It has taken 29 meetings between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin over the last few few years for the rest of the world to begin to take notice. As Xi observed during the latest meeting in early July, China-Russia relations are at their “best time in history,” saying the two nations are each other’s most trustworthy strategic partners.

Plenty of stories on Xinhua News and the People’s Daily. These include general reports on the meeting, with both sides agreeing on coordination on major economic, military and geopolitical issues. You can also find specific reports on their positions regarding Syria and North Korea, with a statement that the USA should cease deploying weapons in South Korea and Eastern Europe. It may well be that the considered and united position concerning the Korean Peninsula is the reason that the relations are finally gaining attention.

I am also intrigued by the statements on the Paris climate accord, as well as joint efforts to counter a “Western” discourse that attempts to spread a “Hobbes’ style world view upon China and Russia,” distorting facts and hyping up “claims that China and Russia are self interested and have no regard for international orders and rules.” Indeed, they are quite clear that the China-Russia partnership underpins global strategic stability.

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This is the real story of geopolitics at the moment: the increasing rapprochement between China and Russia. I have seen this at first hand in my own way, but when the two countries that make up the vast bulk of the Eurasian landmass get together, it means something. Apart from the belt-road initiative, on which they are working closely, China has neatly stepped in to supply Russia with items banned through EU sanctions, and in September this year they will hold joint naval exercises in the South China Sea. Pictures like these don’t often appear in the corporate media, but Xi Jinping and Putin have been meeting frequently over the last few years:

 

My colleague at the University of Newcastle, Roger Markwick, has written a great piece in the Newcastle Herald about the situation in Ukraine. Roger is a well-respected specialist on Russian history, with a couple of books and many articles focusing on the Soviet era. The piece is entitled ‘Russia Not Responsible for Upheaval in Ukraine’, in which he writes: 

Far from Mr Putin stoking the flames of Ukrainian separatism, with the notable exception of his annexation of Crimea, he has been cautious in dealing with the West, Kiev and Russian separatism.

 

If responsibility for the upheaval lies anywhere, it is with Washington and Western Europe; particularly NATO, as it has marched eastward: nine former Warsaw Pact nations and three former Soviet republics have been incorporated into NATO. Given the catastrophic Nazi invasion of the former Soviet Union during the Second World War, it is not surprising that Moscow has viewed the prospect of Kiev falling into Europe’s and NATO’s orbit with alarm.

 

Notwithstanding his Russian patriotic rhetoric, Mr Putin’s priorities are Russian national security and stability, not the occupation or break up of Ukraine.

 

Look what happens when you stay away from the incessant news cycle for a day or two: suddenly two universes are created. In those two universes, two very different Ukraines emerge, two Vladimir Putins, although only one plane has crashed. In one universe, ‘Vladimir Putin breaks his silence on MH17 crash’ – so proclaims the liberal Sydney Morning Herald (part of the Fairfax media chain). The hard-working journalists at this paper seem to have sourced their story from Agence-France Presse, which claims to have ‘200 desks in 150 countries’. For some reason, these 200 desks have missed the fact that Putin first broke the news to Obama a few days ago, then spoke with Najib Razak, the Malaysian prime, Rutte in the Netherlands, Merkel in Germany … and then, well down the pecking order, that embarrassment of a ‘leader’, Tony Abbott, who is still huffing and puffing and trying to look important on the world stage. He may actually believe that he forced Putin to ‘break his silence’. Meanwhile, Putin has been saying for some days now that a proper and impartial international investigation should be undertaken (here and here) and that people shouldn’t rush to rash conclusions and use the crash for narrow political goals (also herehere and here – perhaps a little self-castigation on that one). Of course, no one actually believes what any politician says, but that doesn’t mean they don’t speak.

If I stay away for a few more days, perhaps another universe or two will be created.

Will Stalingrad get its name back? Putin may well have given his tacit support for the restoration of the name ‘Stalingrad’ to the town of Volgograd. Stalingrad was its name between 1925 and 1961, until the irresponsible Khrushchev dumped the name in his effort at de-Stalinisation. Yet Stalingrad is forever etched in history as one of two battles (the other was Kursk) that turned the Second War against Nazi Germany. When asked by a veteran at the recent D-Day celebrations in Paris, Putin is reported to have said, ‘In this case residents should hold a referendum where they will decide on it … It wasn’t me who changed the name … we’ll mull over how it can be done’. While some places began to get excited (here, here and here), Russian news outlets were somewhat low-key.

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Chavez dead today – sadly. The remembrance yesterday of Stalin’s death, 60 years ago. Once again the issue is the veneration of the revolutionary leader. Familiar themes emerge with Chavez once again: the bodily health of the leader becomes a major focus; fears concerning the viability of the project emerge after his or her death; the forces of opposition line up, especially the USA, seeking to exploit what is perceived as an opportunity to overrun the place in question.

But here I’m interested in Stalin, or rather what was written about him yesterday. Three stories did the rounds, reappearing here and there. The most breathtaking was an effort to attribute to Putin and his henchmen the increasing popularity of Stalin in the Russian Federation. Of course, it can’t be due to any genuine appreciation of the man. Let’s see what Putin is supposed to have done:

1. Putin is responsible for school textbooks that speak of Stalin’s ‘effective management’ during the 1930s program of industrialization.

2. He has been behind a campaign to return to name of Stalingrad to the city of Volgograd, the site of the battle that turned the tide of the Second World War.

3. He praises Stalin’s achievement of expanding Russia’s territory in the form of the USSR, describing the dismantling of the USSR under Gorbachev as a major disaster.

4. He has failed to condemn Stalin’s repressions, murders, gulags, failures at the Olympics, and pretty much every other sin in Russian history.

So is Putin the new Stalin? Hardly, since it is clear that he is responding to both the increasing popularity of Stalin among the population, and the growing popularity of the Communist Party under the leadership of Gennady Zyuganov.

However, when the articles in question do note the widespread popularity of Stalin, they fall back on an old trope: the natural propensity of Russians to superstition. This was a line used in response to the veneration of Lenin after his death, and we find it here with all manner of icons of Stalin, signs of the cross, lighting candles in churches, and beliefs in Stalin’s mystical powers. Can’t have people really appreciating the man.