What “strongmen” can’t do

Tolerate dissent.

Because of which they won’t hold open elections. (As my father pointed out years ago, if a political leader is as popular as he claims, he can prove it by having an open election — not one rigged to elect only him.)

Gee, maybe I’m overreacting because I’ve spent part of the last year reading biographies of Trotsky and Lenin, and then two remarkable histories covering roughly the same period and events yet utterly different in their approach: Blood and Ruins: The Last Imperial War, 1931-1945, by Richard Overy, and Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder.

From the titles, both of which include the word “blood,” you can assume correctly each of these histories will rip any sentient person apart. Consider me ripped. Overy’s goal, I think, is to enumerate in precise detail everything that happened in the world from 1931 to 1945. Snyder’s goal is to enumerate in precise detail every atrocity committed in that time. From both of them, I learned things I hadn’t known before.

Beyond that, though, if you want delineations of strongmen, you couldn’t do any better than these two books which concentrate on Hitler and Stalin, two grossly mentally ill men whose interactions with others demanded worshipful obedience and sadistic mass murder. They were both quite successful.

Tyrants are monsters; strongmen are tyrants. It’s pretty simple. I emerged from Trotsky and Lenin hating both of them. Hating. It should be understandable why I didn’t have the stomach to go on to a Stalin biography.

Meanwhile, Nicholas Kristof has a column today in the Times about Alexei Navalny. If you don’t know much about Navalny, it’s an excellent catch-up, and within it a reminder why we should not elevate anyone to the status of capital “H” Hero: no human being, no matter how admirable, can be free of all intellectual or personal moral failings.

The Kristof piece offers an inadvertent lesson in how Putin publicly deals with such an estimable dissident as Navalny: go into the readers’ comments, where you’ll find some pseudonyms using Kremlin-speak to attack Navalny (as well as our country) for flaws.

No flaw can wipe out the admirable and courageous actions of a man like Navalny, or the struggle our country has been in forever to move toward a higher form of civilization.

And no one can defend a strongman like Putin, not in a public forum. What his minions do in the Times is attack those who dissent for their flaws or mistakes, as if anything in Navalny’s life (or American history) can equalize or erase what a strongman like Putin does to humanity — which is to pour the blood of others on top of the bloodlands long since drenched.

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