Monday, September 24, 2007

The NYT presents a view of Putin that reflects the public image Putin strives to project, but is not an accurate portrayal of the Russian presidency

Serge Schmemann's article A visit with Putin (Views, Sept. 17) presents a view of Vladimir Putin that reflects the public image Putin strives to project, but it is not an accurate portrayal of the Russian presidency.
As an IHT reader indirectly points out, the mainstream media is as enamored of foreign strongmen and as willing to fall for their self-serving propaganda as ever.
According to Schmemann, the "enormously popular" Putin has led Russia "from bankruptcy and despair to enormous wealth and power." Russians, he tells us, "are suddenly living better than they ever have."

To be sure, the Russian president enjoys a popularity rating that any Western leader would envy. But polls reflect the constant barrage of pro-Putin propaganda in the Kremlin-controlled media and the traditional Russian craving for a strong state that assures stability, rather than an improvement in the lives of ordinary Russians. With the average hourly wage in Russia at around $3 an hour, only a tiny minority of Russians (many of whom are corrupt oligarchs favored by Putin) enjoy the fruits of Russia's oil-based prosperity. Social welfare benefits, including health care, have been steadily eroding since Putin came to power, and the crime rate has been rising, with violent crime more than doubling between 1998 and 2006.

Although Schmemann acknowledges that Russians will not be able choose their political leader when (and if) Putin steps down, he seems to dismiss this as insignificant in view of the fact that "stores are overflowing" and that Russians enjoy unprecedented "personal freedoms."

But what does personal freedom really mean, when people are denied the right to have democratic elections?

Surprisingly, given that Schmemann is himself a journalist, he ignores the tragedy that has befallen his profession in Russia, where the independent media are under constant siege by the Kremlin. Instead, he lauds Putin for bringing stability to Russia, despite the fact that more than 20 journalists have been murdered there since Putin came to power.
Meanwhile, another reader states that
Michael Schwirtz's article on the Sovetsky Islands in Russia's White Sea (An uneasy mix: Religion, tourism and history, Sept. 19) missed out on the horrors of the White Sea itself, as recounted by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

During the Soviet-induced famine in Ukraine in the 1930s when at least 14.5 million people died, according to the historian Robert Conquest, many millions of Ukrainians were marched by foot to the White Sea, where they were loaded on to barges to be towed out to sea. Soviet gunboats then blasted them out of the water. No one knows how many millions perished. They too deserve mention and our memories.