HERE'S A PECULIAR sop to nostalgia: President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia declared yesterday in his annual state-of-the-nation address that the collapse of the Soviet Union was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the Twentieth Century. Not the rise of National Socialism in Germany, nor of militant imperialism in Japan. No, it was the downfall of a bankrupt system built on coercion, lies and a history of murder; in fact, plenty of former Soviet citizens would argue that the creation of the U.S.S.R. was the century's most terrible event, but not Mr. Putin.
Now, he didn't actually justify the Soviet Union, but lamented its end. The year 1991 unleashed a wave of poverty, crime, greed, plunder, separatist warfare and, maybe worst of all, resignation over the seeming impossibility of doing anything about them. No one can argue with that.
In contrast, Mr. Putin now points with satisfaction to a Russia with a robust federal budget, thanks to oil revenues; with its debt paid off, its economy booming, and its "vertical" of authority reasserted - which means democracy and free enterprise in spades, but with all the spades in the hands of Kremlin flunkies.
Awful then, brilliant now - that was his message. What politician doesn't exaggerate the incompetence of his predecessors? But we still keep coming back to that nostalgia - which literally means sickness - for Soviet times. Plenty of Russians have vaguely happy memories of life before everything fell apart, but every sensible person understands that nothing could have kept the system together - and that the end of the Cold War was something to be grateful for.
On that score, Mr. Putin is on the defensive right now. With oil at $54 a barrel, the Kremlin thought it was finally mastering the art of "soft" power, as opposed to the old-fashioned "hard" kind, which involves tanks and missiles. Economically dynamic Russia was ineluctably drawing its neighbors back into its orbit. Then came peaceful revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan. Last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to Moscow and, on leaving, said that it was time for wretched Belarus to enjoy a democratic uprising. She was right on target; the Russians were furious.
The Kremlin has blinded itself - and not only because oil wealth has obscured the need for genuine economic restructuring. Of more immediate concern is Mr. Putin' success in removing all checks and balances - within the business community, within the press, and in parliament. There's no one to catch the Kremlin's mistakes before they're committed, and some have been doozies. The tax man is coming down hard now on oil firms (and not just the infamous Yukos). No one outside the Kremlin quite knows what's going on. It's no way to run a country. It's reminiscent, come to think of it, of the old Soviet methods. Maybe Mr. Putin's on to something, after all.