*Editor’s Note: On March 4, Russia enacted a law that criminalizes public opposition to, or independent news reporting about, the war in Ukraine. The law makes it a crime to call the war a “war” rather than a “special military operation” on social media or in a news article or broadcast. The law is understood to penalize any language that “discredits” Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calls for sanctions or protests Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It punishes anyone found to spread “false information” about the invasion with up to 15 years in prison.
The physical decrepitude of our world leaders, which we can now observe through our electronic gadgets, has become the theme of the era. From young Emmanuel Macron’s bitten nails, to Presidents Boris Yeltsin’s and Vladimir Putin’s stumbling on airplane ladders, from Leonid Brezhnev’s and Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Russian language blunders, to Trump’s hairstyle — the new world of television and electronic gadgets brings politicians closer to its viewers like a magnifying glass.
Joseph Stalin ruled the country in the pre-television era, when movies dominated. The only version of Stalin that the Soviet people knew was the one portrayed in films by the handsome Mikhail Gelovani, who received four Stalin Prizes for his role as the nation’s father. It is his Stalin who arrives in the defeated Berlin, literally descending from the sky to the adoring crowd — the triumph of Soviet greatness (the real generalissimo did not fly to Berlin).
The real Stalin was short in stature with pock marks on his face, and a very bent left arm. His true nature couldn’t be revealed to the Soviet people — and there was no need. Instead, Stalin primarily communicated through radio with a strong Caucasian accent. (Listen to Vyacheslav Mikhailovich’s address about the beginning of the Great Patriotic War*.)
The first leader who started regularly speaking to the nation was Nikita Khrushchev. His spontaneity and liveliness gave way to the stupidity and vanity of his descendants. Look at the famous Kitchen Debate between Khrushchev and then-Vice President Richard Nixon in 1959. At a U.S. exhibit on industrial products in Moscow, Sokolniki, a decrepit Kliment Voroshilov, the formal head of the Soviet state, stood next to the two debaters. And party leader and de facto head of the country Khrushchev gave an amazing lesson in public communication. He was then commended for his speech. He was able to troll and compliment Americans at the same time — using jokes, self-irony and the expressiveness of the Russian language. His arguments were very clear. Khrushchev beat Nixon with his own weapon — he demanded openness and equality in the discussion, while doing it brightly and kindly.
The first truly televised leader was Brezhnev. His descent into fragility played out in front of the whole country. Once a go-getter, he used to take the bull by the horns. After hunting at feasts in Zavidovo, he distributed parts of the shot carcasses to his Politburo colleagues. He drove Nixon around the Camp David residence in a dark blue Lincoln Continental. The U.S. president later recalled how the Soviet secretary general took dangerous turns at high speeds. Just look at how Brezhnev, in 1973, as a guest at the White House, looked at the actress Jill St. John. This photo reveals a lot about Brezhnev’s real life — not the one in which his jacket with awards fell on the floor during an earthquake in Moscow. From a young, handsome, charming man, he turned into a laughingstock. How could Soviet citizens have respect for their leaders if they saw Brezhnev’s New Year’s greetings address to the Pioneers in 1979? If you’re curious, look it up on Youtube.
Many weak Politburo members died during this time, which provoked many jokes about lavish funerals and carriage races. Instead of respect and sympathy, the gerontocracy was dictated by humiliation and ridicule. After Brezhnev’s death, many eyewitnesses sincerely cried. Mikhail Suslov, Vladimir Ustinov, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko’s slow demises from power were directly televised and gave rise to jokes. It appeared that Chernenko voted right from the hospital.
In a sense, Joseph Biden’s decline is similar to the Soviet history of gerontocracy. In his youth, Biden was truly a handsome man, a historian and lawyer by education and the youngest U.S. senator. He almost died when he was middle-aged due to an aneurysm, but he is now the American president. It seems he is second only to Queen Elizabeth II in the length of time he has been politically involved. Her first prime minister was Winston Churchill. When Biden was a senator he met with Soviet leaders Alexei Kosygin and Andrei Gromyko, who began their careers under Stalin. In some ways, he is a witness to a century.
In a period of 20 years, Biden participated in primaries twice and fought to be the Democratic nominee. His third time was in question because of the death of his son. Another son became famous for the corruption scandal surrounding the Burisma gas company in Ukraine. The other day, the White House published a video showing the president being vaccinated. Journalists were trying to find out about Ukraine’s fate by shouting questions, and Biden came and sat in a chair for a long time. There is nothing positive about constant slips of the tongue, or the accidental leak of the president’s preplanned questions and answers by the press that ended up on camera. Other times the U.S. president had memory lapses and forgot to answer questions, then remembered and came back to the microphone. There is even less joy in the fact that the current American leader resorts to personal attacks on his colleagues. America is a great nation, and the U.S. is one of the architects of the world. This type of behavior and discussion simply demonstrate a decline in morals. This is not the way it is done in big diplomacy. Of course, the American nuclear arsenal includes a system of checks and balances, not only technically, but also politically. It is not worth thinking that a politician who has consistently fallen asleep while watching late night television will touch the red button with a falling hand. The problem is that there is less and less space left for personal contacts. Instead of the long situation of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, when the Khrushchev-Kennedy, Brezhnev-Nixon and Gorbachev-Reagan formats literally reduced tensions and saved the world in conditions of growing nuclear uncertainty, now the chances of creating such formats are microscopic.
The great American commander-in-chief discovers he has a progressive mental disease but decides not to tell anyone, including his wife and closest aides — despite approaching elections. The TV series “Boss,” which had a similar theme, was filmed 11 years ago. The U.S. presidential election is in only two years.
*Editor’s note: The Great Patriotic War is the Soviet term for World War II.