By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 19, 2007
MOSCOW, Oct. 18 -- President Vladimir Putin, Kremlin political consultants and state-controlled news media have found an American to admire: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
FDR, according to a consistent story line here, tamed power-hungry tycoons to save his country from the Great Depression. He restored his people's spirits while leading the United States for 12 years and spearheaded the struggle against "outside enemies," as the mass-circulation tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda put it.
Translation: Putin rescued an enfeebled Russia from the chaos of the 1990s, banished or imprisoned dangerous billionaires and regained respect for his newly enriched country on the world stage.
And Roosevelt ran for a third and fourth term because his country needed him. Translation: Putin, too, should stay.
Putin used the Roosevelt analogy Thursday when he spoke to reporters after a televised question-and-answer session with citizens. Asked about his vision for Russia, the president invoked the New Deal, saying that "Roosevelt laid out his plan for the country's development for decades in advance" and that he often battled the elites, according to Russian news agency translations of Putin's remarks.
"At the end of the day, it turned out that the implementation of that plan benefited ordinary citizens and the elites and eventually brought the United States to the position it is in today," Putin said.
In a glowing 90-minute documentary on FDR that aired Sunday on RTR, a state TV channel usually given to growling at Washington, a narrator said that America's 32nd president "came to the conclusion that he was the only person in the country who could lead America in the right direction through the most difficult period in the country's history."
"He became the only president of the United States elected for a third time. Americans trusted him," the narrator said. "They believed that at a turning point in history he would not make a mistake."
FDR has long held a special place in Russian hearts. He is known here as the distant ally whose massive aid shipments helped Soviet forces turn back hordes of Nazi invaders in what people here call the Great Patriotic War.
His further elevation and newly forged links to Putin appear to be part of an orchestrated campaign to position the Russian president in the glow of historical greatness and to provide him with a compelling rationale for holding on to power. There have been numerous newspaper articles, a major conference and several documentaries on FDR's life, all of which, with varying degrees of subtlety, have drawn parallels with Putin's rule and future role as the end of his second term nears.
In the RTR documentary, Anatoly Utkin of the Institute of U.S.A. and Canada Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says, "In 1939, Americans were facing exactly the same problem as we are now -- the third term."
The film cuts to black-and-white footage of street interviews with Americans:
"We want him to stay!"
"We don't need change!"
"He should stay!"
"Of course it's about the third term, and a fourth term, and I'm sure it's organized from the Kremlin," said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst and head of the independent Mercator Group, a Moscow consulting firm. "Roosevelt is now very popular in Russia. It's very artificial because Russians do not understand the specifics of American history. But it's successful. It has created the myth, not only of a strong leader, but that state capitalism improves the fortunes of a country."
Putin has insisted that he will not run for a third consecutive term as president, which is barred by the constitution. But he has hinted that he may become prime minister and has agreed to run at the head of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party in December's parliamentary elections.
"For now I can say I want to be there, where I will serve the people of Russia," he said this week, while again declining to specify what role he will assume after his term ends next year.
In the early years of his presidency, Putin was most often compared to Peter the Great, according to a study by G808, a private media analysis group that often works for the government.
"Peter was great but severe, a harsh modernizer," Sergey Nikulin, deputy director of G808, said in an interview. "And until 2005, Putin was Peter."
According to Nikulin, Putin bested his opponents and consolidated the state's power, just as Peter the Great had beheaded his enemies and shaved off the beards of noblemen.
"But in 2006, Peter is pushed out, and there is a dramatic change," Nikulin said. "The image of Putin as Roosevelt took off."
"There is no need to pretend that we are not referring to Putin when we talk about Roosevelt," said Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin's leading political consultant, at a conference held earlier this year to mark the 125th anniversary of FDR's birth, a date that passed largely unnoticed in the United States. "And then when Putin -- I mean Roosevelt -- when Roosevelt was contemplating the possibility of running for a third term, he chose to do this against his own wishes."
The conference, held at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, also featured Vladislav Surkov, Putin's deputy chief of staff and a leading Kremlin strategist on domestic politics.
"You could say that Roosevelt was our military ally in the 20th century and he is becoming our ideological ally in the 21st," Surkov told an audience that included the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, William J. Burns. "I think the ideas and emotions motivating our society today are amazingly similar to the ones that motivated the Americans in the era of Franklin Roosevelt."
Almost every line in the RTR documentary has echoes of today's Russia.
"Oligarchs refused to accept one simple thing: Businessmen should deal with business and politicians should deal with politics," the narrator said when the documentary was covering Roosevelt's clashes with big business. That almost exactly mirrors the message of a famous meeting in the Kremlin in July 2000, when Putin warned the country's tycoons that they could conduct business as long as they did not interfere in politics.
Or as Putin himself put it in his State of the Nation address last year, "The toes of some people are being stepped on and are going to be stepped on."
The line came from one of Roosevelt's fireside chats in 1934.