Putin’s Popularity: Russia’s latest accepted tyrant

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Intermission

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

Putin

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.

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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.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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