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Obama: What the world expects . . .

He only has to rescue the global economy, solve the crisis in the Middle East and fix the environmen

When Hillary Clinton stunned Barack Obama by snatching the New Hampshire primary, Obama did not have to revise his speech as much as one might imagine. He had planned to meet even a victory that January night with warnings about the challenges ahead, coupled with resolutions to overcome them, to keep his supporters from floating into premature assumptions of winning the nomination after only two contests. So stern was Obama planning to be in victory, that the address, with only a few tweaks, would go on to become one of the best “live to fight another day” speeches ever given, soon enshrined as a song on YouTube.

One year later, on the verge of his inauguration, Obama faces expectations far greater than those he was prepared to ratchet back that foggy night in New Hampshire. This is partly his own doing - at some point, he stopped restraining hopes of easy triumph and started making victory seem assured by, for instance, going on a world tour and moving his convention speech into a football stadium. These theatrics helped voters visualise Barack Hussein Obama as their president, but they also raised expectations that he would be a great one. Raising the bar even higher is the turn the world has taken: this 47-year-old who arrived in Washington from the Illinois legislature four years ago is now asked to do no less than save the country from its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and, in his spare time, attend to a swath of fresh troubles from Gaza to Peshawar.

A case could be made, however, that the current emergency has not only further raised the expectations of Obama but also clarified them - for better and worse. For most of the campaign, the debate over Obama had centred not only on whether he was ready for the job, but on what he planned to do with it. His supporters swarmed to him partly out of a deep identification with his diagnosis - that America had gone off track, no matter what the passable economic data said, and that it would take a new kind of politics and public life, free of petty gamesmanship and selfish rationalisations, to restore balance. The sceptics missed this message, asking aloud: Yes, we can . . . what?

Now, the economic collapse has given Obama's exhortations an abundantly concrete goal; presidents, it is often said, need historic crises on their watch if they want to make history.

But the crisis also threatens to shift Obama's task away from some of the singular strengths and promise he exhibited in the campaign. So much of his appeal lay in his ability to articulate the ills of a country not yet in crisis mode, and to conjure the potential in a country reunited around common values. The crisis, however, has accomplished both: it has laid bare the problem and pulled the country together in its desire to fix it; even many in the "chorus of cynics" that Obama rallied against now wish him well. What is left to Obama is how to wield the will of the people that now lies, with so little effort, at his disposal.

He pledged bipartisanship, but only now will it become clear whether he envisioned simply a new era of cordial and intellectually honest debate, or whether he foresaw making substantive concessions. With his team proposing large business tax cuts to draw heavy Republican support to a stimulus package that could probably pass without it, some Democrats worry that Obama's talk of comity could come at the price of sound policy. And as he begins to gesture at the pension and health-care entitlement reform that his advisers think will be needed down the road to reduce a towering deficit, one recalls that, for all his campaign's emphasis on candour, he prepared voters for relatively little hardship, beyond some calls for buying smaller cars or watching less TV.

When the business cycle eventually turns, some credit will likely accrue to the new president. But one suspects that Obama will not consider his expectations met if he "merely" presides over the recovery from a crisis that did not arrive in full until the final weeks of a 20-month campaign - if he simply brings the country back to where it was when the bottom fell out. Seldom has a candidate's appeal lain so much in the promise of his campaign, rather than his past record. Obama will be judged not only on where the unemployment rate stands in 2012, but on whether he has, along the way, made progress on all the rest - on the planks that risk getting lost in the mix (universal health care, energy reform) and on the more abstract ailments in the body politic that prodded him to run in the first place. As big as today's crisis is, Obama may succeed on his own terms only if he makes solving the crisis part of something even bigger.

Alec MacGillis is a staff writer for the Washington Post

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...

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In Russia, Stalin is back

New statues and memorabilia are appearing, as Russians overlook the terror to hark back to a perceived era of order and national safety.

It was during the Victory Day march to commemorate those who fought in the World War Two, the Great Patriotic War (as it is known in Russia) that I saw the face of Stalin. A young woman carried a crimson flag with the image of the Leader which appeared amidst the black and white photographs of grandparents remembered on the seventieth anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany. Just a few months later I was back in Moscow to face the fact that the fleeting image of Stalin, like a seed dropped into rich soil, has sprouted everywhere. At the busy Moscow Domodedovo airport you can now buy souvenir mugs and badges featuring a man with a moustache, coiffed hair and unsmiling eyes; men wearing Stalin T-shirts walk the streets of Moscow and just in time for the festive season 2016 calendars with the twelve photos of the ”Red Tsar” are spread across the counters of the book shops. Most shockingly, new statues of Stalin have appeared in Lipetsk, Penza and Shelanger, a village in a Russian republic Mari El. The monuments were commissioned and erected by the Russia’s Communist Party. Its leader, Gennadiy Zyuganov, promised new statues to be built in Irkutsk in Siberia and in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. Charles de Gaulle, the former French president was right: “Stalin didn't walk away into the past, he dissolved into the future.”

According to a January 2015 survey by an independent, non-profit organisation, founded by a Russian sociologist Yuri Levada, 52 per cent of Russians think that Stalin played a “definitely positive” or ”mostly positive” role in Russia’s history. Stalin’s positive image today is cultivated mostly through his association with the Great Patriotic War. Throughout 2015 the Russian media have been obsessively commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, with Stalin, the generalissimo, at its helm. Political psychologist Elena Shestopal, quoted by the Levada Centre, explains that the positive opinion of Stalin is a reflection of the society’s demand for order and national safety. In her view, Russians associate Stalin with the role of the father: strict, demanding and powerful.

Stalin’s resurrection is astounding not least because his role in history and his “personality cult” have been consistently condemned in Russia since 1956. Three years after Stalin’s death, the then General Secretary Khrushchev denounced it at the Communist Party conference. Stalin’s body was removed from the Red Square mausoleum; the monuments commemorating him were taken down and destroyed. During glasnost, the openness period initiated by Gorbachev, some state archives revealing the extent of Stalin’s purges and mass repressions were made public. My own grandfather, Aleksandr Bakunin, who devoted his entire life to the history of the Russia’s Communist Party and its accomplishments, set to work in his seventies to research the newly available materials and write a trilogy about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. In popular literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made stunning revelations about mass repressions and his personal experiences as a prisoner in a labour camp in his novel The Gulag Archipelago, first openly published in a Russian literary magazine in 1989. In Gorbachev’s days Nikolai Svanidze, a popular Russian TV host, historian and journalist – related to Stalin through his first wife, Ekaterina (Cato) Svanidze – declared that Stalin and Hitler were cut from the same cloth on national television. I do not believe that such a statement would be made by the Russian media today. 

An example of a “Red Tsar” calendar

With knowledge about collectivisation and famine of the 1930s, mass arrests and forced labour, the culture of terror and the totalitarian governance, it is difficult to understand the current sentiment in Russia which makes it acceptable to print Stalin’s image onto T-shirts and mugs. Russians, who approve of Stalin, credit him with turning around the backward agrarian economy with its mostly rural population into an economic and scientific powerhouse, responsible for sending the first man into space. It was allegedly Churchill who said that “Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of atomic weapons”. These sympathisers hail rapid industrialisation and economic progress, forgetting its costs. Mayakovskiy put it well in his poem about the construction of Kuznetsk: “The lips are turning blue from the cold, but the lips recite in unison: ‘In four years this will be a garden city!’”

Stalinists are especially vocal in giving their hero credit for winning the war. By the end of 1930s, the Soviet Union had become the largest economy in Europe and in the 1940s it was the defence industry that carried the Soviet campaign against Hitler. Stalin united people and inspired them to fight the enemy both on the front line and in the factories, according to those who believe in Stalin as “the Leader”. “The European nations are being ungrateful”, they say. “Stalin saved them from the Nazis.” It is inconvenient to remember that it was Stalin who had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939 and had been falsely assured that Germany would not invade the Soviet Union. Stalin disregarded several reports from his own intelligence agents and defected German spies about the advancing of Hitler’s army in 1941. Millions of lives were lost as a result in the first months of the war. As for the gratitude, the Baltic and the eastern European nations are quite right to dispute the post-war reorganisation of Europe, implemented after the Yalta conference, when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to divide their spheres of influence.

After the war, the USSR became the second most powerful nation in the world and a force to be reckoned with in geopolitics, economics and technology. Previously illiterate peasants, Soviet citizens enrolled in universities, became engineers and doctors, went to the theatre and cinema, read and became part of the Soviet miracle. There is a great deal of nostalgia among the older generation in Russia, who mourn the ”golden decades” of the Soviet Union and wish for Russia’s international status to climb again. “We lived better with Stalin than with anyone else who came to power after him. He looked after us. Today only oligarchs live well,” said a Russian woman in her late seventies. One Russian blogger writes that mass repressions were necessary to align the Soviet consciousness to the new ideology, to replace individualism with collective responsibility. He believes that the terror was necessary to maintain order. There is also rising support among the younger generation who see parallels between Putin and Stalin, the two rulers who favour autocracy and ubiquitous state control.

Already in his seventies, my grandfather wrote two books about the genesis and the evolution of the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. His third book was meant to be about the fall of Stalinism. Despite several heart attacks and a stroke, he continued working. He died from the fatal heart attack, his book unfinished. Perhaps, it was meant to be. Section 86 of the German Criminal Code makes it illegal to display Nazi images and to hail Hitler in Germany. In Russia, Stalin has never been similarly condemned. The Russian government ostensibly does not object to the new statues of Stalin being erected just 60 years after they had been taken down. The nation that has forgotten its own history is terrifying.