russia’s primary naval base. Western Ukraine’s desire to join the European Union – which sparked Russia’s intervention – threatens that base. It’s not even the first time Russia and European countries tussled over Crimea – that would be Crimean War, fought back in 1850 and over issues similar to what we’re seeing today. Then, as today, Europeans opposed Russian expansion into Ukraine.


There are similarities, anyway, between Putin’s Russia and 1920s- and 30s-style fascism. Heck, there’s even a term – “Putinism” – to describe how Russia’s political system is a single-party authoritarian government built on the Soviet Union’s “glorious” past and revolving around a charismatic leader. Maybe you wouldn’t call Russia a dictatorship, but you wouldn’t call it liberal or progressive, either. Putin’s popular among Russians, but then again, not much serious opposition is tolerated.

And maybe more concerning – to us, anyway – is how some folks around here swoon for the man.

“Putin decides what to do, and he does it in half a day,” said Rudolph Giuliani. “That’s what I call a leader.”

“People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil,” said Sarah Palin. “They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.”

And when Putin recently passed laws criminalizing homosexuality, too many American conservatives eagerly supported him. “If we seek to build a Good Society by traditional Catholic and Christian standards,” wrote former presidential candidate, Pat Buchanan, “why should not homosexual propaganda be treated the same as racist or anti-Semitic propaganda?” “I give 1.5 cheers to Putin,” wrote conservative columnist, Rod Dreher, “he is anti-liberal in ways that are morally objectionable but also in ways that are morally praiseworthy.”

And who could ever forget President George W. Bush’s appraisal of the Russian president way back in 2001? “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialog. I was able to get a sense of his soul.” Which may explain why Bush looked the other way during Russia’s brutal war in Chechnya, or when Russia invaded the Georgian republic.

“I have never in my life been so conscious of such a directed force. It is thrilling when seen manifested in the energy, pride, and morale of the people – especially the young people,” wrote another observer – but not of Putin’s Russia. That was Charles Lindbergh’s wife, Anne, after their visit to Nazi Germany. The Lindberghs, of course, were supporters of Hitler, as were many other prominent Americans, including Henry Ford, American flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, Sears Roebuck Chairman Douglas Stuart, and Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

Not that any American Hitler supporters knew in 1938 what lie in store for Europe, or approve of mass murder. And Putin is no Hitler!

But, still, there’s a tendency among conservative extremists to dote on decisive action, on personality, on strength and forcefulness. And if there’s a lesson from Nazi Germany – and maybe from Putin’s Russia, too – it’s that you shouldn’t hanker for a strong man to run things his way.

Because he just might do so.

Jay Stevens can be contacted at, and you can follow him on Twitter @Snevets_Yaj.

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