WASHINGTON -- Russia is all over the news these days and, despite our president's cozying up to Vladimir Putin, the dominant picture of the Russian president is still that of the implacable communist: born, bred and ever-blusteringly red.
After all, wasn't this the man who stated only a few years ago that the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991 was the greatest tragedy of the modern age?
Yet, beneath that surface, we hear some surprising, even amazing, reflections from Putin -- words that could offer us some interesting observations on what works in the world.
Start here: This fall, at the 14th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Moscow, which is a very "in" meeting among top Russian leaders and foreign journalists, Putin ruminated on the 100th anniversary this year of the Russian Revolution. One would surely have expected more of his usual blarney about the innate superiority, the world-saving message and the you-have-to-break-some-eggs-to-make-an-omelet murderousness of Soviet communism.
But, no. Here's an important -- and stunning -- part of what he said:
"Today, as we turn to the lessons of a century ago, namely the Russian Revolution of 1917, we see how ambiguous its results were, how closely the negative and, we must acknowledge, the positive consequences of those events are interlocked.
"Let us ask ourselves: Was it not possible to follow an evolutionary path, rather than go through a revolution? Could we not have evolved by way of gradual and consistent forward movement rather than at a cost of destroying our statehood and the ruthless fracturing of millions of human lives?"
He also noted correctly about the Soviet Union that its "largely utopian social model and ideology ... was a powerful driver of transformations across the globe," yet most of the benefits of this competition had "been reaped by the West."
What on Earth are we seeing here? The speech and the discussion afterward spans 76 meticulously typed pages, so forget any idea that the remarks were off the cuff. Rather, Putin seems to be rather genuinely reflecting. The KGB man's KGB man is not a dumb fellow, and he must realize in whatever kind of heart he may still have that the Soviet communist system -- all power to the state and all obedience by those poor underlings out there -- has empirically lost out to smart examples of representative government and economic freedom.
And he is right: The "evolutionary" way to development, occasionally called "moderation," "incrementalism" and "gradualism," which was up against communism worldwide from 1917 to 1991, is what has worked. Two examples:
-- Tunisia, on the northern coast of Africa, is the one country that has survived and even flourished, not without problems, the initially promising but ultimately disastrous uprisings of the Arab Spring of 2010.
This survival goes back to Tunisia's evolutionary leader, Habib Bourguiba, who, after years of fighting the French, became the country's independence leader in 1957.
"Bourguibism" would come to be called "evolutionary change" or "politics by stages" or even "a strategy based on realism" -- that was his genius. He was a Tunisian Machiavellian, but one with a true moral compass, who warned that the process "must always be dynamic, each step preparing the way for the next step to follow."
-- The Sultanate of Oman, on the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula overlooking the Arabian Sea, is another success story for moderation, but also only if paired with persistent peaceful change. Ruled by the wise Sultan Qaboos, this lovely country has grown from one of the poorest countries in the world in 1970 to a veritable example of intelligent development thinking today.
"You take a step, you consolidate," the sultan explained to me in one of my eight visits to Oman. "You look at the world, you see what you should be doing. We don't rush into things without knowing what we are doing. We study carefully before acting. If we take a step, we see if we were right before we take another. We always keep in mind our culture, our religion, our history, so we don't forget our roots but select what is good for us."
Revolution, of course, is sexy; it is dramatic, bordering on the melodramatic; it is the stuff of dreams hyped by adrenalin and hatred of injustice -- before the dreams turn to nightmares, the adrenalin turns to drug overdose and the injustice, only to more injustice. Indeed, that was the communist utopian "dream" that dominated the 20th century.
But today, whereas only a handful of countries call themselves communist, it is those other countries that have embraced evolutionary democratic change, like Tunisia and Oman, but also Jordan, Morocco, Costa Rica, Chile, Botswana and Singapore, that are truly and justly thriving.
And his dirty little secret is that Vladimir Putin knows it.