Russians turn to way of FDR Roosevelt: Russia, in the throes of economic despair, has turned to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and how he attacked the Great Depression.

Sun Journal

September 30, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- There was a time when Russians pitied Americans.

Bystanders during the Great Depression of the 1930s, they felt vindicated in their belief in Soviet progress. But who wouldn't extend some sympathy toward the victims of the breakdown of capitalism?

"Oh, my God, such a rich country, such a big country," says historian Edward Ivanian, recounting the way people thought back then and smiling ruefully at how history has turned. "And those poor people done in by the bankers, their wealth just poured down the drain."

Russians look around today and they can't help but see the parallels. Banks closing. Thousands, perhaps millions, thrown out of work. Poverty and discouragement settling down upon the nation. There's just one thing missing: a genial aristocrat with an enormous smile and a personality to match, a charmer, a master politician. A man such as Franklin D. Roosevelt.

FDR has somehow transcended time and place and culture and become a hero in the Moscow of the late 20th century. Communists in the parliament told the new prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, to be a "Russian Roosevelt" and lead the country out of the depths. The newspaper Vremya bannered a headline that read, "New Deal or New Order," over photos of Roosevelt in his car on one side, and Adolf Hitler giving a Nazi salute on the other. Nobody had to guess which course Vremya prefers.

Roosevelt's message to Americans, says Viktor B. Kuvaldin, a historian with the Gorbachev Foundation, was this: " 'A man can do anything. A country can do anything.' And he showed it. He did it."

At a time when Europe was falling under the sway of men such as Hitler, Mussolini -- and Stalin -- the United States turned to an engaging optimist who wouldn't let himself be beaten down by anything as trifling as polio or worldwide economic depression.

And of all those men, it's Roosevelt whose legacy endures to this day.

Roosevelt tackled the depression with a seat-of-the-pants approach not overly burdened by ideology. That sits well here. Russia, says Kuvaldin, has an unfortunate history when it comes to reverence for a particular ideology, and the idea that Roosevelt just tried whatever worked now seems enormously appealing.

Invoking Roosevelt

Ivanian says that, on economic matters, Primakov, the former foreign minister, is as much of an unknown quantity as Roosevelt was in 1933. "This man is an enigma, and perhaps as an enigma he raises some hopes.

"But of course Russia in the '90s is not America in the '30s," Kuvaldin says. "And Primakov is not Roosevelt."

Primakov himself invoked Roosevelt's name in a speech in London last June, talking about a more active role for the state in the economy. Dennis Dunn, a historian at Southwest Texas State University, says he believes that in doing so, "Primakov was looking for legitimacy with Western audiences," and at the same time doing what he can "to rouse the people and give them hope." Prima- kov, he says, may be using Roosevelt to prepare both domestic and international audiences for dramatic change.

"The approach is shrewd, and tactful," he says.

But no one would accuse Primakov, who speaks in a slow grumble that could most charitably be described as grandfatherly, of being the sort of inspiring figure Roosevelt was. For one thing, he's 68. Roosevelt was 51 when he entered the White House.

"FDR restored the faith of the American people," Dunn says. "He was a master leader. I don't know if Primakov has that charisma, which is the essential characteristic -- personality, charm, a wonderful speaker."

Roosevelt, despite his wealthy background, could connect with ordinary people in a way that Russian politicians simply cannot. No one here in Russia, says Ivanian, could get away with saying something like "all we have to fear is fear itself." People are just too cynical. Russians are not the sort to go around humming "Happy Days are Here Again."

The affection for Roosevelt in Russia is not new. Shortly after he took office in 1933 the United States established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, a step that Moscow had long been seeking, and that had become more urgent with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.

Although Roosevelt was also interested in learning what the Soviet system could offer the working man, Dunn says, the recognition was supported by big business and opposed by organized labor and the Roman Catholic Church, at the time two strongly Democratic constituencies.

More important, FDR led the United States into the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, and the victory over Germany is still looked upon as that nation's great triumph.

It's hard to overemphasize the power that the war still exerts on Russians' image of themselves. Roosevelt's name summons up memories of that alliance and that victory. It was no coincidence that the last time Boris N. Yeltsin came to the United States, in 1995, he met with President Clinton at the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park, N.Y.

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