20 years under Putin: a timeline

The foreign policy of Vladimir Putin’s Russia is increasingly reminiscent of Soviet days, not only in substance, but in style. As IMR senior policy advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza points out, the Kremlin is adopting the “look who’s talking” tactic frequently used by the USSR.


Russia's authorities have borrowed the favorite topic of Soviet propaganda: the "violations of rights and freedoms in the United States" (the poster on the left depicts "electoral manipulations in capitalist countries"; the poster on the right mocks "freedom, American-style").


“In the U.S., not only presidents, but even Members of Congress are not elected from among the true representatives of the workers. . . . The people elected as Members of Congress and of state legislatures, as governors and judges, are those who have the support of the moneybags. . . . The vast majority of seats in the American Congress are always occupied by representatives of the propertied classes.”

Andrei Gromyko, Soviet Foreign Minister, 1957–1985



“It would be a stretch to say that American citizens have the right to elect their president, and it cannot be said that an average American has the right to become president. . . . The entire 223 years of the history of organizing and holding democratic elections in the U.S . . . are full of examples of violations of voting rights of American citizens. . . . The electoral system and electoral laws of the United States of America . . . do not conform to the democratic principles that the U.S. has declared fundamental to its foreign and domestic policy.”

Vladimir Churov, chairman of the Russian Central Electoral Commission since 2007


“During the presidential or congressional campaigns, candidates are judged according to criteria that would be deemed unseemly in other countries. . . . The ability to look good, smile, make the right gestures and wear a tie of an appropriate color are placed above all else. . . . It is in the interest of the ruling class to have candidates for high office with pretty faces, scenic oratorical gestures, artificial smiles and ties of all the colors of the rainbow.”

Andrei Gromyko, Soviet Foreign Minister, 1957–1985



“The practice of television debates in America began with the famous television debate between Kennedy and Richard Nixon on September 26th, 1960. Henceforth the leader of the nation had to worry not only about the cogency and logical harmony of his speeches, but also about the color of his tie and the presence of a dazzling smile on his face.”

Vladimir Churov, chairman of the Russian Central Electoral Commission since 2007



The almost verbatim textual similarity between the words of the guru of Soviet diplomacy and those of Vladimir Putin’s election-fixer is more than an amusing coincidence. The artless technique of “look who’s talking,” frequently used by Soviet leaders to deflect Western criticism, appears to be making a comeback. After all, how else can Kremlin officials answer criticism of unfair elections, media censorship, politically motivated “justice,” dispersals of rallies, repressive laws on “foreign agent” NGOs and “treason,” and, more recently, criminal prosecutions of opposition activists and even Soviet-style kidnappings and torture? Surely not by admitting their crimes or their lack of legitimacy. It is here that the experience of Soviet officials has come in useful for their successors: if you cannot offer a substantive reply, try to cover your opponents in mud.

“Is it for you, gentlemen from the United States, to say what democracy is?” Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev derided American delegates at the United Nations. “Genuine democracy is possible only under socialism, under communism. . . . In America Negroes are lynched and hanged.” (This last sentence became firmly entrenched in Soviet folklore.) Andrei Gromyko passionately execrated “the so-called American democracy” with its “phantom values permeated by a spirit of profiteering.” Modern-day Kremlin propagandists are using almost the same rhetoric as their Soviet predecessors, with an added “democratic”décor of “human rights reports” and “parliamentary hearings.” If any of the participants of these spectacles are embarrassed by their comical appearance or the air of caricature that pervades their performance, they are doing a good job of hiding it.

Modern-day Kremlin propagandists are using almost the same rhetoric as their Soviet predecessors.

According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, which recently presented the State Duma with its report “On the Situation Regarding the Protection of Human Rights in the U.S.”, the “most urgent challenges” facing America include “the pressure of state agencies on judicial proceedings,” “infringement on the freedom of speech,” “internet censorship,” “legalized corruption,” “limitations on citizens’ voting rights,” “surveillance of dissenters,” and a “disproportional use of force against peaceful demonstrators.” Vladimir Churov, the chairman of Russia’s Central Electoral Commission, has scolded U.S. elections for their use of “administrative resources,” “dirty tactics,” and “blatant trampling of the voting rights of American citizens.” (It is rightly said that a thief cries “thief” the loudest.)


Vladimir Churov, the chairman of Russia's Central Electoral Commission (on right, at a meeting with Vladimir Putin), has never held elections that conformed to Council of Europe or OSCE standards.


This is not to say that real human rights violations do not exist in the United States; they do. They are documented by respected (American) NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, discussed on television networks, and debated on the floor of Congress and in election campaigns. Suffice to recall the heated arguments over the Guantanamo Bay detention camp or the now-banned “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Yet a regime for which the suppression of rights and freedoms has long been a norm of existence is hardly in a position to advance such “criticism.”

Official statements from Moscow frequently border on the absurd. The recent Foreign Ministry report “On the Situation Regarding Human Rights in a Number of World Countries” (which failed to mention Syria or North Korea, but devoted a great deal of space to such infamous violators as the United Kingdom and Canada) criticized the United States for curtailing press freedoms: “In June 2010, the legendary H. Thomas was forced to end her career under pressure from influential Jewish circles for daring to criticize Israeli actions toward the ‘Freedom Flotilla.’” It is worth recalling that “criticism of Israeli actions” by the “legendary” Helen Thomas consisted of telling Jews to “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to Germany and Poland (where they were, relatively recently in historic terms, being murdered by the millions in gas chambers).

After the U.S. State Department urged an investigation of the incident in which opposition activist Leonid Razvozzhayev was kidnapped in Ukraine, brought back to Russia, and tortured, the Russian Foreign Ministry wittily advised its counterparts to “take bearings from the official statements of Russian investigative authorities”—in other words, from those who had organized or, at the very least, covered up the kidnapping. In an attempt to find an excuse for their actions in the case of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who had uncovered a large-scale corruption scheme, was put in prison, and subsequently died there after being tortured, the Russian authorities have compared Magnitsky (who was not even formally convicted) to “death merchant” Viktor Bout, who was found guilty by a New York jury of trying to sell arms to Colombian terrorists.

Yet the Magnitsky case has clearly backfired for the Kremlin: the high-profile crime has led not just to criticism, but—for the first time in years—to concrete action. The Magnitsky Act, passed by the European Parliament and under consideration in the U.S. Congress, provides for visa and financial sanctions against Russian officials involved in corruption and human rights violations. The U.S. bill proposes to sanction not only those implicated in the Magnitsky case, but those responsible for “other gross violations of human rights,” including the rights to a fair trial, the freedom of assembly, and democratic elections.

The Magnitsky Act is crucial both for the West and for Russia.

As long as Russia’s elections continue to be manipulated and Russia’s justice system remains politically driven, the Magnitsky Act is the only way to hold those complicit in corruption and repressions to account. And this time, there are no “reciprocal” answers at the Kremlin’s disposal: prohibiting U.S. senators or EU commissioners from keeping their money in the Russian Sberbank is unlikely to do the trick.

The Magnitsky Act is crucial both for the West and for Russia. It offers the community of democracies a chance to show that, even in this “pragmatic” era, human rights are not an empty phrase. And it gives Russia’s citizensat least a measure of protection from the abuses and impunity of those who continue to trample their rights.