U.S.A/Russia

Tucker Carlson Promised an Unedited Putin. The Result Was Boring

Author: Masha Gessen Source: The New Yorker
February 11, 2024 at 07:35
Gessen Carlson Putin
Gessen Carlson Putin

In an interview that lasted more than two hours, the Russian President aired well-trod grievances and gave a lecture full of spurious history meant to justify his war in Ukraine.

On February 6th, Tucker Carlson spent more than two hours interviewing Vladimir Putin. The interview later aired, in a version dubbed by what would appear to be Kremlin-provided translators, on Carlson’s Web site, one of Russia’s main state television channels, and the Kremlin Web site.
 

What Tucker Carlson Saw When He Interviewed Vladimir Putin

More than anything else, Carlson seemed surprised: by the fact that he got to interview Putin in the Kremlin and even film himself sharing some post-interview impressions in a room full of lacquer and gold leaf; by what Putin said during the interview; and by the man himself. Putin used the interview to deliver a lengthy lecture on the history of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and its aftermath, meant to convince viewers that Ukraine never had a right to exist. When he was done with the lecture, he segued into a litany of grievances against the West, where several generations of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Secretaries of State have, according to Putin, let him down or ghosted him. After the interview, an incredulous Carlson held up a gray cardboard folder with a little rope tie: Putin had given him copies of documents to back up his historical claims. Carlson hadn’t opened it yet. “I thought he was filibustering,” he said, still apparently reeling from the history lesson. “But I concluded after watching all this, no, that was the predicate to his answer: the history of the area and the formation of this country and the connection to Ukraine is part of the basis for his Ukraine policy.”

The content of Putin’s conversation with Carlson was barely distinguishable from the content of Putin’s rare speeches and so-called press conferences and hotlines—annual hours-long, highly orchestrated television productions. Putin’s obsession with history is genuine, as is his belief in a narrative that justifies, indeed makes inevitable, Russia’s war against Ukraine. That Carlson was surprised suggests that he either didn’t watch Putin’s earlier appearances in preparation for the interview, or that, despite copious evidence to the contrary, he imagined that Putin the man would match Putin the role: a dictator whose opponents get killed and jailed and who invades neighboring countries ought to be larger than life, terrifying in person, and certainly not boring.

Carlson emerged from the interview shaking his head. “Russia is not an expansionist power,” he said. “You’d have to be an idiot to think that.” Actually, you might look at the evidence—the invasion and de-facto control over about a fifth of Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the continued occupation of about a fifth of Ukraine and the ongoing offensive there—to conclude that Russia is an expansionist power. During the interview, Putin gave every indication that he thinks of former imperial possessions as still rightfully Russia’s. That would include not only former Soviet republics but also Finland and Poland. “The professional liars in Washington . . . are trying to convince you that this guy is Hitler, that he is trying to take the Sudetenland, or something,” Carlson continued. “Not analogous in any way!” In fact, Putin had clearly, and more explicitly than ever before, channelled Hitler during the interview. This is what a tyrant looks like: small, and full of tedious resentments.
 

What Putin Saw When He Was Interviewed by Tucker Carlson

Here was an easy mark. Carlson meekly tried to interrupt Putin a couple of times, to ask a question he seemed stuck on: Why hadn’t all this history and these territorial issues come up when Putin first became President, in 2000? It was an ill-informed question—Putin has trafficked in historical revisionism from the start and became increasingly obsessed with Ukraine after the Orange Revolution, in 2004—and an easy one for Putin to ignore. It seemed to show that Carlson was less well briefed than Putin, who dropped biographical trivia about Carlson into the conversation, a trademark intimidation tactic of a K.G.B. agent. He mentioned, for example, that Carlson had unsuccessfully tried to join the C.I.A.

Carlson didn’t interrupt or challenge Putin on the many—too many to count—occasions when Putin told falsehoods about the history of Ukraine, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the relationship between Russia and nato, probably his conversations with former U.S. leaders, and, perhaps most egregiously of all, the Russian Army’s withdrawal from the suburbs of Kyiv after a month of invasion in 2022. Putin claimed that this was a gesture of good will aimed at achieving a speedy negotiated peace; in fact, it was a military defeat. This would also have been a good moment for Carlson to ask Putin about the well-documented war crimes Russian soldiers allegedly committed during that month of occupation. He passed up this opportunity.

Most important from Putin’s point of view, Carlson seemed to share two of his basic assumptions: that the war in Ukraine is a proxy war with the United States and that any negotiations will take place between the Kremlin and the White House, presumably without involving Kyiv. Carlson even nudged Putin to call President Biden and say “Let’s work this out.” To which Putin responded that the message Russia wishes to convey to the U.S. is “Stop supplying weapons. It will be over within a few weeks.”
 

What Russian Television Viewers Saw

Putin has reprised his history lecture many times. It seems likely that most Russians who watched the entire interview did so out of professional obligation—their job, as propagandists or political appointees, is to amplify and affirm the leader’s message. Ordinary Russians probably watched only outtakes and commentary. What they saw was that something momentous had happened: one of the most popular journalists in America came to interview Putin and looked like a deer in headlights. Channel One stressed both Carlson’s popularity and Americans’ evident interest in what Putin had to say. Carlson’s promotional video in advance of the interview itself had been watched more than a hundred million times! Russians see Carlson, not unreasonably, as a representative of a future Trump Administration, a preview of the coming America in which the liberals who support Ukraine are finally displaced.
 

What Tucker Carlson’s Viewers Saw

It’s hard to imagine an American viewer who would make it past the first ten minutes of Putin’s monotonous history lecture. (In the interview, Putin called it one of his “dialogues,” betraying either his ignorance or his idea of what constitutes a dialogue; the Kremlin translated “dialogues” as “my long speeches.”) The translator or translators generally cleaned up Putin’s prose, smoothing out passages that, in Russian, made no sense. For example, responding to Carlson’s question about a possible invasion of Poland, Putin said, in Russian, “Because we don’t have any interests in Poland nor in Lithuania—nowhere. What do we need it for? We just don’t have any interests. Only threats.” The translator rendered it as, “Because we have no interest in Poland, Latvia or anywhere else. Why would we do that? We simply don’t have any interest. It’s just threat mongering.”

In another exchange, the translator took liberties to make Carlson appear more dignified. When Carlson asked Putin about his obsession with fighting Nazism eighty years after Hitler’s death, the President said, in Russian, “Your question seems subtle but is very disgusting.” In English, though, Putin appeared to be praising Carlson’s question as “subtle” while Carlson himself, according to the transcript, called the question “quite pesky”—the words were actually spoken by Putin’s translator. However obscure the subject of Putin’s discursive exercise was, the genre probably looked recognizable to Americans. This was a conversation between an older man who has read a history book and fancies himself an expert and his eager nephew, who is trying to feign knowledge in a subject he failed in college. Except one of these guys reaches millions of viewers and the other has nuclear weapons.
 

What I Saw

I can’t get one passage out of my mind. In the history-lecture portion of the interview, when Putin got to 1939, he said, “Poland coöperated with Germany, but then it refused to comply with Hitler’s demands. . . . By not ceding the Danzig Corridor to Hitler, Poles forced him, they overplayed their hand and they forced Hitler to start the Second World War by attacking Poland.” (This is my translation.) The idea that the victim of the attack serves as its instigator by forcing the hand of the aggressor is central to all of Putin’s explanations for Russia’s war in Ukraine. To my knowledge, though, this was the first time he described Hitler’s aggression in the same terms.

Putin has reproduced Hitler’s rhetoric before. Ten years ago, announcing the annexation of Crimea, he seemed to borrow from Hitler’s speech on the annexation of Sudetenland. At the time, I assumed that the language had come from a speechwriter who knew what they were doing while Putin may not have. But the way Putin described the beginning of the Second World War in his interview with Carlson suggests that, although he keeps accusing Ukraine of fostering Nazism, in his mind he might see himself as Hitler, but perhaps a wilier one, one who can make inroads into the United States and create an alliance with its presumed future President.

It’s telling, too, that Putin took the time to accuse Poland of both allying with Nazi Germany and inciting Hitler’s aggression. As he has done with Ukraine in the past, he is positioning Poland as an heir to Nazism. He mentioned Poland more than thirty times in his conversation with Tucker. If I were Poland, I’d be scared. ♦


New Yorker Favorites

Sign up for our daily newsletter to receive the best stories from The New Yorker.

Masha Gessen, a staff writer, is a distinguished professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.
Keywords
Advertisement
You did not use the site, Click here to remain logged. Timeout: 60 second