The new Stalinism

August 17, 2008

Guest Columnist – The State

With one exception, Russians have never much liked Georgians. Perhaps they didn’t like Joseph Stalin, either, but they certainly feared him and, in a perverse way, admired how the Soviet leader flexed Russian muscle. Stalin, born Iosef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili at the end of the 19th century, grew up in Gori, the Georgian town we’ve been seeing crumbling under Russian shelling.

Gori, when I visited in the late 1970s, was one of the few places in the Soviet Union that still boasted a statue of Stalin. Nikita Khrushchev, a successor as head of the Soviet Communist Party, had condemned Stalin’s rule by brutality. Elsewhere, Stalin’s likeness disappeared. Mostly. I have not seen Stalin’s statue in video from embattled Gori. Perhaps you have. Online photos show it was still there last year.

Instead, the rubble in Gori and other Georgian towns is the monument to Stalin’s contemporary Kremlin inheritors. They still know how to flex Russian muscle.

Vladimir Putin, today’s strongman operating under the title of prime minister, claims the Russian offensive was provoked by Georgia. Putin has an arguable point.

Georgia and Russia have been in heated and sporadically violent dispute over South Ossetia, the breakaway province of Georgia that has sought to reunite with Russia. In the most recent eruption, Georgian troops had improvidently struck first in their attempt to regain control of South Ossetia.

On the other hand, when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Georgia became a sovereign state. The Georgians have an arguable point that the Russian troops are invaders.

History and geography in this part of the world are complicated. The Cold War was relatively simple. East vs. West. The Soviet Union vs. the United States. Black hats vs. white hats, if you will, from an American perspective.

The post-Cold War world is blurred, murky and treacherous. In 1991, George H. W. Bush, emboldened by the collapse of communism in Europe and a Persian Gulf War victory, declared a “new world order.” On September 11, 2001, a new world disorder erupted.

Putinism — a revival of Russian expansionist dreams as old as Ivan the Terrible — has spread roots in the fallow field left untended as the United States struggled with its own devils in Iraq and Afghanistan. Russia’s resurgence might have come about without a 9/11. But Washington’s distraction and the windfall riches of Russia’s oil and gas reserves have fueled Putin’s ambitions to reel back in as much of the old Soviet Union as he could.

Among the former Soviet republics, Georgia is an unusual case. It has grown particularly close to the United States. The young president Mikheil Saakashvili studied law at Columbia and Georgetown. The United States has backed the construction of pipelines across Georgia from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea, purposefully bypassing Russia. Georgia has been encouraged to seek membership in NATO. The western alliance was created to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War and has now crept closer to Moscow with its inclusion of former Soviet satellites in East Europe.

Russian paranoia never lies deep below the surface. And underlying the current Georgian strife is the ethnic divide that rattled even the enormous Soviet Union. Russians, Belorussians and Ukrainians are ethnic Slavs, but mistake a Ukrainian for a Russian at your own risk. Georgians, Armenians and Azeris are not. Nor are Turkmen, Uzbeks, Kazakhs and more.

All of the former Soviet republics have substantial Russian minorities, an opportunity or excuse for Russia to claim it is defending the rights of fellow Russians.

But not all Russians see it that way. At a conference in Chicago last week, I chatted with a young doctoral student now at the University of Alabama, but originally from Tashkent in Uzbekistan. She described herself as Russian ethnically, but Uzbek nationally. She’s not interested in being a Russian (or Soviet) citizen.

Stalin had a simple way of dealing with ethnic matters. He simply ordered the expulsion of whole populations — Koreans, Turks, Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Chechens and more — to outposts of the empire. Where those minorities moved out, Russians moved in.

Stalin died in 1953, but in South Ossetia, Stalin’s legacy is still kicking up trouble.

Mr. Bierbauer was ABC News bureau chief in Moscow, 1978-80. He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina.



May 25, 2007


by Charles Bierbauer

Washington–When the Newseum reopens this fall in Washington, it will have on exhibit what may be the largest section of the infamous Berlin wall remaining anywhere and the East German guard tower that I used to pass crossing through the wall at Checkpoint Charlie.  The Newseum is the Freedom Forum’s living tribute to the First Amendment freedoms of speech and press inscribed in the U.S. Constitution and engraved on the Newseum’s wall facing Pennsylvania Avenue here in this nation’s capital.

            Our Media & Politics class put on hard hats for a look at the work under way.  The Newseum sits midway on the avenue that links—or divides–the Capitol and the White House, a metaphor for the role of the press as the Fourth Estate in America’s artfully crafted, yet sometimes precarious balance of powers. 

            It’s been a warm, sunny week in Washington during which the division over funding the war in Iraq cooled—slightly.  The simmering summer debate over changing the nation’s immigration laws, though, continues.  It bubbled up in the recent Republican presidential debate in Columbia.  There’s a wall between Senator John McCain—worker visas–and former Governor Mitt Romney—no amnesty.  South Carolina’s senators Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint are similarly divided.  The “A” word is causing much of the buzz, though the issue is too complex to be characterized by any single aspect.

            There are real, virtual and rhetorical walls in this debate.  Rep. Henry Brown told the students that past immigration reform has not worked, so the U.S. “has got to defend its borders first.”  Rep. Jim Clyburn suggested that for every “15-foot fence” there is a “16-foot ladder.”

            Last year’s Secure Fence Act calls for some 700 miles of fencing between the U.S. and Mexico.  History suggests walls don’t always guarantee security.  China’s Great Wall was, in effect, more a centuries-long jobs program and is now a tourist attraction.

The walls of Jericho came tumbling down, and Israel’s contemporary walls have not kept terrorism out.

            The Berlin Wall was an onerous scab.  East Germans risked and lost their lives trying to get over or under it.  Korea’s DMZ has substantially held the North Korean nation captive.  It’s the North Korean government that tunnels under the DMZ trying to subvert the South Korean republic.          

As a nation that built its reputation on open doors and open arms, the United States is now engaged in debate as to how welcoming it wants to be.  This is only partly a question of national and personal security.   It’s also about economic security. 

That’s a two-way street.  Are immigrants—legal or illegal—taking jobs from Americans or doing jobs that would otherwise be hard to fill?  Send back 12 million immigrants and see who shows up for work tomorrow morning.  That goes well beyond the stereotypical notion that immigrants are all gardeners, dishwashers and hotel maids.

What the U.S. is wrestling with is hardly new or unique to our shores.  When I lived in Yugoslavia decades ago, the street cleaners and garbage collectors were all ethnic Albanians.  Serbs tended to look down on them.  When I moved to Austria, the street cleaners and garbage collectors were more likely to be Yugoslavs.  Austrians tended to look down on them.  When I moved to Germany…you get the picture.

I took my teenage son to Ellis Island in New York recently.  It was one of those Dad provides a field trip experiences to supplement son’s American history studies.  The museum on Ellis Island documents the flow of Germans, Irish, Italians, Russians, Jews and others to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Those populations, too, faced struggles of assimilation and discrimination.  We’ve done this before and in numbers that probably seemed equally daunting.  We did not, though, have to face immigration with the fears and insecurities of terrorism or in the kind of global economy that has Americans worried about some think isour inevitable decline.

As the immigration debate continues there is much for our politicians and our society to think about.  It’s not a time for building walls around our imagination and creativity.

Charles Bierbauer is a contributing editor to SCHotline and a former Washington and foreign correspondent for CNN and ABC News.  He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina.  The views here are his own, not those of the university.    



by Charles Bierbauer

            Fox News’ Chris Wallace must have been hoping to roil the waters when he asked the Republican candidates, “Who’s not a conservative?”

            Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore tiptoed in, hinting some of the candidates on stage with him did not deserve that label.  Wallace lured Gilmore into deeper water.

            “Are you going to name names?” Wallace asked.  Gilmore did. 

            Giuliani on abortion.  Huckabee on taxes.  Romney on health care. 

            The accused parried.  The stage of the Koger Center at the University of South Carolina in front of some 2,000 mostly red-meat Republicans and perhaps a couple million Fox viewers was no place to deny conservative credentials.  The debate was billed as the “first in the South” for the ten Republican presidential candidates, mindful of party history that suggests if they can’t make it here, they may not make it anywhere.

            Rudy Giuliani deflected a question about his pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-gay rights views, suggesting there’s at least a “stark difference” between himself and the top Democrat, Hillary Clinton.  Mike Huckabee said he’d raised the Arkansas gas tax in order to build roads, but cut taxes 94 other times.  Mitt Romney rebutted the health care critique, as well as the suggestion he’d waffled on abortion.  For good measure, John McCain vowed to continue to “reach across the aisle” to seek bipartisanship because it’s “what the people want us to do.”

            There’s room for nuance, but in its raw simplicity, “who’s a conservative” may be the defining question for Republican voters in this state.  The candidates in Tuesday evening’s debate began to differentiate themselves.   And it was most noticeable among the perceived top tier candidates.  Giuliani had set himself apart by finally settling on his positions regarding abortion, gays and guns and challenging Republicans to accept him in that context.

            In this debate, it was Romney who used the issue of immigration to distance himself from McCain, picking up on McCain’s propensity to reach across the aisle.

“I fear McCain/Kennedy will do to immigration what McCain/Feingold did to campaign finance,” Romney said, underscoring the Democratic co-sponsors of legislation that also bears McCain’s name.

            McCain fired back, accusing Romney of political inconsistency:  “I haven’t changed positions for every single office I’ve run for.”   

            Good.  The gloves are off.  If we’re to make sense of this race, we need to see these differences. 

            CNN executives who get to put on the next episode of our barnstorming politicians in New Hampshire in a couple of weeks were in the Koger Center on Tuesday taking the measure of Fox’s production.  Except for weak audio in the hall itself, it was a smooth show.  The Fox set was dramatic and impressive with its electronic flag backdrop, though one wonders if we’ll ever return to simple lecterns. 

            Ten candidates are, of course, too many for meaningful dialogue.  Having three questioners allows Fox, or any network, to showcase more of its news celebrities.  But Jim Lehrer of PBS, in years past, has shown that a single questioner can weave finer cloth from the dialogue with the candidates.

            Fox’s opening graphics curiously listed the candidates’ age, religion, family and career highlights in that order.  Should we be more interested in the fact that Mitt Romney is a Mormon than in his experience as governor of Massachusetts?  Or that Brownback and Giuliani are Catholic?

            Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee got the laugh of the night when he suggested Congress “spends money like John Edwards at a beauty shop.” 

            And, as my students again noted, neither the questioners nor the candidates paid any attention to education.  In the “spin room” after the debate, Huckabee agreed that is an oversight no future president dare overlook.

            On Tuesday morning, ten of my students played “stand-in” roles for the candidates while Fox News did its lighting and microphone checks.  Six of those students were women; four were men; two were African-American.  The ten candidates behind the lecterns in the evening were, of course, all white men.   True, some wore red ties and some wore blue.

            The late Lee Atwater, the South Carolinian who shaped the hard-charging, take no prisoners approach to political campaigning, used to say Republicans were a “big tent” party with room for everyone.  Fox’s Chris Wallace asked former Republican national chairman Gilmore if the absence of minorities among the ten candidates wasn’t embarrassing.  Gilmore could only offer that someday “there will be” minorities among the Republican candidates.


Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns from 1984 to 2000 for CNN. He is currently dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. Dean Bierbauer is also the senior contributing editor and consultant to