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Greatness of Spirit Needed in Leaders of Today

Each historical era requires at least a small number of heads of state and public intellectuals who can steer the ponderous ship of world affairs through dangerous waters

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Where is the greatness of spirit in today’s leaders? Each historical era requires at least a small number of heads of state and public intellectuals who can steer the ponderous ship of world affairs through dangerous waters. They are the far-sighted, righteous ones, if you will, who recognize a safe harbor.

I see very few of them in the landscape of contemporary political life, and even fewer on the horizon waiting to step into the limelight. The evidence is mounting that Russia’s president Vladimir Putin will be remembered as one of the great statesmen of today—despite the West’s demonizing and distortions of reality intended to obscure his accomplishments in the architecture of world peace and stability.

In the eyes of the West, Putin’s real “sin” is not any of the fabrications parroted by the news sources of the political elites, but rather that he exposed the West’s domination of less-privileged countries for exploitation and profit. His speeches at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy on 10 February 2007 and at the XI meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club on 24 October 2014 serve as examples of the high quality of his thinking, his knowledge of history, and his moral vision of a thriving, peacefully-interconnected family of nations.i

Greatness of spirit can only be attained and manifested when a leader stands at the helm of a genuinely sovereign country. To be sure, the countries of the world of necessity must be culturally, politically, and economically interconnected—but as much as possible, they must also carry within their own cultures the features of their distinctive and individual traditions.

Most countries of the world have an understanding of their singularity (not exceptionalism) and dignity, but not all countries are “sovereign” enough to express their cultural identities freely and articulate the ways in which these identities influence their national interest. An abiding tie between these two considerations—cultural identity and national interest--typically produces a cohesive society and government whose members can serve it effectively.

Putin honored at Mount Athos, Greece.

Among the nations working actively to preserve their sovereignty are Russia, China, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba, India, South Africa, and Syria—to name a few that have attained at least a modicum of success in defending their identities in the face of major obstacles.

The U.S. can be included in this list as a country struggling to establish some core identity while confronting the darker events of its history, such as slavery—but its current social and political dislocations, declining standards for education, and seeming inability to identify a common set of moral values stand in the way of its attaining a viable cultural identity.

The American search for unifying core values has been temporarily (one hopes only for the short term) derailed by the Washington Beltway’s Wolfowitzian obsession with maintaining Russia—or China—or Iran as a necessary enemy. All decency, truth, and empathy are abandoned. Thus where would one search for greatness of spirit?

The European countries, to a greater or lesser degree controlled by the U.S. and NATO, are experiencing their own cataclysms that have to be particularized with respect to each country. Germany and Italy can be considered “occupied” countries, because of the longstanding systems of U.S. military bases that are holdovers from the aftermath of World War II.

Japan and South Korea, non-European countries but ones that coordinate their foreign policy with the U.S.’s, also are occupied by the U.S. in significant ways. The vestiges of World War II still affect geopolitical affairs, even to the point of some countries’ rewriting of that history and destruction of monuments (such as in Poland) commemorating military victories over fascism.

The Washington Post’s snickering that Russia’s 9 May 2017 Victory Day celebration was a “defeat” because the cloudy weather prevented the traditional flyover part of the celebration exemplifies pathetic journalism intended to humiliate one of the World War II Allied countries that opposed fascism.ii Instead of thanking the citizens of Russia for their sacrifice and bravery on a major anniversary of this war, the Post took a cheap shot at the celebration. This only reinforces its tarnished reputation. As a scorpion’s tail curls back onto itself, the newspaper’s attempts to undermine the admixture of joy, sadness, and triumph of the Russians boomeranged: the Post only succeeded in demonstrating its lack of compassion for genuine heroism and selflessness. No greatness of spirit resides there.

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has demonstrated a humility and greatness of spirit numerous times in anniversaries related to World War II. When he was not invited to Poland to commemorate on 27 January 2015 the 70th anniversary of the liberation by the Red Army of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps, his response as Russia’s president was to hold a separate ceremony to mark the major event at Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.iii He attended the 70th Anniversary celebration of D-Day in France on 6 June 2014, greeting the same leaders who would small-mindedly refuse to attend Moscow’s Victory Day commemoration the following year.

Pres. Barack Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel were among those who refused to attend Russia’s Victory Day event in 2015. Chancellor Merkel did travel to Russia one day after Victory Day on 10 May 2015 in a gesture of reconciliation that avoided the political fallout from the U.S. and EU for attending on the actual day. The reader may wonder if attending a solemn or festive event—such as a funeral or wedding—one day late can be considered an act of greatness of spirit or not. The scales hang in the balance for this author.

In the area of social and creaturely ethics—a true indicator of greatness of spirit--Mahatma Gandhi needs to be remembered. In recent times, MBE Jill Robinson’s commitment to eliminating cruelty to animals deserves to be noted—and she stands in a distinguished line of advocates for a compassionate world. Such profound states of the soul contrast sharply with U.S. Pres. Truman’s statement that “he never lost a wink of sleep over the decision” to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki.iv

After the West’s regime-change operation in Ukraine and the sanctions on Russia that followed in 2014, on 24 March of that year Russia was suspended from the G8 club of wealthy countries. At the meeting of the G20 club that same year on 15-16 November Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott bragged in a popinjay fashion that he wanted to “shirtfront” Pres. Putin when the latter arrived at the meeting. Arrogance and greatness of spirit have always been incompatible.v A magnanimity prevailed in then-president of Brazil Dilma Rouseff’s general friendliness and helpfulness to Pres. Putin at the same contentious G20 meeting.

Today’s unnecessarily tense (“unnecessarily,” because foolish grandstanding and threats brought the world to this point) standoff between the U.S. and North Korea could be defused precisely from a greatness of spirit (and sensitive mediation), but it is an open question whether Pres. Donald Trump can cognize this sensibility. A historical knowledge of the Korean War would also be useful to those unfamiliar with

Badly needed today are Catherine the Great’s fair-mindedness and her in effect co-emperor Grigory Potemkin’s intellectual open-mindedness and appreciation of diverse ethnic / religious contributions to the development of Russia’s frontiers. The greatness of spirit of Abraham Lincoln is badly needed, as is that of Tsar-Liberator (of the serfs) Alexander II. Nelson Mandela possessed it: his courage and shining example inspired the people of the world as South Africa evolved out of the disgrace of apartheid. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s rhetorical brilliance combined with an intellectual honesty are lacking in today’s confusion of staged identity politics. Each of these exceptional individuals possessed, in varying ways, an inner conception of his / her nation’s sovereignty.

Somehow greatness of spirit and national sovereignty walk hand in hand. . . .

About the Author: Valeria Z. Nollan, a regular contributor to RI, is professor emerita of Russian studies at Rhodes College, and a faculty affiliate at Texas Tech University. She was born in Hamburg, West Germany; she and her parents were Russian refugees displaced by World War II. Her books and articles on Russian literature, religion, and nationalism have made her an internationally-recognized authority on topics relating to modern Russia. She has recently completed a new biography of Sergei Rachmaninoff. 

i Vladimir Putin, “Vystuplenie i diskussiya na Miunkhenskoi konferentsii po voprosam politiki bezopasnosti, 10 February 2007. Kremlin.Ru. Concerning the Valdai speech, see and

ii See A quick search on Google produces similar news articles that focus on the “clouds” vanquishing the “victory” of the day. This petty reference to the weather ignores the main thing: the Soviet Union’s decisive role in defeating fascism.

iv Quoted from Gary A. Donaldson, The Making of Modern America: The Nation from 1945 to the Present (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 4.

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