Simon Sebag Montefiore: Trump has a "boyish crush" on Putin because he "wants to be the first American czar"Historians in the News
tags: Russia, Putin
Tensions between the United States and Russia are arguably at the highest point since the Cold War. But the history of antipathy and distrust between these two powerful nations goes back further than the Cold War. How much further, and how does history inform today?
Well, let's ask my next guest. Simon Sebag Montefiore is a historian and novelist who has written extensively about Russia. He recently wrote a 300-year history of the Romanoffs, and the screenrights (ph) to his book about Catherine the Great have been snapped up by none other than Angelina Jolie.
But before we get to all that, Simon, welcome.
SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE, HISTORIAN: Thank you.
ZAKARIA: And let me ask you, first, about Putin. We're all fascinated by him. When you look at him, with all this knowledge of Russian history, does he seem to you like just another tsar?
SEBAG MONTEFIORE: Yes. I mean there are-- there are, of course, very modern things about him. I mean, he's a master of asymmetric (ph) warfare and the internet, as we know, so he's a very modern figure, too. Of course, he's also a successor of the Stalinist (ph)-- the Soviet State (ph). But, the third strand to him is definitely Romanoff-tsarist (ph).
He has a great concept of the grandeur and majesty of the Russian motherland (ph), the Russian Empire (ph). And much that he's doing in Crimea, even Syria, is from the Romanoff playbook. I mean he has a great sense of history, and though he's not a great intellectual or reader (ph) as Stalin was, for example, he's fascinated by the division-- the un-ideological division between what he regards as great tsars, like Peter the Great and probably Stalin, and bad tsars, like Gorbachev or Nicholas II (ph).
ZAKARIA: In your book about the Romanoffs, one is struck by the absolute brutality of the family. I mean, they-- you know, the way (ph) the father kills his son in front spectators. That kind of brutality and almost unimaginable barbarism is part of Russian history, and do you think that informs the present in any way?
SEBAG MONTEFIORE: It very much is part of Russian history, and you're right. You know, the Romanoff story is a story about how families and individuals are corroded and destroyed by power. Peter the Great tortured his own son to death, as you said, Catherine the Great overthrew her husband and he was strangled to death, Alexander I was downstairs while his father, Paul, was beaten to death, strangled, and had his head stomped on.
So, yes, this is a family story, but not a family as we know it. But it does inform the present, too. I wrote this book to explain "Why Russia?" "Why Putin?" (ph) "What is exceptional about Russia?" (ph)
And when you take away all the modernity and the facade of elections in Russia, and you look at how Putin runs Russia, you see this (ph) tiny group of people competing and jockeying for the attention of one man, and a tiny group of people making secret decisions, becoming vastly wealthy--
ZAKARIA: It's a court. (ph)
SEBAG MONTEFIORE: It's a court. It's definitely a court, and Russians often call him "the Tsar." (ph) They know that the key to power, just as it was in the Romanoffs, with favorites like Rasputin, who was the spiritual advisor to Nicholas Alexandra (ph), or Potemkin, who was sleeping with the tsarina, or Count Kutaissov, who was the barber of Emperor Paul, is access to the body.
In an autocracy, everything is about access to the body, or access to the person.
ZAKARIA: And now, we talked about the hostility between the West (ph) and Russia, or the antipathy certainly between the United States and the Soviet Union. Each thought itself the model for the future. So then, what explains Donald Trump? Do you have any historical perspective on why Trump does seem remarkably benign in his view about Russia, almost alone in the world?
All the other countries are out to screw America, but Russia he thinks we can deal with.
SEBAG MONTEFIORE: Well, I think it's an interesting phenomenon, psychological and political. The political side of it is Donald Trump wants to be the first American czar. He wants to be the first, he wants to be the American Romanov. He rules by decree, very small circle. He treats ministers like personal servants. He promotes family to people of power, they're the only people he really trusts. So in this sense, you know, he really is the first American czar.
Fortunately, there are checks and balances to prevent him doing that. I think the other part of it has to be psychological. I mean he looks at Vladimir Putin and he just sees a man who has, has control of violence, who can order interventions in foreign countries at the click of a hand. I think for that, it's a slightly boyish crush on the idea of the gangster boss, the swagger and godfather, and I think that's something that derives from Donald Trump's personal psychology.
ZAKARIA: Putin will probably out last Stalin as the longest serving leader of Russia. Do you think in a sense modern Russia is Putin's Russia? . MONTEFIORE: Yeah, I think Putin will probably be the dominant figure of the early 21st Century and he's ruling it according to Russian tradition and he's been incredibly successful. First of all at concentrating all power in his hands, which is a hell of a job in Russia, and he's done that systematically. But abroad is where he's really been successful. Russia has an economy as you know, the size of Spain or something, and yet it is punching way above its weight.
You mentioned Stalin. I think Stalin is the recent ruler against whom all modern Russian rulers measures themselves. And, of course, they put to one side the excesses that cost 20, 30 million lives, the appalling repression. And they look at successes and successes were vast, as well. The cost was totally unacceptable, let me make that clear. But you know, he left Russia a super power with a bigger empire than the czars could ever have dreamed of - the whole of Eastern Europe. And he's the one they measure against and of course the greatest founding myth of Putin's Russia is 1945, the fall of Berlin. So this is the sort of school or a kind of company that President Putin is comparing himself to, the company he wants to keep.
ZAKARIA: A tough man for Donald Trump to outwit, don't you think?
MONTEFIORE: I think, I think, I think the Kremlin, the bare pit (pf) of the Kremlin, one of the most in a terrifying and ferociously competitive arenas and tournaments of political power on earth is certainly a tougher place than reality television.
ZAKARIA: Simon Sebag Montefiore, pleasure to have you on, sir.
MONTEFIORE: Thank you very much. Lovely to be here.
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