Madeleine Albright Had Warned the World about PutinBreaking News
tags: Cold War, obituaries, diplomacy, international relations, Madeleine Albright
By Margaret Warner, journalist who covered Madeleine Albright for decades as a correspondent at Newsweek and the PBS NewsHour.
One month before former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s death on March 23, the New York Times published what would be her final essay, headlined “Putin Is Making a Historic Mistake.” In her piece, Albright looked back on a February 2000 meeting she had with Vladimir Putin, who at the time had just become Russia’s acting president after the sudden resignation of Boris Yeltsin. The Clinton administration wanted to size up the veteran KGB operative who would now lead a rival superpower. Albright found Putin “so cold as to be almost reptilian.”
The new Russian leader was still seething over the Soviet Union’s 1991 breakup and the economic shambles of the Yeltsin decade. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness,” Albright jotted down on the flight home. Since then, her Times essay noted, Putin has been smothering democratic institutions at home and exerting economic and military pressure to reestablish Russian dominance in former Soviet satellites. “Like other authoritarians, he equates his own well-being with that of the nation and opposition with treason,” she wrote.
On Feb. 24, the day after Albright’s column was published, Putin ordered Russian forces to assault cities and military installations across Ukraine.
Albright’s keen instinct for gauging authoritarians—and understanding the threat they pose—was honed in early childhood. She was born in 1937 to Jewish parents, Josef and Anna Korbel, in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Two years later, when Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia on the heels of the infamous Munich Agreement—according to which Britain and France allowed Germany to annex the Sudetenland border regions of Czechoslovakia—her diplomat father managed to get himself posted to the Czechoslovak Embassy in London and arranged to have the entire family converted to Catholicism.
A decade later, Korbel was serving as Czechoslovak ambassador to Yugoslavia when a Soviet-backed coup by communists at home drove the family to flee again, this time to the United States, where Korbel sought and won political asylum so he wouldn’t be arrested for his pro-democratic views.
The family settled in the safety of Denver where Korbel taught international politics, and 11-year-old Madeleine acclimated to a new country and culture. Among other things, she compiled a stellar academic record, which eventually eased her admission to Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
Her early brushes with authoritarian threats instilled a passion for democracy that animated her entire public life. “Her family was run out of Czechoslovakia twice. First by Hitler and then by Stalin,” former U.S. President Bill Clinton remarked the day after her death. “She did not like authoritarian government. She didn’t like dictators. She didn’t like people who were callous about human life, and it forged her whole view of the world for the rest of her life.”
That Albright would rise to become America’s first female secretary of state was not obvious in her college years. She aspired to be a journalist and to marry her handsome fiance, reporter Joseph Albright, the scion of a newspaper empire that included the New York Daily News, Long Island’s Newsday, and the Chicago Tribune.
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