Russia Watch: Judge a regime by its heroes: Moscow — 1962, Moscow 2012

For Moscow of 1962 – it was Yuri Gagarin.

With his wide, easy grin, Gagarin was an internationally renowned poster boy for Soviet science – first man in space! – and for Soviet health care – great teeth! From East to West, from First World to Third, the Soviet regime put forward Gagarin as a walking advertisement for the New Soviet Man.

Gherman Titov, Nikita Khrushchev and Yuri Gagarin on the Red Square in Moscow in 1961. Source: Dutch National Archives

As a young stamp collector in the United States, I carefully stuck in my Stamps of the World album stamps that honored Gagarin and his April 12, 1961 flight. Some stamps came from countries that today no longer exist — Czechoslovakia, East Germany and North Vietnam.

To this day, cranky grandmothers in Moscow will melt at the memory of that magical summer day in Minsk when they met…Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin!

Half a century later, their grandchildren are supposed to emote over the Kremlin’s current hero – Viktor Bout.

But while Gagarin was world famous, Bout is world infamous.

In 2005, he was Hollywood’s model for the Nick Cage movie  “Lord of War.” Two years later, he was the subject of an unflattering biography: Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible.

While most governments might avert their gaze, not a day goes by in Moscow without a Foreign Ministry statement, or a Duma declaration, or a state-run TV show — all lamenting the martyrdom of Viktor Bout.

Which is all very odd, because, with a click of a computer mouse, anyone can learn that, starting in the 1990s, Bout made his living as an international arms merchant, ducking sanctions to fuel wars in Africa and Afghanistan with excess arms stocks from the old Soviet war machine.

Bout’s arms dealing career came to an abrupt halt in 2008, when he flew from Moscow to Bangkok to meet with men he thought were representatives of the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. According to court testimony, Bout popped open his attache case and offered to take orders for his latest specialty: shoulder-held surface-to-air missiles.

The Colombian “guerrillas” turned out to be US Drug Enforcement agents. Royal Thai Police arrested Bout. After a 2.5-year legal battle he was extradited from Bangkok to New York for trial. One year ago, he was convicted of selling weapons to a terrorist group and sentenced to 25 years in jail.

But here is Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee, speaking Monday in Moscow: “Bout committed no crime. Instead, his abduction from the territory of a foreign country and conviction in the U.S. based on false and fabricated documents violated international norms.”

Coincidentally, also on Monday, peace talks started in Havana, Cuba,  between the Colombian government and representatives of the FARC. I used to cover Colombia as a newspaper reporter. I have flown over Colombia’s rugged landscape in Army helicopters, the workhorses of a campaign to control an insurgency financed by kidnapping and cocaine manufacturing. I wonder if the FARC would be talking peace today if they had gotten hold of the shipments of Russian-made shoulder-held missiles promised by Viktor Bout.

Some analysts here feel that the government’s campaign to free Bout has a very important audience of one: Alla Bout. Alla can raise the morale of her husband, who now faces the prospect of emerging from an American jail at age 70.  If Bout feels the Kremlin has abandoned him, the thinking goes, Viktor could squeal to the Americans about Moscow’s gray zone of arms sales.

While victimization and anti-Americanism attract some Russians, negative sentiments do not a hero make. The Soviets were smart enough to realize that with Gagarin they had scored a golden PR coup. The current inhabitants of the Kremlin don’t seem to realize that Bout is a turnoff.

It is hard to imagine, Viktor Bout standing in the back of an open convertible, grinning as confetti swirls around him. Gagarin got that kind of reception, not just in Moscow, but in Manchester, Cairo, Paris, Rome and Rio.


(Main photo: DEA)




James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.