George Kennan, Vladimir Putin & the Appetites of Men

George Kennan, Vladimir Putin & the Appetites of Men March 20, 2014


  “The fact of the matter is that there is a little bit of the totalitarian buried somewhere, way down deep, in each & every one of us. It is only the cheerful light of confidence & security which keeps this evil genius down…If confidence & security were to disappear, don’t think that he would not be waiting to take their place.”

– George Kennan

It was the same old question. And George Kennan was growing frustrated. It was February 22, 1946. The peace following the Second World War was less than a year old and the United States was trying to cautiously interpret the actions of their new “friend”, the Soviet Union. George Kennan, ostensibly the number two diplomat (under Ambassador Averell Harriman) at the American Mission (or Embassy) in Moscow, was reading a telegram and shaking his head. It was from Treasury Department. Yet again, a Treasury official found himself apoplectic at the latest rebuff from the Russian government regarding post-war collaboration with the United States. This time it regarded non-adherence to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. A despondency pervaded the letter which weakly masked urgency and exasperation. The letter implored,

“How did one explain such behavior on the part of the Soviet government? What lay behind it?”

Kennan was ill at the time – bedridden by “cold, fever, sinus, tooth trouble and finally the aftereffects of sulpha drugs administered for the relief of these other miseries”. His fuse was short.

“For eighteen long months I had done little else but pluck people’s sleeves, trying to make them understand the nature of the phenomenon with which we in the Moscow embassy were daily confronted and which our government and people had to learn to understand if they were to have any chance of coping successfully with the problems of the postwar world. So far as official Washington was concerned, it had been to all intents and purposes like talking to a stone…

Now, suddenly, my opinion was being asked. The occasion, to be sure, was a trivial one, but the implications of the query were not. It was no good trying to brush the questions off with a couple of routine sentences describing Soviet views on such things as world banks and international monetary funds. It would not do to give them just a fragment of the truth. Here was a case where nothing but the whole truth would do. They had asked for it. Now, by God, they would have it.”

Now, by God, they would have it. So instead of penning a hasty and terse missive, this ailing diplomat would take a deep breath and thoughtfully begin to write. What would begin as a well-considered description of Soviet behavior would ultimately end as a brilliant dissertation on the appetites of men. In the end, the Kennan would write an eight thousand word treatise. Forever after, it was famously dubbed,“The Long Telegram” (see link here).

Kennan’s Telegram was intent to impress the following points. Communism, like so many ideologies, presents itself as a totalistic worldview whose abstract theories and philosophy can make its interpretation and application deeply trying and complex. When philosophies present such complexity in theory, there is a logical demand for greater simplicity in practice. The flaw in the Western interpretation of the Soviet Union’s actions was to interpret it through the lens of Communist ideology. In fact, Kennan would argue, the West would be better served seeing the ideology as a tool (or a fig leaf) for the exercise of power – a tool to satisfy the appetites of men. To the end that the Soviet leadership (specifically Joseph Stalin, at the time) could consolidate power, they would demonize capitalist countries and loosely-aligned left-wing movements as threats which justified Soviet dictatorial control, utilize international Communist movements as proxies in maintaining and advancing the borders of their power, and warp the perception of reality among domestic subjects and international adherents in order to manipulate or “create” truth to further solidify their grip on power.

Kennan eloquently put forth his thesis with wise insight. Consider some of his excerpts:

Communism started as a theory from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and would be ruthlessly materialized by Vladimir Lenin and is disciples. What began as an idealistic yet implausible notion took on a life of its own. If the end was ideal, then the means to achieve it could be justifiably extreme. In effect, to achieve “good”, power was required to enforce it.

“Let it be stressed again that subjectively these men probably did not seek absolutism for its own sake. They doubtless believed — and found it easy to believe — that they alone knew what was good for society and that they would accomplish that good once their power was secure and unchallengeable. But in seeking that security of their own rule they were prepared to recognize no restrictions, either of God or man, on the character of their methods. And until such time as that security might be achieved, they placed far down on their scale of operational priorities the comforts and happiness of the peoples entrusted to their care.”

As time would pass, power would beget an insatiable thirst for more power. Soon, the original ideals of collectivist utopia were more deeply subordinated to the relentless pursuit and ruthless maintenance of power.

“Now the maintenance of this pattern of Soviet power, namely, the pursuit of unlimited authority domestically, accompanied by the cultivation of the semi-myth of implacable foreign hostility, has gone far to shape the actual machinery of Soviet power as we know it today. Internal organs of administration which did not serve this purpose withered on the vine. Organs which did serve this purpose became vastly swollen. The security of Soviet power came to rest on the iron discipline of the Party, on the severity and ubiquity of the secret police, and on the uncompromising economic monopolism of the state. The “organs of suppression,” in which the Soviet leaders had sought security from rival forces, became in large measures the masters of those whom they were designed to serve. Today the major part of the structure of Soviet power is committed to the perfection of the dictatorship and to the maintenance of the concept of Russia as in a state of siege, with the enemy lowering beyond the walls. And the millions of human beings who form that part of the structure of power must defend at all costs this concept of Russia’s position, for without it they are themselves superfluous.”

Yet even when power was supreme at home, influential abroad and the situation considered “ripe” (in the eyes of the movement’s progenitors) for indoctrination and enactment of the Communist ideal, the realization of the ideal remained secondary. Maintenance of power trumped all.

 “What is vital is that the “Socialist fatherland” — that oasis of power which has already been won for Socialism in the person of the Soviet Union — should be cherished and defended by all good Communists at home and abroad, its fortunes promoted, its enemies badgered and confounded. The promotion of premature, “adventuristic” revolutionary projects abroad which might embarrass Soviet power in any way would be an inexcusable, even a counter-revolutionary act. The cause of Socialism is the support and promotion of Soviet power, as defined in Moscow.”

“On the principle of infallibility there rests the iron discipline of the Communist Party. In fact, the two concepts are mutually self-supporting. Perfect discipline requires recognition of infallibility. Infallibility requires the observance of discipline. And the two go far to determine the behaviorism of the entire Soviet apparatus of power. But their effect cannot be understood unless a third factor be taken into account: namely, the fact that the leadership is at liberty to put forward for tactical purposes any particular thesis which it finds useful to the cause at any particular moment and to require the faithful and unquestioning acceptance of that thesis by the members of the movement as a whole. This means that truth is not a constant but is actually created, for all intents and purposes, by the Soviet leaders themselves. It may vary from week to week, from month to month. It is nothing absolute and immutable — nothing which flows from objective reality. It is only the most recent manifestation of the wisdom of those in whom the ultimate wisdom is supposed to reside, because they represent the logic of history. The accumulative effect of these factors is to give to the whole subordinate apparatus of Soviet power an unshakable stubbornness and steadfastness in its orientation. This orientation can be changed at will by the Kremlin but by no other power. Once a given party line has been laid down on a given issue of current policy, the whole Soviet governmental machine, including the mechanism of diplomacy, moves inexorably along the prescribed path, like a persistent toy automobile wound up and headed in a given direction, stopping only when it meets with some unanswerable force. The individuals who are the components of this machine are unamenable to argument or reason, which comes to them from outside sources. Their whole training has taught them to mistrust and discount the glib persuasiveness of the outside world. Like the white dog before the phonograph, they hear only the “master’s voice.” And if they are to be called off from the purposes last dictated to them, it is the master who must call them off.”

And so George Kennan described how the dreamlike pursuit of ideological idealism devolved to the justification of merciless power and shameless manipulation of truth. To be sure, the collectivist ideal was a pipe dream – a naive utopian dream. But what is most curious throughout history is how such utopian visions are reliably, starkly and often violently checked by the very real and very base appetites of men. Yes, George Kennan understood and explained this in part because he was a seasoned and insightful diplomat. But, even more, because George Kennan simply understood human nature. He understood the appetites of men.

Communism is a distant memory in modern day Russia, but the figure of Vladimir Putin is not. Whether regarding military intervention in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008 or Crimea in 2014, his fuel-based blackmail of European countries, his heavy-handed management of dissenting oligarchs or journalists, or his budding cult of personality reminiscent of classic Russian strongmen, this is a man who understands the nature of power. While he doesn’t actively promote the ideology of Communism, he clearly endorses a worldview of the historical greatness of Russian nationalism with himself at the center. In the current crisis, many will quibble about the historical, geopolitical complexities surrounding the relationship between Russia, Ukraine and Crimea. They will debate whether Crimea’s former inclusion in the Russian Empire or Crimea’s restive Russian population justifies secession especially with a strong Russian hand involved. Papers will be written. Conferences will be convened. Experts will be consulted. Perhaps these are all prudent and thoughtful notions to consider and actions to undertake. Perhaps.

But perhaps we should, like George Kennan, return to the same questions we have been asking about human nature since the beginning of time. Maybe we are, at times, overthinking things. Perhaps we would do well to step back and consider something more fundamental, something more base, something more reliable than the calculus of geopolitics and ideology…Perhaps we ignore the simple math that is often before our very eyes. May we open our eyes to the appetites of men.


“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.”

– Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn



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