The award-winning Hollywood director has seen the past, and it never worked.
‘I have seen the future, and it works!’
This awesome 1919 quote of Lincoln Steffens written after he visited early Russia transforming into the communist Soviet Union just about sums up the attitudes of long lines of Western intellectuals who easily get delusional about Russia and its imagined virtues vis-à-vis the flaws of the West.
Steffens was one of the muckrakers, those Progressive Era reform-minded American journalists, who exposed corruption in US government institutions. Weirdly enough, however, he was unable to see the emerging Soviet Union for what it was – a brutal communist dictatorship.
The “future” that Steffens saw, and that supposedly “worked”, in his view, turned out to be in the top three of the world’s most murderous regimes, together with Nazi Germany and Maoist China.
It was not enough that the communist revolution of 1917 was bloody beyond imagination but the Soviet Union later went on to build its own domestic empire of concentration camps for political prisoners (many inherited from the time of the Russian Empire, actually).
Human life was worth nothing, and there was no human rights worthy of the name, with basic human existence reduced to childish obedience of the communist party.
Nonetheless, long lines of delusional Western intellectuals somehow believed fake sugar-coated stories, and were willing to praise communism and the Soviet way of life.
Of course, luckily for them, they did not have to experience it first-hand.
That is the phrase that these people go by if they are not paid to say what they say. The phrase is attributed to Vladimir Lenin, the chief of the Russian communist revolution, but it doesn’t really matter who coined it.
What matters is that it “works” way better than Lincoln Steffens’ “future”.
Just to clarify for anyone not familiar with it: the phrase has a political meaning, it is a political term, and not an insult. What it implies is some big-time naïveté.
During the Cold War, “useful idiots” were those Western intellectuals who served the Soviet propaganda by praising the Soviet Union and communism, and were doing so for free, out of their own delusional convictions. Needless to say, they were heavily mocked by the ruling class in Moscow who were well aware of the realities, and how their “system” and ideology actually “worked”.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, the “useful idiot” phrase has come to be used for any Western intellectual, popular figure, people of influence, etc. who gets swayed by any tyrant anywhere in the world, serving their propaganda out of wrongful “beliefs”.
As relations between Russia and the West went sour in 2014, and Moscow once again decided to wage an all-out “hybrid war” (propaganda, information warfare) against Western countries in order to ensure the survival of the regime of President Vladimir Putin, the notion of the “useful idiots” seems to have come home.
Once again there is massive propaganda coming out of Moscow, and there are those figures of some influence in Western societies who are eager to serve it for free, because of their “beliefs”.
(Those who are paid to do so are a whole other category.)
Earlier, in 1920s-1930s, during the Cold War, Moscow’s “useful idiots” in the West could mostly be described as intellectuals.
In the post-2014 world, the “useful idiots” better be described as popular culture figures. For example, US actor Steven Seagal, French actor Gerard Depardieu, US mixed martial arts fighter Jeff Monson, and US boxer Roy Jones have been granted Russian citizenship and have more or less expressed support for Putin‘s policies.
Enter Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone recently rolled out “The Putin Interviews”, a mini documentary series of four episodes, each lasting one hour, featuring interviews with Russian President Vladimir Putin conducted from 2015 until 2017.
The extremely distinguished Hollywood director/screenwriter of Midnight Express, Scarface, Platoon, Wallstreet, etc., and a man who fought communism in the Vietnam War has now decided to give world-wide good publicity to Vladimir Putin, a seemingly autocratic leader, allegedly owning secret wealth, who heads an oligarchy, and is prepared to attack sovereign countries for the sole purpose of preserving the privileges of that oligarchy, respectively, the survival of his regime, in a country with very limited human and civil rights or freedom of speech.
Here are just some quotes from a BBC interview with Stone which easily reveal the highly questionable essence of the Hollywood director’s much self-celebrated documentary project.
“[Putin] knows that I am not going to change American policy. But what I’d like to do is contribute to a consciousness of what he is saying.”
So far, so good. Or not. If you have doubts that someone might want to confuse you, manipulate you, crush you, possibly destroy you – it is fair to say Putin might want to do that with the West – is it a great idea to promote their messages?
“Nowadays, NATO is a mere instrument of the foreign policy of the US. It has no allies. It has only vassals.”
Well, if Mr. Putin says, it must be true, then. America has never had any allies. Russia and the Soviet Union, in contrast, have had tons. During the Cold War, it usually had to occupy them first, install communism, or another form of puppet government, with all the corresponding atrocities, but that’s a footnote to history at best, right.
Hey there, NATO states and special non-NATO US allies around the globe, Mr. Putin just told you you were US vassals. What were you thinking when you voluntarily decided to ally yourself with America? You should have clearly sided with Russia. What, still not convinced? Oh, well.
“I hope it would lead to a serious, interesting discussion about world affairs, particularly US and Russia.”
The previous quote by Putin kind-of kills Oliver Stone’s naïve notion expressed in this sentence.
“He (Putin) lays out a world that we don’t know.”
He got that right. It is a world of anti-democracy, anti-Western propaganda.
“Is it your impression from these hours of interviews that Vladimir Putin genuinely wants a better relationship with the West?”
“Absolutely, there’s just no doubt in my mind. He referred to the United States consistently as our “partner”. I never heard a bad word.“
OK, so Putin referred to you as a “partner”, then you are his partner, regardless of what he stands for, and whether you like him or not. Mr. Stone’s logic is out of this world.
And Stone is obliviously oblivious to the fact that, well, of course, Putin would want a better relationship with the West so that he can solidify his and his oligarchy’s hold on power in Russia for good.
“There was some criticism. He said, “I didn’t understand why our partners were doing this.” And the Ukraine point and the Syrian point.
When he explained Ukraine, he explained it in a way that perhaps a westerner can understand that the Russians look at this completely differently than we do.”
But of course. Ukrainians don’t have heads on their shoulders. They couldn’t guess it when they came under attack, and their land was occupied and annexed. Mr. Putin “explained Ukraine”. Screw the actual Ukrainians. What, they don’t want to be ruled by Moscow any more? They want rights, democracy, freedom, and an actual economy? Can’t be. Mr. Putin “explained” it to Mr. Stone.
“So I have to wonder where is the threat that we talked about where the NATO commanders are perhaps exaggerating this to get make sure that the Alliance stays together and they’ve implied that Russia’s behind everything in the West that goes wrong.”
Here it goes again. Don’t trust your political leaders and generals, “those NATO commanders”, those cunning, conniving bastards! Not your journalists, not your country’s free speech, not your civil society. Trust Mr. Putin. He will make it right for you, for the world, for everybody.
“Did you believe him when he said that Russia didn‘t [hack the US election]?”
“I absolutely believe that there’s all smoke and no fire are there.”
So much for the entire US intelligence community. Mr. Putin explained it to Mr. Stone. Mr. Stone knows now.
“Would you agree with President Donald Trump them when he says that stories about Russia hacking to influence the US election are fake news?”
“Oh, definitely, as Putin said, I think it’s an internal political battle in America, and I mean it’s obscured the possibility of resetting the relations.“
“As Putin said.” Mr. Stone hasn’t heard of Obama’s highly questionable reset of relations with Russia.
All that “reset” did was embolden Moscow to do what it wants in its neighborhood: attack Ukraine when Ukraine made it clear it didn’t want to be ruled by it any more, unleash dirty anti-Western propaganda, use cybercrime to meddle in the US elections.
Mr. Stone now wants another “reset”. How about surrendering all of Europe to Mr. Putin? Would that be enough? Or should large chunks of Asia be added, as well?
“You’ve spent all this time with a man who has been called a ruthless opponent, accused of killing his political opponents did you ever worry that you might be unwittingly a tool of Putin propaganda?“
“If I was and you know it’s certainly an adventure but I don’t but those old spy wars. You know the English are great at inventing James Bond sort of scenarios. I didn’t see him as Dr. No. He’s a very rational man.”
What an extremely random and incoherent answer to a very specific question.
Helping Push Putin’s Agenda
The fact of the matter is that Oliver Stone’s Putin Interviews are helping push Putin’s agenda of protecting the oligarchy ruling Russia so that this ruling class can continue to enjoy its wealth, luxury yachts, you name it.
Russia’s ruling class wants to make itself safe from domestic foes – any opposition, anyone who wants something different in terms of rights, freedom, and justice.
And it needs to make itself safe from foreign foes – real or perceived – who might want to change its regime.
One main thing Stone and the likes of him don’t understand about Second and Third World regimes without the rule of law is that those certain strongmen and their cronies come to power, get rich, and then need to remain in power forever – otherwise they lose everything – their riches – and often their lives.
This is not the West where your wealth was acquired more or less through a market-based economy, and there is functioning, not perfect but functioning, rule of law to protect your wealth – and your life.
That’s why Putin’s regime is doing what it’s doing, and, keeping world history in mind, that’s hardly surprising, or irrational, or even that evil per se. It is expected and understandable? And if Russia wants to stick with this governance system, who can blame it? Regime change is wrong, it is only thinkable in the event of a total war (such as the war with Nazi Germany or imperial Japan).
However, the West needs to protect itself, its values, its way of life, and those who want to be like it. The West needs to protect its border regions in Eastern Europe, and foil any meddling in its domestic affairs. Propaganda is a key way of meddling. And Oliver Stone has certainly helped Putin push his.
The Fake Video
It’s not just that. It was revealed that during the filming of the Putin Interviews, the Russian President showed Oliver Stone a rather impressive video of a Russian helicopter attack against ISIS fighters in Syria.
Except it turned out to be a US helicopter attack against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan with dubbed with a recording in Russian of what turned out to be conversation among Ukrainian pilots during the early days of the pro-Russian insurgency in Ukraine’s Donbass region. Classic fake news, and rather sophisticated at that.
Here is Oliver Stone’s bewildering reaction when he was asked about this fake video:
“If you are gonna start with this blogging bullshit? The bloggers said this, and the bloggers said that. We’re gonna be here all day. I mean, fine, I don’t know it. He brought out a phone, and he showed it to us, we filmed it. And he said this was that. Why would he fake it?”
So, one gathers that, first, Stone thinks blogging journalism is “bullshit”. Second not “being here all day” is more important than establishing the truth. Third, he does admit he doesn’t know if the video is fake or real. Fourth, “he (Putin) said this was that” – again the “supreme leader said it” syndrome – if Putin said it, it must be true. Fifth, the question “Why would he fake it?” conveys very deep naïveté, and an even deeper lack of knowledge and understanding of history.
“The Russians did very well in terms of damages to ISIS in Syria. They bombed the shit out of Syria, and they did destroy the financial ability of the ISIS empire to run oil to Turkey. I think that was the main point.”
First of all, it sounds like Stone thinks “bombing the shit out of Syria” which the Russians “did” is a good thing. The reports of civilian casualties must not have made it to him. Second, he suggests that Russian bombing in Syria was focused on ISIS, whereas Western and Arab sources have kept reporting that it targeted mostly the opposition to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Third, referring to the “main point”, Stone seems to imply that showing a fake news video is admissible as long as it helps make the “main point”.
Of course, it is not certain whether Putin himself was aware that the video he showed to Oliver Stone was a manipulated one. But it was Stone and his team’s job to fact-check that before broadcasting it.
Oliver Stone’s Putin Interviews documentary is not promoting international peace and better US / Western understanding of Russia, as its author may or may not have intended. All it does is promote around the world the one-sided messages of Putin and his ruling class, legitimizing their attack against the West and what it stands for: human rights and dignity, freedom, and democracy.
It is truly sad to see an award-winning filmmaker such as Oliver Stone serve as a tool for that.
Global Political Editor