The new issue of Time presents a stark cover photo of Vladimir Putin, captioned with a succession of titles: once "Premier," then "President," but now "Czar." In analyzing "Putinism," Time's Michael Crowley and Simon Shuster do not hesitate to trace the roots back a century and beyond:
By blithely shrugging off the West’s condemnations, Putin puts important work on the global economy, nuclear proliferation and climate change on indefinite hold. And he is throwing a darker shadow over the 21st century as well: Putin’s talk of lost empires, historic grievances and the moral decadence of the West seems drawn from another era, a throwback to the nationalistic, empire-building Russian czars for whom Putin so often professes his admiration.
History truly does appear to repeat – not just in Russia's tendencies, but also in the West's initial tepid response. And, for that matter, in Time's coverage of it all.
For the magazine could have done a true service by providing its readers with not only Crowley's and Shuster's thoughtful analysis, but also with one of the greatest articles ever to have appeared in Time's pages: "The Ghosts on the Roof," by Whittaker Chambers.
Written in 1945, when the world was asking, as it does now, what does Russia want?, Chambers reflected on the scene at Yalta from the vantage point of Czar Nicholas II and six fellow "ghosts" and the muse of history, perched atop Yalta's Livadia Palace. Whereupon Nicholas explains, to the muse, that he is a great admirer of Stalin—that he is himself, astonishingly, a communist. ("I don't see any reason why you should be so surprised, Madam," the Tsarina told the muse. "After the way you have favored Communism for the last 27 years, you are little better than a fellow traveler yourself!")
"And now," added Nicholas, "The greatest statesmen in the world have come to Stalin":
"Who but he would have had the sense of historical fitness to entertain them in my expropriated palace! There he sits, so small, so sure. He is magnificent. Greater than Rurik, greater than Peter! For Peter conquered only in the name of a limited class. But Stalin embodies the international social revolution. That is the mighty, new device of power politics which he has developed for blowing up other countries from within."
"With it he is conquering Rumania and Bulgaria!" cried the Tsarina.
"Yugoslavia and Hungary!" cried the Tsar.
Ghosts on the Roof was not well-received at first, as Sam Tanenhaus recounts in his biography of Chambers. "Some, including several of Chambers's adversaries, admired the piece. But most saw it as the culmination of his irrational zeal ... Chambers had slandered the Russians and endangered the peace." Of course, in only a short time it became all too clear that Chambers' assessment of Stalin was correct, as the iron curtain fell across Europe. "In January 1948," Tanenhaus concludes, "Time reprinted 'The Ghosts on the Roof,' this time as political prophecy. After only three years Chambers's outrageous whimsy seemed 'a mild and orthodox comment . . .'"
Today, Putin's latest maneuvers have led some to look back to George Kennan's famous Foreign Affairs essay, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," published in 1946. But all would do well to go back one year further, to Chambers's masterpiece, to remind us of how history repeats—not merely in terms of Russia's actions, but also the West's initial reactions.
And while we wait for Time to republish Chambers's essay online, it can still be found at least in libraries, as the title essay in an indispensable collection of Chambers's journalism edited by new Bradley Prize winner Terry Teachout.
Adam J. White is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.