Spirit of McCarthyism Seen In Attacks On Oliver Stone's 'Putin Interviews'

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Right after the Showtime broadcast of a series of interviews by Oliver Stone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, media pundits began attacking Mr. Stone in bitter terms that say quite a lot about the incivility and anti-intellectualism prevalent in our political culture.

Rather than providing balanced analysis or assessment that weighs the documentary’s strengths or weaknesses, reviewers branded Stone, a distinguished film-maker and military veteran, as an “admirer of dictators” (Joel Sucher, The Observer) “abettor of Putin’s lies,” (Emily Tamkin, Foreign Policy) and “conspiracy theorist” and “deranged boot-licker” as Alexander Nazaryan termed Stone in a hatchet piece in Newsweek.

Equally objectionable was an article in America’s “newspaper of record,” The New York Times on June 25 by Masha Gessen entitled “How Putin Seduced Oliver Stone – and Trump.” The language invokes the charge directed against leftists in the 1930s and 1940s who were seduced by Stalin and the ideal of a workers utopian paradise under communism.

Gessen’s critique of Stone’s film though is completely and utterly vapid. She says the exchanges between Putin and Stone are dull and she refers to Stone in mocking terms as an “inept interviewer” which is not at all true – Stone is a likeable man who endears himself to his subject and makes them feel comfortable, which leads them to be candid.

Gessen goes on to suggest that Stone, like Donald Trump allegedly, has a “breathless admiration” for Putin, a claim that is nowhere substantiated. Mr. Trump, for example, agreed that Putin was a killer in a famous exchange on Fox News, though said that the US was itself no innocent. This kind of remark does not to me convey “breathless admiration.” Neither does Stone’s efforts to allow Putin the opportunity to explain his views in a style reminiscent of Erroll Morris’ interviews with Robert S. McNamara in The Fog of War where judgment is left to the viewer.

Stone at times furthermore asks critical questions, for example, with regards to the contradiction of Mr. Putin’s expressing admiration for Edward Snowden while initiating his own “Big Brother laws.”

Gessen suggests footage shown of Putin in his offices and playing ice hockey is part of Stone’s sycophancy; however, the main intention appears to be to show the life of a Russian President and counteract the stereotypes of Putin in Western media. Since Putin’s hockey skills are rather lousy, if Stone was intent on creating a cult of a superman, those scenes failed dismally.

Ms. Gessen at one point claims that Putin and Stone share a mutual hostility to Muslims. However, Stone in the interviews merely pointed out the double standards of U. S foreign policy in supporting Islamists in Chechnya while fighting a war on Islamists in Afghanistan and Iraq. At another point, Stone agreed with Putin about the folly of the Reagan administration’s policy in supporting bin Laden and other extremist fundamentalists during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. Nowhere does Stone show any Islamophobia.

Finally, Gessen depicts both Stone and Putin as Stalin apologists, when Putin’s answer to the question about Stalin reflects a certain admiration in nationalist circles because of Stalin’s role in presiding over the defeat of Nazism, his role in fueling Russia’s industrial development and asserting Russia’s role as a superpower. This is not entirely an irrational position if we consider Putin’s recognition of the dark side of Stalin’s reign and importance of remembering the Gulag and Show Trial victims.

It should be noted that America’s founding fathers and nationalist heroes have their hands red with blood too, from Indian massacres and slavery to the waging of illegal wars, but many Americans still admire them. Stone also points out the absence of Leon Trotsky’s body on the Kremlin grounds and discusses Stalin’s role in Trotsky’s murder, showing he does in fact know the history of the Soviet Union, and is himself no apologist for “Uncle Joe’s” crimes.

Personally, I found Stone’s film enlightening, and a good follow-up to both his Untold History of the United States and Snowden. It provided a portrait of Mr. Putin I hadn’t seen before and humanized a man who has been vilified in the Western media. Mr. Putin comes across as well informed about US politics and pragmatic in his efforts to solve some of Russia’s pressing problems he inherited from the Yeltsin era.

The documentary is also valuable in showing how the expansion of NATO on Russia’s borders (in violation of a pledge made to Mikhail Gorbachev by the George H.W. Bush administration), US interference in Georgia, Ukraine and Chechnya and support for a military build and exercises near Russia’s border, is helping to create a dangerous new arms race and Cold War.

Most of the great military theorists from Karl Von Clausewitz to Sun Tsu have emphasized the importance of “knowing your enemy.” This is what makes the attacks of people like Gessen in The New York Times and Nazaryan in Newsweek so juvenile and ultimately harmful even from a strict US national security perspective.

Stone’s film is important precisely because it offers an opportunity to better understand the Russian perspective on US foreign policy and conflicts in Ukraine and Syria – whether we agree with it or not.

By forging a better understanding, we can in turn develop a smarter foreign policy that lessens the prospects for antagonism and furthers the prospect for cooperation, something Putin says he wants.

However, judging by the reaction to Stone’s film, we instead appear doomed to repeat the history of the first Cold War and McCarthy era, whose spirit remains alive and well in our liberal intellectual journals.

Jeremy Kuzmarov teaches history at the University of Tulsa and is author of the forthcoming book, with John Marciano, The Russians are Coming, Again: What We Did Not Learn About the First Cold War (Monthly Review Press, 2018).

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