In the article “Why Does Putin Want Crimea Anyway?” Martin Nunn and Martin Foley of the EU Observer accurately disclose one reason for the Russian leader’s recent land grab: valuable resources. Seizing Crimea and solidifying military bases on this strategic isle ensure that vast oil and gas reserves offshore will be developed by Russian companies rather than Western companies like Exxon-Mobil and Shell. In seizing resources, Putin is strikingly similar to the merchant Lopakhin in Anton Chekhov’s 1904 play The Cherry Orchard, another drama set in Crimea.
Chekhov developed the Lopakhin character from his own childhood experience as a grandson of a serf and son of a drunken peasant. Chekhov had to work endless hours in a grocery store to help feed his family, support later augmented by selling short stories. Chekhov describes his difficult divorce from early poverty as “this young man squeezing the slave out of himself drop by drop and waking one fine morning to find himself no longer a slave, but a human being.” The merchant Lopakhin follows the exact trajectory of Chekhov’s life in The Cherry Orchard. Instead of selling short stories, Lopakhin sells a large “poppy harvest” (akin to a modern-day heroin producer) and uses this money to take over desirable land at the auction of a foreclosed estate, a move that confirms his self-worth to a society that once ridiculed him.
Like Chekhov, Putin developed low self-esteem at an early age. Few facts are revealed about Putin’s early childhood, other than he excelled at judo, was disruptive in grade school and was likely a bastard child. Emulating Soviet spies that he saw in movies, Putin trained and worked as a KGB officer for the decade preceding the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Rising to lieutenant colonel, Putin developed several important relationships that would later translate into astronomical wealth and power. In the 1990s, Putin was put in charge of overseeing the transfer of Soviet assets to the Russian Federation, having to approve all contracts and transfers, an activity riddled with corruption. Through his handling of asset transfers, Putin became a favorite of Boris Yeltsin who handpicked him as a successor to the presidency.
In the decades following Soviet collapse, the average Russian and Ukrainian has been fleeced by corruption. The 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi was the most recent instance of graft by a Putin-fed oligarchy. A record amount of public funds produced second-rate facilities and disgruntled workers at a relatively small scale venue. Through each fraud and theft, Putin solidifies his power, all in a deep-seeded quest for personal respect cloaked as “national pride.”
In The Cherry Orchard, all of the characters disrespect one another. The merchant Lopakhin exploits the aristocratic matriarch Lyubov by first trying to buy her estate personally and then publically seizing it at auction. Lyubov’s family (Anya, Varya, and Gaev), softened by years of aristocratic privilege, cannot truly comprehend their debts and the loss of their estate to the peasant Lopakhin. The loyal butler Firs and the eternal student Trofimov are also ridiculed mercilessly throughout the story. A huge social change, a Russian metamorphosis, takes place during the story’s era (early 1900s), and Chekhov captures the human effects of this new order consuming the old.
Like the characters in The Cherry Orchard, Putin also ushered historic social change in Russia, a change that creates “dual consciousness.” The aristocrats of the play are frozen in disbelief while Lopakhin buys their beloved estate and cuts down the cherry orchard to build summer homes for tourists. Similarly, much of the world is currently frozen by Putin’s aggressive present-day land grab and don’t fully understand his motivation. To predict what Putin will do next, one must keep in mind Lopakhin’s motivations: pride, ego and respect. In an increasingly materialistic world value system, wealth equals respect. Putin wants this more for himself than for Mother Russia. Maybe the realistic crisis solution is to stroke Putin’s ego rather than point a gun in his face? Maybe it is best not to shame him, but check his pocketbook as much as possible? Either way, the world now listens as cherry trees fall in the distance.
Lee Miller is the author of the historical novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), the story of a traditional Bengali mother, Sona Choudhury, raising a family amid 20th century India’s great challenges.