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Russia: No More 'Troubles' Under Putin

  • Robert Coalson --> Vladimir Putin, Russia's leader-for-life? (ITAR-TASS) November 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russia has its own path to democracy, one that is determined by the country's long history, President Vladimir Putin and his entourage frequently assert. To understand their vision of Russia's future, one must pay attention to their use of the past and to the national myths they create and promote.

Russia is engaged in a political transition now that, even Kremlin insiders admit, is virtually a "crisis." The celebration of People's Unity Day on November 4 and the 90th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution on November 7 have brought to the forefront crises of the past and models for emerging from them. The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party and the state media have labored overtime in recent weeks to reduce these historical events to easily understood elements -- chaos, disunity, internal and external enemies, violence, and famine -- and to emphasize that Russia survived them only by rallying around a strong, authoritarian leader-for-life.

Historical Precedent

People's Unity Day is a three-year-old holiday that marks the liberation in 1612 of Moscow from Polish occupation and the end of a decade and a half of discord known by the ominous Russian phrase "Smutnoye vremya," the Time of Troubles. The "smuta," or trouble, was set off when the royal line of Ivan the Terrible came to an end and the country's political elites began a ruthless battle among themselves for power. The period was characterized by factional infighting, famine, and foreign occupation, nearly leading to the collapse of the Russian state. It came to an end only in 1613, when the nobility chose one of their own, Mikhail Romanov, at a Grand National Assembly, founding the dynasty that would rule Russia until 1917. Before the 17th century was out, Mikhail Romanov's grandson, Peter the Great, was in power and the country that had been on its knees was on the verge of becoming a global power.

The new People's Unity Day holiday has developed in two directions in its short history. On the one hand, it is a cause for annual semi-sanctioned "Russia-for-the-Russians" actions, events that serve to remind the public that the country's unity is fragile and that violent confrontation is lurking close to the surface. On the other hand, the holiday is marked by widespread demonstrations in support of the Kremlin and the strong central government. The Unified Russia party has begun the practice of sending representatives into schools and other institutions to make sure that the horrors of the Time of Troubles remain vivid and the lessons of unity and authoritarianism are not forgotten.

November 7 -- the anniversary of what was once called the Great October Socialist Revolution, but which is now generally referred to as "the Bolshevik coup" -- is no longer an official holiday. The rump Communist Party marks the date with smaller and smaller events each year, while the state draws parallels between the Time of Troubles and the decades of revolution and civil war that Russia endured in the early 20th century. Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin has decidedly lost his luster and it seems only a matter of time before his body is removed from its mausoleum on Red Square and buried.

In Praise Of The Iron Fist

The logic of the analogy between the Bolshevik Revolution and the Time of Troubles leads to the conclusion that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was the strong, authoritarian leader-for-life who pulled the country out of chaos and, through a far-sighted program of industrialization and collectivization, created a country that was capable of withstanding the onslaught of Nazi Germany and of competing in the Cold War for decades. The Kremlin, of course, is wary about direct praise of Stalin, largely because of how such statements are seen in the West. In addition, the means by which Stalin came to power -- infighting, betrayal, show trials, and persecution -- are clearly less savory than the image of the Grand National Assembly that elevated Mikhail Romanov on a wave of national unity.

Putin has co-opted the Stalinists (epa file photo)

However, Putin has made enough overtly pro-Stalin statements over the years to have lured away virtually all the Stalinists from the Communist Party. He has restored Stalin-era state symbols and has stated directly that the country has no need to feel guilty about its past. During Putin's years in power, Stalin's reputation has grown steadily, with more and more Russians stating that he played "a positive role" in Russian history. State television commentator Mikhail Leontyev wrote in "Profil" this month: "What Stalin inherited from the Bolsheviks as an object of state -- in fact, imperial -- restoration was an absolutely Asiatic formation that could only be managed by Asiatic methods -- literally those of Genghis Khan. That is, by using 'the masses' as raw material, fuel for the historical process. There were no other means for managing that country, for saving it, for securing it in the midst of an aggressively oriented environment."

But the analogy between the revolutionary period and the Time of Troubles is emphasized in Putin's Russia. Both were times of internal division, chaos, famine, foreign intervention, and widespread suffering that presented an existential crisis to the country.

Act Three?

All of this attention to history is designed to create a backdrop for the current political transition. The 1990s are constantly presented as a new smuta, one where internal divisions and foreign interference came perilously close to ending Russian sovereignty. In July, "Literaturnaya gazeta" published an article titled, "No Longer Ashamed Of Our Country." "We need to show everyone that the era of humiliation and collapse associated with [the 1990s] is gone and won't come back," retired Major General Aleksandr Vladimirov was quoted as saying.

The state media have played up these themes in both subtle and obvious ways. In his official remarks on People's Unity Day, Putin himself said, "Some people are constantly insisting on the necessity of dividing up our country and are trying to spread this theory." State television has accused the CIA and Western governments of fomenting revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. The current unrest in Georgia is being actively contrasted with images of orderly stability and progress in Russia.

The Kremlin has manipulated the process of transition as Putin's second term comes to an end in such a way as to keep many possible scenarios available -- as long as they all result in Putin retaining supreme power. However, as the Duma election campaign season heats up, one scenario -- which could be called the Mikhail Romanov variant -- is increasingly coming to the fore.

On October 1, Putin agreed to head the Unified Russia list of candidates for the Duma elections, effectively signaling the end of the Kremlin's half-hearted stab at creating a managed two-party system. Since then, Unified Russia has devoted all its considerable resources to turning the December 2 elections into a national plebiscite on Putin himself. The entire vote has been reduced to one huge endorsement of Putin.

'National Leader'

At the same time, in recent weeks, a wave of "spontaneous" demonstrations and meetings has swept over the country, the simulation of a groundswell of popular support for Putin to remain as "national leader." Across the country, small pro-Putin organizations are springing up. According to media reports, these groups intend to hold a national congress in Moscow around the time of the elections to call for Putin to remain in power.

On November 6, Unified Russia posted on its website an article that further lays out the Mikhail Romanov scenario. The piece argues for the calling of a Public Assembly shortly after the Duma elections, at which representatives of grassroots organizations would anoint Putin as the country's "national leader." According to the piece, the public has no confidence in the political process or political parties and only such a Public Assembly would have the legitimacy to effect the radical political change the country needs. Unified Russia is in the process of drafting a "Pact of Civil Unity" that could be adopted at such an assembly. That pact will "formulate the institution of the national leader as the basic element of a new configuration of power."

If the Kremlin's plan (whichever one is finally put into action in March 2008) succeeds and Putin is installed as the country's leader for the foreseeable future, the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution will likely be treated entirely differently. In 2012, Russia will mark the 400th anniversary of the end of the Time of Troubles, presumably in the 12th year of Putin's reign. In 2017, when the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution rolls around, there will likely not be even any rump communist enthusiasts around to mark it.

With the problem of political succession solved, the state's need to play up the possibility of "troubles" will disappear; the need increasingly to celebrate the regime that ended the troubles and lifted the country off its knees will grow stronger. A system that derives its legitimacy from a trumped-up groundswell of popular support and a stage-managed Public Assembly will have a hard time resisting maintaining its grip on power by a combination of fear and a stultifying cult of personality. Russian history offers models for this as well.
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to