Speaking in what he called “the language of Goethe, Schiller and Kant,” picked up during his time as a KGB officer in Dresden, Germany, President Vladimir Putin of Russia addressed the German Parliament on Sept. 25, 2001. “Russia is a friendly European nation,” he declared. “Stable peace on the continent is a paramount goal for our nation.”
The Russian leader, elected the previous year at the age of 47 after a meteoric rise from obscurity, went on to describe “democratic rights and freedoms” as the “key goal of Russia’s domestic policy.” Members of the Bundestag gave a standing ovation.
Norbert Röttgen, a center-right representative who headed the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee for several years, was among those who rose to their feet. “Putin captured us,” he said. “The voice was quite soft, in German, a voice that tempts you to believe what is said to you. We had some reason to think there was a viable perspective of togetherness.”
Today, all togetherness shredded, Ukraine burns, bludgeoned by the invading army Putin sent to prove his conviction that Ukrainian nationhood is a myth. More than 3.7 million Ukrainians are refugees; the dead mount up in a month-old war; and that purring voice of Putin has morphed into the angry rant of a hunched man dismissing as “scum and traitors” any Russian who resists the violence of his tightening dictatorship.
His opponents will meet an ugly fate, Putin vowed this month, grimacing as his planned blitzkrieg in Ukraine stalled. True Russians, he said, would “spit them out like a gnat that accidentally flew into their mouths” and so achieve “a necessary self-purification of society.”
This was less the language of Kant than of fascist nationalist exaltation laced with Putin’s hardscrabble, brawling St. Petersburg youth.