Putin’s Churchillian Moment
How much do both statesmen have in common?
June 5, 2000
What has escaped the world’s attention is that the new Russian President is obviously a great plagiarist. His remarks, of course, borrowed heavily from one of Sir Winston Churchill’s most famous bon mots. Here’s what Mr. Churchill said: “Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart. And any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative — has no brains.” But this is not where the similarities to Britain’s erstwhile Prime Minister end.
At first, it may be difficult to see parallels between the two men. After all, Churchill was an ardent opponent of Communism and famously coined the phrase of the “iron curtain” that was separating Europe. Putin, meanwhile, spent most of his professional life in the KGB, an organization dedicated to keeping an oppressive Soviet regime in power. Yet, at second glance, there are more parallels between Churchill and Putin than one would suspect.
Both men had what outside observers would describe as “interesting careers”. Vladimir Putin’s time in the KGB — much of it spent in the field — certainly evokes vivid spy images from James Bond movies, down to his reported mastery of karate.
This exciting career track is matched by Winston Churchill’s equally nerve-racking experiences as a newspaper correspondent during the Boer War in 1899. There, he reported on the South African Boers fighting British troops. He eventually became famous, when he escaped from a Boer POW camp — and published his adventures in the British media.
Also, both have a decidedly pragmatic streak. Putin, the ex-KGB spy and former protector of the Soviet establishment, is now going about reforming Russia. The former British Prime Minister did experience similar switches in allegiance. Having started out as a Conservative, he joined the Liberals in 1904, only to become a Conservative again in 1924 when the political momentum shifted.
When Vladimir Putin became Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister in 1999, he seemed like yet another expendable puppet whom the ailing president would dispose of sooner rather than later. He surprised everyone by not only thriving in his new position, but by also being appointed Yeltsin’s heir-apparent.
This all the more remarkable considering that it had been members of the KGB — Putin’s former employer — who were a driving force behind the failed 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev. That was also the precise moment when Yeltsin’s political ascent started.
Churchill equally possessed an almost unlimited capacity to surprise people — and to make the best out of seemingly hopeless situations. His finest hour was when he became Prime Minister in 1940, rallying the demoralized British people and ultimately leading them to victory.
All that Churchill had to offer was “blood, sweat and tears.” Putin might well have been thinking the same when he was sworn in, bearing in mind the economic situation of his country.
History and historians have generally been very kind to Churchill. Only time can tell if they will treat Putin similarly. Yet, he probably has as much potential as Churchill had. Without the war, Sir Winston might have gone down as just another political maverick. Who knows what Russia’s situation might trigger in Vladimir Putin?