Earlier this week, Vladimir Putin did something even more unexpected than kissing a boy on the belly. Even more daring than fishing without a shirt. Even more sensitive than remarks about the Israeli President.
He honored those murdered during Stalin's purges.
Reuters has the story of his appearance and comments at Butovo, a facility near Moscow where tens of thousands were murdered under Stalin's Operational Order No. 00447.
The victims included priests and royalists but also huge numbers of people who were simply caught up in an indiscriminate spiral of killing. This year Russia marks the 70th anniversary of the bloodiest period of the purges.When I read such quotes, I can't help but wonder - does Putin see those who speak out in opposition of his own government and corruption of police and public officials, as the "cream of the nation"?
Putin attended a memorial service with Patriarch Alexiy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, after passing a field criss-crossed with mass graves.
"We know very well that 1937 was the peak of the purges but this year was well prepared by years of cruelty," Putin said beside a mass grave after laying flowers at a memorial.
Putin said such tragedies "happen when ostensibly attractive but empty ideas are put above fundamental values, values of human life, of rights and freedom."
"Hundreds of thousands, millions of people were killed and sent to camps, shot and tortured," he said. "These were people with their own ideas which they were unafraid of speaking out about. They were the cream of the nation."
In an appeal for national unity, Putin said: "To develop the country and choose the right path, we need political debates and even battles but to make this process creative they should not be conducted outside the cultural framework," Putin said
Would he say that Kirill Formanchuk is the "cream of the nation"?
Would he say that Anna Politkovskaya is a member of this "cream of the nation?"
And what exactly is meant by - to make this process creative they should not be conducted outside the cultural framework? Who defines the cultural framework - the government, or the people of the nation? Is Putin suggesting that if Russians culturally prefer to discuss politics around the kitchen table, that is where such discussions should remain?
Of course, nothing is happening now in Russia on the scale of the murders under Stalin. But, when it suits the government or public officials, citizens are still oppressed, beaten, or even murdered when they speak in opposition. The devices of suppression are still the same, even if they are not resulting in the murder of tens of millions. Perhaps this is the cultural framework he references. Speak out in Russia if you wish, but be prepared to have your ass kicked if someone doesn't like what you have to say.
And despite his successes for Russia, I don't see Putin or his government doing a damn thing to change that.
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