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Russia: Measuring Influence, Emotions Aside

By Peter Vail (Public domain) "Time" has been choosing a "Person of the Year" -- formerly, a "Man of the Year" -- since 1927. That year, editors chose Charles Lindburgh, the pilot who made the first transatlantic flight. Since then, the magazine has noticeably tended to give the distinction to heads of state. For instance, only three U.S. presidents since 1927 have failed to earn the title. And foreign heads of state have been noted as well, including Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev, Yury Andropov, and Mikhail Gorbachev. (Gorbachev made the list twice.) So there is nothing, I think, surprising or extraordinary in the "Time" selection this year.

That's one thing.

Second, observers in Russia will naturally view the selection as an acknowledgment of Vladimir Putin's supreme services. And this is wrong. Again, we should look at the history of the matter and turn to the source. "Time" Managing Editor Richard Stengel, announcing the decision, said Putin performed "an extraordinary feat of leadership in taking a country that was in chaos and bringing it stability." But Stengel added that "he is the new tsar of Russia and he's dangerous in the sense that he doesn't care about civil liberties, he doesn't care about free speech." In the magazine, Stengel wrote: "He is not a democrat in any way that the West would define it. He is not a paragon of free speech. He stands, above all, for stability -- stability before freedom, stability before choice." In the same text he makes a little joke about Putin, whose grandfather was a cook in the Kremlin kitchen during Josef Stalin's reign, saying that only time will tell whether Putin is "more like the man for whom his grandfather prepared blinis -- who himself was twice 'Time' Person of the Year -- or like Peter the Great, the historical figure he most admires." In 1979, Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei earned the distinction; in 1938, it was Adolf Hitler.

Stengel, as a thinking person who runs one of the most influential political magazines in the world, is posing a question. He isn't asserting anything. He says that Putin clearly is not a democrat and clearly regards stability more than freedom of speech. And that he is not worried about civil rights. But he nonetheless he leaves open the possibility that Russia under Putin, or at least following Putin's course, could somehow emerge on a more or less civilized path. However, he also affirms the possibility of a return to an epoch of repression.

If "Time" were worried about what kind of reaction its selection of Putin would produce in Russia, then it wouldn't be "Time." It has its own criteria. As Stengel wrote: "Person of the Year is not and never has been an honor." It recognizes the influential role of the person selected -- and it isn't even worth discussing whether Putin plays an influential role in Russia or whether Russia plays an influential role in the world. In 1979, when the magazine picked Ayatollah Khomenei, it came under sharp criticism. It was more than just disagreement -- it was a major scandal. In 1999, when "Time" picked its "Person of the Century," there were leaks that Hitler had been selected. Again, it would be hard to argue with the thesis that Hitler had major influence on the course of the 20th century. But critics were taking into account considerations that "Time" does not consider. The magazine merely recognizes influence; it doesn't matter whether that influence is good or bad. But the public wants to see something good, so "Time" took another look and selected Albert Einstein. But, in general, the magazine's decisions reflect total journalistic and ethical independence.

It is worth noting that a little more than six months ago, in May, "Time" published its list of the 100 most influential people in the world. And there were two Russians on the list: Not Putin, but opera singer Anna Netrebko and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov. This list was a nod to people who are transforming our daily lives. Millions of girls around the world want to be like Anna Netrebko and have been inspired to study music. And that is a positive influence. "Time" doesn't have anything to say about Putin's positive influence. It just talks about his enormous influence.

(Peter Vail is the managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian Service)