An unexpectedly resonant ceremony marking the 125th anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of the most renowned U.S. presidents, took place in Moscow on February 8.
A conference commemorating Roosevelt’s anniversary was held at Moscow Institute of Foreign Relations. According to Americans who took part in Moscow conference, it exceeded similar functions held in the U.S. on the occasion. The conference was attended by the State Duma deputies, political scientists, historians, and the U.S. Ambassador to Russia William J. Burns.
One of the speeches was delivered by Vladislav Surkov, Russian president’s deputy chief of staff. His speech was probably the highlight of the event. In his speech, Surkov drew a parallel between the situation in the U.S. during Great Depression and that in today’s Russia which is recovering from troubled times of the 1990s.
Below are several excerpts from Surkov’s speech.
The poor cannot be free
“There are some points of similarity between the situation in the U.S. and Russia though I am pretty skeptical about history repeating itself. More or less the same number of people lived in the U.S. in the late 1920s and a present-day Russia. America’s gross national product had decreased nearly twice by the end of the 1920s, while per capita income was halved in times of the Depression. We experienced the same in the 1990s. As a result, about half of the Russians categorized themselves as poor. Not unlike Franklin Roosevelt in his time, Vladimir Putin should strengthen administrative control and make maximum use of the presidential powers’ potential in order to overcome the crisis these days.
"Russia is not, without doubt, a copy of America in the 1920s and 1930s. However, I can see amazing similarities between the ideas and emotions that drive forward our society and those that propelled America in Roosevelt’s time. Before Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, the most prevalent point of view had held the poor as a small number of the people really worthy of one’s compassion because the majority of them were thought to be poor due to their own character flaws. The viewpoint reflected the morals that were very popular during the era of the “gangster barons.” By all appearances, Franklin Roosevelt had a different opinion on the issue. He was confident that everybody’s pursuit of justice was the foundation of democracy, and a citizen’s life devoid of fear and poverty was as important as the freedom of speech. He also believed that an economic freedom and the well-being of the population were not by any means in conflict. On the contrary, an economic freedom and the well-being are closely connected to each other because there is no such thing as freedom for the poor.
Money and bureaucracy should not separate the powers that be from the people
"Roosevelt came to power at a time when a degenerative vision of the future was taking shape in the public consciousness at an alarming pace, according to Herbert Hoover, the 31st U.S. president and Roosevelt’s predecessor. It was a time when the oligarchic clans held almost complete sway over the press and financial institutions. The oligarchs were apparently under the impression that democracy was a form of government custom built for them exclusively, whereas the majority of the people were not supposed to enjoy the benefits of democracy. Roosevelt defined his opponents by directly referring to: financial monopolies, speculative capital, and aggressive bankers.
"Roosevelt said that the privileged princes of the new economic dynasties, those with a lust for power, are keen to take control over the government. According to Roosevelt, ‘they have created a new despotism under the guise of democracy. They complain that we are trying to crush the basic freedoms. In actuality, they are afraid of losing power to us’. We believe that the above words sound quite to the point in a modern Russia too. Roosevelt undoubtedly regarded private enterprise and commerce as a source of development and prosperity of American society… The tycoons leveled their harshest criticism at Roosevelt, calling him a Red, a Commie, even Stalin.
"You can find the following in one of the articles published in the period: ‘Future historians will be amazed to analyze the scale of hatred expressed by America’s ruling class toward the president today. It looks especially strange because those who hate the president so much have actually recovered their incomes following the stock-market crash. Besides, the recovery took place in the conditions of rather mild tax legislation.’
"At the same time, Roosevelt had to withstand a gigantic wave of pro-Communist and extremist sentiments coming from the other flank of the political spectrum. Masses of the impoverished people with demagogues at the head and influential left-wing sympathizers in the middle justified the movement toward revolution and socialism. For example, the well-known novelist Francis Scott Fitzgerald believed that intellectuals should and the Communists should work in close cooperation. Roosevelt prevented America from sliding into socialism and catastrophic social turmoil. Though Roosevelt always advocated the practice of intervening in economic or social affairs, he could always feel a limit to be set to such a policy. He never compromised the democratic principles. It is worthwhile that we remember the circumstance these days. We should find a way of setting the limit in a precise and effective manner.
"From my point of view, Roosevelt has become the embodiment of the supreme power of the American power. It goes about the power that does not alienate the people by means of big money and big bosses i.e. the oligarchy and bureaucracy. Roosevelt personified the power that strived for freedom and justice for all by encouraging the strong and protecting the weak.
We make lots of mistakes but we can do the job
"Roosevelt envisaged a world based on freedom and justice in terms of international relations. Speaking in the fall of 1941, he said that “the world will be become a more miserable and dangerous place to live should it be controlled by the few.” He believed that the international community could live in peace as a union of free nations. In fact, he coined the term “united nations.” Today we share the opinion.
"It would be fair to say that Roosevelt was our military ally in the 20th century. Likewise, Roosevelt is becoming our ideological ally in the 21st century. Speaking of ideology, we do not mean democracy that is used as a backdrop from staging oligarchic or bureaucratic shows; we mean democracy as a form of government in which the supreme power rests with the people. We also refer to international relations that should not be motivated by transnational corporations or aggression. On the contrary, international relations should be firmly grounded in universally recognized norms and the will of the people. It seems to me that the concept may as well be Roosevelt’s vision of the future.
"The future has arrived; we are living in this future. Democracy is not Communism which could be built once and for all. Democracy is a continued process; it goes on a retreat when injustices are made, the law is broken and freedoms are violated. A democratic process gains a victory when the people can achieve justice, when they can use their right to speak out, and their well-being is on the increase.
"Russia is moving slowly by surely in this direction. Not everybody is happy about the course we have taken, and we are making lots of mistakes, no doubt about it. Sometimes we show no consistency in our actions yet I believe that we are up to the job.”
A third and fourth term for Putin
Surkov’s speech at the conference can be interpreted as an official doctrine of the Russian government, a sort of the official policy our society has been expecting to see for a long time. Speaking on a video link right after Surkov, a Harvard professor David King seemed to sum up the policy: “Roosevelt put forth the idea of capitalism with a friendly face. American society responded enthusiastically to that offer.”
The comments by Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Fund of Effective Politics, intrigued all the participants of the conference. Pavlovsky reminded that Roosevelt had held his office for four terms. Pavlovsky stressed the point that extraordinary factors in both domestic and foreign policies conducted by the U.S. over the period could explain Roosevelt’s four presidencies. These days Russia has very similar issues to tackle in terms of foreign policy, according to Pavlosky. “In short, you can take a look at yesterday’s speech by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. It was a war-cry. He actually called on the administration to prepare for the war against Russia,” said Pavlovsky.
Pavlovsky arrived at the following conclusion: Vladimir Putin has no right to resign at a dangerous time like this. Besides, the majority of Russians do not want him to go anyway. Putin may be reelected to another term of office as president or serve in a different capacity but he should remain this country’s leader. He should be elected president for a third term, and for a fourth term as well. “We won’t let him go even if he tenders his resignation,” added Pavlovsky.
No sooner had the U.S. Ambassador to Russia William F. Burns heard Pavlovsky’s comments than he curled his lip. Then he got up and left the auditorium before the conference was over. He may have rushed to his embassy to write an urgent cablegram to Washington. Urgent attention: We have finally got an answer to the longstanding question i.e. who are you, Mr. Putin? Now we know that Putin is Roosevelt of our time.
Translated by Guerman Grachev