Putin Baltiysk
Putin makes a speech on Russian Navy Day in Baltiysk in 2015Getty Images

What is it about leaders like Vladimir Putin that makes them attractive to people who live outside of the countries they rule?

The answer is located partly in the question itself: it is easier to indulge in fantasies of the 'strongman' when he is subjugating someone else. Any loudmouth can cheer on (or as is more common, ignore altogether) the suppression of internal dissent when they are separated from it by thousands of miles of land or sea. It can also be a thrill to 'peer through a hole in the wall at history' while not having to experience it yourself, as the novelist Arthur Koestler phrased it.

More broadly, Putin is attractive to a certain type of conservative because he embodies macho-traditionalist opposition to the sogginess of modern life in the West.

The Kremlin is a metaphorical enclave where the 1960s never happened and where a sort of embittered masculinity is still indulged when it throws its big plastic spoon on the floor because the gays and women have ruined everything.

Russia is attractive to those who rail against 'western values' in a similar way that the Soviet Union was attractive to a different type of opponent of the West. Putin is in the vanguard of the struggle against liberal values much as the Soviet Union was leading (or so its supporters claimed) the fight against capitalist hegemony.

It is hardly surprising, then, that politicians such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen should be ardent admirers of Putin.

Far more interesting, and seemingly paradoxical, is the sympathetic hearing Putin receives among sections of the left. Turn on RT while you still can and it won't be long until you see a recognisable face from the British left, talking down their own country on the propaganda channel of one of its enemies.

Whether they like it or not, those who choose to appear on RT are acting as useful idiots for a revanchist imperial power that shows little interest in the causes conventional 'progressives' profess to care about. For all Britain's reckless foreign policy adventures in the recent past, it is Putin's Russia that is currently biting off a large chunk of Ukraine and committing war crimes in Syria.

Keep RT on for long enough and you might see Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate to be President of the United States. Stein recently turned up in Moscow at a gala celebrating the channel to argue that the US and Russia should work together, shedding outdated cold war attitudes. While enjoying a cosy dinner with Putin, Stein did manage to bring up the issue of human rights, though only to lament abuses by the United States.

As if to prove a theory of politics in which the similarities between far-left and far-right are greater than their differences, sat next to Stein at the table was Donald Trump's military adviser, the retired general Mike Flynn, who once described Islam as "a cancer".

Here in Britain, the Stop the War Coalition cannot bring itself to condemn the Russian bombing of Syrian hospitals and Jeremy Corbyn's closest advisor is Seumas Milne, a long-time apologist for Soviet and Russian aggression. Holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is happy to do Russia's bidding.

As the former WikiLeaks insider James Ball has written, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange "has no intrinsic aversion to Putin or other strongmen with questionable democratic credentials on the world stage". In an analysis of material released by WikiLeaks, the New York Times concluded that the material had "often benefited Russia, at the expense of the West".

Were only the English-speaking left enthralled by Putin it would be easy to dismiss as the naivete of people with little idea as to how the world actually works. It is after all easy to be soft on Russian despotism when you have never heard the secret policeman's knock on your own front door.

Yet the malady is found on the left in countries which have experienced totalitarian oppression. A new poll by German insurance company Berlin Direkt has found that one third of members of both the country's far-left and far-right political parties had more trust in Vladimir Putin than in their own Chancellor Angela Merkel. Meanwhile, left-leaning governments in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia have repeatedly called on Ukraine to come to terms with Russian annexation and have opposed economic sanctions on Moscow.

As to why so many on the left seem to have a soft spot for Putin, part of the answer probably lies in Russian history, whose influence fans out across the world much as the poison of the Stalinist-left still feeds into the parties of social democracy. Next year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia. It seems archaic and irrelevant today, yet the October Revolution left a poisonous legacy on the left which democratic socialists are still trying to expunge.

For left-wing fellow travellers of Putin's Russia, obsessive anti-Americanism performs the role that communist economics played in the past: it permits any crime

During its 75-year existence the Soviet Union caused the deaths of tens of millions of people. Yet for the duration of its lifespan it was considered 'progressive' by a significant portion of the west's intellectuals because, despite all the blood it had spilled, Russia had at least nationalised its economy.

Successive Politburos may have destroyed the labour movement and enslaved the working class in Russia and beyond, but communism was due a hearing, or so its sympathisers claimed, because it had kept its industries out of the hands of the Russian bourgeoisie.The only crime communist regimes could commit in the eyes of fellow-travellers was to dismantle their state-run economies.

Economistic arguments of this sort do not apply to the Kremlin in 2016. Putin's Russia is a hyper-capitalist free-for-all that is inspired more by the doctrines of Milton Friedman than Karl Marx – a kleptocracy where a flashy superrich is propped up by the increasingly impoverished Russian masses.

Yet old habits have simply taken on new forms. Once upon a time the Soviet Union was given a free pass by western intellectuals because it claimed, however implausibly, to be acting on behalf of the wretched of the earth. Today the Kremlin achieves the same effect by pointing its guns in the direction of the United States.

For left-wing fellow travellers of Putin's Russia, obsessive anti-Americanism performs the role that communist economics played in the past: it permits any crime, any aggression, and anything that would in any other context be denounced by right-thinking people as barbarism.


James Bloodworth is former editor of Left Foot Forward, one of the UK's top political blogs, and the author of The Myth of Meritocracy.