Point of view

In my town, people don’t like Mr Putin. Come to think of it, I don’t like him much myself. In my town people look down their noses at Rambos, and Mr Putin, it would seem, is a Rambo. Around here, they prefer the spindly type, the Spidermans, agile and supple. And they don’t condone belligerence either. Behave, civilly, they say, and you will be treated civilly.

As a matter of fact, there are lots of things people in my town don’t prescribe to; religion, for instance, unless it’s decorous and discreet, like make-up – the less the better – and mainly only for soirées or carnivals. Nor do they prescribe to opera, in spite of our having recently built a gloriously expensive and glamorous opera house – too much drama, life just isn’t like that. And as for ballet: forget it!

Around here, real men (as opposed to “you-know-whos”) don’t sing. Never. Not even when they are drunk. Not even the “you-know-whos”. Except at football games. So if I tell you that they don’t even condone belligerence at football games, that’s saying quite a lot, wouldn’t you say? And what they say is true: most of them have never been treated uncivilly, nor have their relatives.

On the other side of the river, people are somewhat different. They say: treat us civilly and we will be civil to you. For all I know, men might even sing on the other side of the river, and they certainly are religious, very religious. That’s a bit scary; after all, godliness is a kind of madness isn’t it, a reality distortion. They are, moreover, often polite and downright considerate towards elderly people. Some, very few of them – misfits of course – will even kill to defend a mother’s honour.

Like us, most of them censure violence. But they will frown – more than that, will knit their brows in anger – if you drag their dignity through the mud. They may even congregate, who knows, and – eh – “discuss” the situation. There will be voices calling for a calming of the spirits, and there will be other voices clamouring for action.

Oh, and I forgot to add that many of the people in the town on the other side of the river have relatives who are being treated far from civilly in far-away places. I have no relatives, no loved ones, no childhood friends festering in any dungeon. Nobody I know has ever been reduced to a shadow of himself from ill-treatment. Ever! I wonder, I really wonder, what sort of a person I would be if that were not the case.

What I do know from other people’s experiences of dictatorship is that if you have been painfully trained to distrust the police, you will never completely trust the police again, even after the introduction of democracy.

This business of outlook is really quite striking, don’t you think. In my town, if you ask people to define the term dignity, they would have to think very hard, and I am pretty sure that afterwards they would never forget the mental exercise, because the very concept is in the process of slipping away from us here.

If you ask anybody on the other side of the river, I suspect they won’t even have to think. They will know at once what to reply.

So, back to Mr Putin, I had this very odd experience the other day: I saw him for a moment on a Russian television channel addressing people in an auditorium, the Duma perhaps – I have no idea. Now my Russian is very rusty, to say the least, but he was trying to explain some policy that was not faultless and that had been criticised. I listened to him for five minutes and thought: My word, what a nice man! He was not haranguing them, not berating them and not even being defensive. He was not oratorial, as US presidents are without exception – yes, even Mr Obama – not assuming the role of God’s representative on earth, unlike US presidents. He was just talking easily and pleasantly to his audience. He admitted without the slightest hesitation that the chosen course had disadvantages, but he humorously suggested that the same would apply to any other course. He spoke, not like a teacher, more like a colleague about the need to weigh the disadvantages of any course against those of other courses.

Maybe Mr Putin is a Spiderman, after all. Maybe he is subtle. Do we like subtlety better than Rambo? Do we like “satire” (i.e “satirical” drawings) better than a punch in the jaw?

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