Putin’s Popularity: Russia’s latest accepted tyrant


The Russians, as a rule, are not democrats. We keep hearing in the western media how “educated, young, middle-class Muscovites” have been protesting on the streets against Vladimir Putin’s leadership and agitating for political reform. In a country with a population of over 143 million they form a fairly small minority. In reality, Russia has moved from Tsarist autocracy, to Communist dictatorship, to a new form of bureaucratic authoritarianism under Putin. Boris Yeltsin’s half-hearted democratisation moves aside, Russia has never advocated political choice.

It is therefore unsurprising that Putin cruised to victory in last week’s presidential election. Yes, fraudulent polling stations and intimidating electoral officers were blatantly evident, yet Putin was the rightful winner. He has, indeed, become the latest in a succession of publicly-accepted tyrants in Russian history. But how does he compare with the rest?


Ivan the Terrible

Ivan IV Grozny, given the epithet “the terrible” by the west, is an intriguing case. Remembered by many outside Russia as a lunatic who murdered his own son, and who spent the last years of his rule waging war against disparate groups of enemies, Ivan is regarded fondly by many Russians.

Ascending to the Princedom of Moscow at a time of political upheaval and military strife in 1533, Ivan wrenched Russia out of its medieval slumber. Conquering a succession of Khanates, the feisty relics of the Mongol “golden hoarde”, Ivan created the first truly “Russian” empire, which stretched for thousands of miles.

Boosting trade across the Caspian Sea and on towards the Middle East, a new era of economic development was ushered into Ivan’s kingdom, particularly in the ever-expanding Moscow. Ivan’s outlook was not restricted, as it had been with his narrow-minded predecessors. He even accepted delegations of the English Muscovy Company to his capital in the 1550s and 1560s. Whilst merchant-traveller Anthony Jenkinson’s tales of Ivan’s suspicious mind and bemusing ravings would contribute to his infamous legacy, the Tsar was shown to be keen to trade English wools for Russian furs and other goods. Additionally, he was delighted by the prospect of acquiring English firearms to force back the gathering agitators massing at Moscow’s gates.

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Ivan IV meets a delegate of the English Muscovy Company

The first man to be proclaimed Tsar of all Russia, Ivan IV was a great ruler, as his Russian epithet, Grozny (which means strength), points to. Devout, prudent and ambitious, Ivan created modern Russia. He used repression sparingly yet ruthlessly, quashing his enemies and creating a semblance of civic harmony in a state of the vastest proportions.

The delusions and fits suffered in his later life, and his subsequent descent into tyranny, were likely the result of mental illness, rather than a concerted attempt to brutalise his people. A decisive and courageous man, Ivan is misunderstood by history. Fortunately in Russia, he is still recognised for his many accomplishments.


Peter the Great

Unlike Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great has a resoundingly -positive legacy amongst non-Russian historians. Seen as the ultimate state-builder, Peter ordered the construction of the eponymous St. Petersburg on the banks of the River Volga, making it a bastion of cultural and architectural advancement that would inspire generations of writers and artists.

A brilliant leader and military tactician, Peter was renowned for sharing in his subject’s experiences, including spells working on a naval ship and at the front-line of battle. His military prowess helped expand and solidify the Russian Empire that Ivan had once envisaged. He won countless victories against enemies across Europe and Asia, thus endearing himself to his future countrymen.

Peter the Great was the ultimate Russian leader

Like Ivan, Peter showed a ruthless streak characteristic of all great leaders. During adolescence his Tsardom was temporarily usurped by his elder half-sister, Sophia Alekseyevna. After wresting control from her in 1689, albeit with the aid of his mother, Peter forced Sophia into a convent, where she would spend the rest of her life without royal privileges. Similarly, during his early drives at modernisation and power-consolidation Peter was faced with several rebellions from both fellow Russians, and Muslim outsiders. All of these uprisings were repressed brutally, with mass executions typically following.

Standing at 6ft 8inches tall, Peter was a giant of a man. However, this sentiment could quite easily be applied to his mental fortitude and educated nature as well. Consciously aware of the need for strict control over a disparate and far-flung population, Peter ensured his position was never again undermined. His armies were on constant stand-by, ready to quash the merest hint of trouble.

These moves enabled Peter to further Russia’s “catching-up” process with the rest of Europe. Inviting the finest philosophers, naturalists and political theorists to his ever-travelling court, Peter revolutionised the way many urban Russians thought. Rationalism replaced misguided piety and logical steps were taken to improve agricultural output and other industries, rather than waiting for God’s divine will.

Peter the Great’s reform-driven reign, coupled with a string of stunning military successes that boosted his country’s national status in the eyes of outsiders, unsurprisingly see him revered as one of the ultimate Russians. However, without a merciless political and military strategy, none of Peter’s wonderful accomplishments would have been possible.


Catherine the Great

Another “great” in western eyes, Catherine is Russia’s only female leader of significance. In a reign spanning 34 years she extended the reach of the Russian Empire still further, conquering vast swathes of Ottoman territory in Central Asia and the Crimea, thus further opening-up Russia to foreign trade. During Catherine’s reign, Russian fur trappers even made it as far as the Kuril Islands to the north of Japan; such was the sense of ambition encompassed during that time.

Like Peter the Great, Catherine ruthlessly pursued the modernisation of Russia along Western European lines, with ever greater focus on the Enlightenment and rationality as opposed to feudal spirituality.

Catherine remains one of the world’s most renowned female leaders

Considering Catherine was not only a woman, but also born of fairly modest Prussian noble stock, her accomplishments are astounding. Indeed, she was never supposed to be the Tsarina, or Empress, as she was later titled. Her husband, Peter III, became Tsar in 1762, towards the end of the Seven Years’ War. Quickly establishing himself as a leader of great foolhardiness and political naivety, Peter was ousted in a bloodless coup inspired by his wife. Not only that, but shortly after he was deposed, Peter was assassinated. Whilst no firm evidence exists to suggest Catherine was directly involved in her husband’s murder, it is likely that at least her tacit complicity was necessary for the crime to be perpetrated.

Without Catherine’s pursuit of power, strongly guided as it was by several prominent courtiers, Peter III would likely have taken Russia to the abyss, such was his unpopularity amongst his subjects. For someone who was not a native Russian, Catherine effectively instilled a firm belief in imperial pride amongst her subjects, unlike her German-loving husband.

Despite a reputation as a cultural patron and enthusiastic social reformer, Catherine was not willing to forgo all Russia’s medieval traditions. Serfdom, the repressive and highly unfair labour system that had existed for centuries, was expanded to outlying provinces, with landowners given draconian powers to suppress peasant agitation. Without this steady source of virtually free labour, Russian agriculture and industry would not have been able to keep pace with the expanding population of the Empire and Catherine’s desire to make St. Petersburg and Moscow two of the finest cities in Europe.

Catherine’s Machiavellian nature is indisputable. Ascending to the throne by ousting her husband, she kept the majority of the Russian populace indentured to the land. Nevertheless, her great military and political accomplishments, coupled with a period of relative stability amidst the carnage of Early Modern Europe, ensured she maintained the loyalty of her subjects. Few female rulers can be said to have matched Catherine’s achievements anywhere in the world, and she is rightly revered today by contemporary Russians of both sexes.



Between Catherine’s death and the overthrow of Tsarist rule in the October Revolution of 1917, Russia produced a series of overly-conservative rulers more interested in clinging onto power than expanding Russia’s burgeoning greatness.

Rather than continuing the rapid cultural, economic and social modernisation of their predecessors, the Tsars of the nineteenth century revived Russia’s reputation as a “backward” nation in the eyes of Western Europe. An over-reliance on agriculture, coupled with a primitive education system, meant industry floundered. Even when Alexander II emancipated the serfs in 1861, their continued impoverishment and dearth of qualifications for anything other than a life of toil made them even more helpless than when they were virtual slaves.

As a consequence, grain production collapsed, affecting the urban elite as well as the rural poor. Subsequently, Russia’s military recruits became weaker and holding onto such a vast Empire became unviable. Humiliating defeat in the Crimean War was followed at the turn of the century by naval annihilation at the hands of Japan, just showing how far Russia had slipped down the global pecking order of states.

The Battle of Mukden was one of a series of humiliations dealt to the Russians by the Japanese in 1904-5

During a period of history when Russian literature and landscape painting were the envy of the world, the rest of society was trapped in a revived feudalism. Having encouraged rationality and scientific reasoning in the past century-and-a-half, Russia’s leaders were now finding it difficult to justify their absolute power through spiritual means. Where once their divine appointment by God was undoubted, there were now severe questions about their right to rule in the authoritarian way that they did. The bloated royal caste and their bureaucratic stooges were the targets of Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy’s satirical verses in addition to the rage of the downtrodden proletariat.

The apogee of the Romanov dynasty’s detachment from the people was their acceptance of the “Mad Monk” Rasputin as first a personal physician to the haemophiliac Tsarevich Alexei, and later, more troublingly, as a political adviser to the Tsarina Alexandra. To give such extensive powers to a drunken, debauched soothsayer shows how medieval Russia’s monarchy had become. The pioneering reform and development carried out under Peter and Catherine was long forgotten. The people clamoured for strong, stable rule once more. They would get it.

Rasputin’s hold on the Russian monarchy helped lead to the downfall of Tsarist rule

Communism and the Man of Steel

The overthrow of the Russian monarchy and rise to power of the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin ignited a period of rapid change almost unprecedented in history. The whole economic and political system of the country was eradicated and replaced by a collectivist, state-led communist authority.

Lenin, himself a charismatic and determined leader, died in 1924 before his grand vision could be achieved. In the political jostling that succeeded his passing, Joseph Stalin became the sole ruler of Russia, and he would retain this position for three decades.

Stalin has a reputation in the west as a barbarous monster who ordered the executions of thousands of his own people, especially those he deemed to offer him a political threat. In addition, he is charged with imposing such a great strain on Russia’s agricultural system that millions of peasants subsequently died of starvation.

Yet, in a 2006 poll, 35% of Russians claimed they would vote for Stalin if he was still alive. Less than a third, meanwhile, agreed with the western view that he was a bloodthirsty tyrant. For a man thought to be responsible for killing millions of his supposed “comrades”, these are surprising results. Why then is Stalin held in a relatively-positive regard by contemporary Russians?

Stalin remains a hero to some Russians despite his monstrous reputation

Stability and strength; two words that help define the ideal leader for many people worldwide. Stalin may have been a monster, but he put Russia to the forefront of world politics through his post-war manoeuvring against the USA and its allies, which ultimately initiated the Cold War. Never before had Russia achieved such international prominence. In addition, he presided over a period of rising consumption and higher living standards for many urban Russians who reaped the benefit of state-sponsored living. Most significantly, Stalin’s own ruthlessness against his perceived enemies helped preserve the communist state under his authority, a welcome relief to the population after the tumult and upheaval of 1917.

Whilst many Russians will concede to Stalin’s brutal nature, his strength in preserving an authoritative rule and his determination to oppose US “imperialism” has endeared him to generations of his countrymen since his death in 1953. For them “Uncle Joe” was more than just a tyrant; he was a symbol of Russian power.


Russia’s global pre-eminence lasted for less than half-a-century. In 1990 Gorbachev gave in and communist rule ended. The USSR was no more and a seismic change was forced upon the autonomous states that constituted Soviet Russia. The subsequent independence of Ukraine, the Baltic states, the “Stans” of Central Asia and the nations on the Caspian Sea trimmed the size of Russia quite significantly.

This loss of prestige and territory would gall even a minor nationalist. Yet the Russian population enjoyed little solace throughout the Yeltsin era. The drunken and indecisive Yeltsin was responsible for a crime almost as great as Stalin’s mass purges and summary executions. Huge state companies were privatised in a bid to move towards a more open, capitalist market that would boost Russia’s global economic performance. However, Yeltsin sold vast chunks of Russia’s natural resources straight into the hands of a clique of his supporters for unimaginably low fees. Economic supremacy within the “new” Russian state was now concentrated amongst a select group of “oligarchs” who virtually had free reign over the political and judicial systems confronting them.

It is little wonder that by the year 2000 the Russian people were desperate for change. That change came in the form of Vladimir Putin. Rather than being the controllable, moderate stooge of Yeltsin, Putin quickly set his own individual course. Curtailing press freedom, breaking up the economic empires of the “oligarchs” and taking a more belligerent course against internal separatists, Putin soon stabilised Russia. Whilst some now argue it has come at a cost, the quality of life for most Russians has risen exponentially since the fall of communism.

Putin stabilised Russia after the debacle that was Yeltsin’s rule

Although Putin’s macho posturing and cynical view of the West cause him to be viewed with suspicion, and some detestation, by people outside Russia’s borders, he remains a popular figure within. The middle class that he helped create may have begun to agitate against his increasingly authoritarian rule, yet when it comes to the crunch they are likely to be found wanting. Putin has shown little reluctance in imprisoning people he considers a nuisance (just look at Mikhail Khordokovsky), and is quite open about the weak judicial processes that lead to favourable convictions. For Russia’s urban elite, the dreaded “bourgeoisie”, there is simply too much to lose by challenging Putin. Who needs democracy when you can live handsomely?

Meanwhile, in Russia’s more rural areas, Putin’s populism is more effective and state propaganda is more widely accepted. It is therefore unsurprising that in a follow-up protest to the recent presidential elections, less than 20,000 people took to standing with their placards in the freezing cold outside the Kremlin last Saturday. Such an insignificant fraction of the population is unlikely to incite revolution.

Vladimir Putin is just the latest in a long list of Russia’s accepted tyrants, who willingly suppress and expunge their enemies as a means of providing stability, development and international standing to their country. When viewed against their counterparts in the West, many of whom have seen their ambition and resolve weakened by their democratic mandate, it is possible to feel envious of the average Russian.

From the Light to the Shadows: China’s Increasingly Secretive Leadership

Xi Jinping (pictured) was in America recently. Who is Xi Jinping? That is the question that was asked right across the broad spectrum of American society. Xi Jinping is the vice president of China. Not only that, he is the leader-in-waiting of the world’s most populous nation. Indeed, Xi is expected to become the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) later this year and president in 2013, succeeding Hu Jintao in both cases.

Despite his prominent position, very little is known about Xi beyond basic details. Born in 1953, he is the son of Xi Zhongxun, one of the CCP’s founding fathers. He holds a doctorate in chemical engineering and has been married twice. That aside, all that is definitively known about the vice-chair of China’s powerful Central Military Commission is his political appointments. This, however, is not surprising. In fact, Xi’s obscure status typifies China’s modern leadership, who have retreated ever-increasingly into the shadows over the past couple of decades.


Mao’s Overt Propaganda

After securing victory over the Kuomintang in the civil war in 1949, Mao-Tse-Tung quickly set about overhauling every aspect of Chinese life through a prolonged communist revolution. Obedience to his “vision” was paramount. Commensurately, Mao began a propaganda drive to ensure his presence pervaded every home across the country. The old Soviet tactic of grandiose artistry and social realist imagery meant that within a couple of years nobody could mistake Mao for who he was.

Mao was portrayed as one of the common people, yet at the same time as superior to them

This bombardment of “paper propaganda” was supplemented by strategically-judged public appearances from the General-Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Whether visiting agricultural communes or the de-capitalised industrial factories that sprung up around China, Mao was seen regularly in public, if not frequently.

Mao visits a car factory in 1958, in a carefully-publicised event

As long as the CCP pursued a rigidly-defined brand of communism (Maoism) that necessitated authoritarian control over the populace, Mao’s righteousness and benevolence had to be continually highlighted with overt public displays, be they one-off appearances or steady streams of propaganda. It is testament to the success of this propaganda that millions of Chinese grieved openly and genuinely on his death in 1976. This, despite the horrors of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the many other daily atrocities that were perpetrated in his name. Only the Kim dynasty in North Korea can be said to have had a similar level of emotional control over their downtrodden people.


Deng and China’s “Opening”

Deng Xiaoping emerged as the de facto leader of the People’s Republic after Mao’s death, having to survive a sustained period of political intrigue and manoeuvring before realising his power. Whilst he was never the General Secretary of the CCP, Deng’s leadership was unchallenged. However, rather than using propaganda to develop his own personality cult, Deng used it to modernise China.

In the 1970s Deng became a more visible figure to the international community than Mao had ever been. He toured Southeast Asia, visited the United States and even moved to normalise relations with Japan, China’s bitter wartime enemy.

Deng pays US President Jimmy Carter a visit in an era of greater openness

On the home front, meanwhile, Deng was a less pervasive figure than Mao. Concentrating on “opening up” the Chinese economy to market-oriented reform and foreign investment, his most public visits were made to burgeoning industrial centres, particularly the Special Economic Zones that were to transform China’s production output. Any publicity Deng sought was not for a strengthening of his own personal authority, but in a bid to mould the future of the Chinese economy and society.

One of Deng's most famous images - promoting the new Special Economic Zone in Shenzhen
Accordingly, Deng was quick to denounce the Tiananmen Square protests in a televised speech on 9th June 1989. Condemning the protesters and supporting the army’s heavy-handed response, Deng defiantly vowed to preserve the path of China’s economic and political development. As far as he was concerned, the one did not influence the other. The CCPs position looked tentative for a brief moment but Deng still had enough of the “strongman” about him to eradicate any thoughts of further protest. The blatant hagiographical nature of Maoist propaganda died with the “Great Leader”, yet Deng Xiaoping was not averse to the power of his own person.  Like his vision of China, he remained open to the wider world, and used his image as a symbol of economic reform rather than ideological control. No Chinese leader since has courted such attention.


Jiang Zemin takes a step back

Known for his comically-large circular spectacles, Jiang Zemin became a far more reclusive leader than either of his two predecessors. Rigidly continuing with Deng’s economic reforms, despite a growing income inequality in the country coupled with severe environmental degradation, Jiang initiated the ultra-cautious approach of modern China’s political leadership.

Gravely concerned by his public image amid widespread and (mostly) accurate accusations of corruption and cronyism against his rule, Jiang deliberately removed himself from the spotlight. Media references to the President were infrequent and highly doctored and Jiang saved his natural bellicosity and outspokenness for the international stage.

Criticising Japan’s apparent refusal to give a heartfelt apology for their war atrocities in mainland Asia, and raising tensions over maritime territorial disputes in the East China Sea, Jiang manufactured a deterioration in relations with China’s island neighbour which Deng had fought so hard to normalise. Keenly observant of the rising tide of nationalism within Chinese society, particularly amongst the powerful People’s Liberation Army (PLA) generals and their politburo patrons, Jiang’s foreign policy rhetoric was fairly aggressive. At home, however, he was more docile.

Jiang saved his bellicosity for abroad

Rather than using the tested methods of state propaganda to boost the image of his regime, Jiang covertly authorised the siphoning-off of government money to fund large and unnecessary infrastructure projects around the country in a bid to halt brewing dissent. Ironically, this gesture of pork-barrel politics allowed him to avoid the severer charges of corruption and mismanagement thrown against him. These would later resurface in his retirement and will no doubt hound Jiang until his death.

Jiang was the first of the PRC’s leaders without revolutionary experience. Therefore, it is not completely surprising that he was markedly different to both Mao and Deng in his engagement with the Chinese people. His successor, Hu Jintao, had clearly been taking note. The most withdrawn leader in the history of the People’s Republic was about to emerge.


Hu Retreats to the Shadows

Hu Jintao is seldom seen in public. More than any other powerful world leader he has withdrawn himself from the media spotlight. That is not to say that the Chinese president remains absent from the daily news. Indeed, reports and editorials praising Hu’s wisdom and judgement regularly appear in many of the Xinhua-affiliated newspapers and their online companions. In reality, however, these articles are tame and neutered affairs, steering clear of any controversial statements about the supreme head of the CCP.

Freedom from controversy is what Hu desires the most. Like his predecessor Jiang, he is desperately conscious of the corruption scandals surrounding much of the Chinese political hierarchy. Whilst he himself has not been as closely linked to corrupt practices as Jiang, Hu knows the continued legitimacy of the CCP rests on a perceived morality from the increasingly-globalised public. In the light of new, invasive forms of social media, politician integrity is becoming harder to preserve. Although China has an effective internet censorship system in the Great Firewall, new avenues for dissent are opening.

It is consequently illuminating that Hu’s name has remained largely untainted, particularly given the politicisation of China’s younger, often western-educated, generation. Only one biography has been written of a man whose power on earth is almost unrivalled; such are the lengths Hu has gone to in order to shelter himself from scandal.

Despite his prominent position, Hu does not seek attention

It is little surprise, then, that Hu leaves most of his public duties to his loyal deputy Wen Jiabao, the Prime Minister. Wen goes on far more foreign visits than Hu, as well as having a much more prominent public profile at home. It is Wen who visits technology parks and industrial plants; it is Wen who visits the bereaved during China’s frequent natural disasters; it was Wen who was responsible for re-opening the National People’s Congress, the last time this will occur under the current leadership. The remainder of the parliamentary session will take place behind closed doors, with the plans for Hu’s succession not deemed to be of public importance.

Wen has complimented Hu perfectly

What Hu’s startlingly-reserved persona ensures is that when he speaks, people listen. CCP anniversaries; military displays; global meetings; these are the events at which Hu has commonly taken centre stage. His promises of reform, greater accountability, increased military strength, continued economic development and veiled warnings to the West are all aired on such occasions. The rarity of such speeches give them greater authority; a brief insight into the “true” intentions of the Chinese political leadership. He may be nowhere near as recognisable as Chairman Mao, but his authority is every bit as strong.


Concluding Thoughts

If, as expected, Xi Jinping becomes China’s next leader, he looks set to rule in the same mould as Hu. This is a man who is far less recognisable, and has received far less global media attention, than the infuriating Republican presidential candidates in the US, none of whom are likely to succeed in their bids to topple Barack Obama. Despite some initial interest, Xi’s trip to the US was largely overlooked as the Republican circus rolled on.

This highlights the stark contrast between the political landscapes of the world’s two most powerful nations. In America, a politician needs to be seen all the time. He needs to be newsworthy, to be regarded as a “normal human being” like his electorate.  The Chinese accept a mythic quality in their leaders; someone to carefully guide their country from afar, without the bold promises that so often cause the downfall of politicians in the West. Such is the luxury for politicians in an undemocratic society.

For the Chinese, the historical trend is one of public retreat, from the brazen propaganda of the Mao years, through Deng’s economic populism, and the prolonged invisibility that Jiang initiated and Hu perfected. The Chinese president today is more like one of the ancient warlords or emperors of his country, whom few were ever allowed to see in person, and whose comment was reserved for a select few.

Tucked away in the Forbidden City, he can shield himself from the new media forms that threaten his unchallenged authority. It is a fortress both real and metaphorical. Do not expect Xi Jinping to change it.