Wanted: a Dictator

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The Russian autocrat is perhaps the most “marketed” type of the Russian soul, a sort of a negative trademark applied to Russia both by its honest critics and malevolent detractors. The belief that Russia has been ruled, is ruled and will be ruled by autocrats on all levels is widespread and, like many popular stereotypes, is rather a simplification.

Russia’s Rulers Tend to Be Autocratic

RussiaProfile.Org, an online publication providing in-depth analysis of business, politics, current affairs and culture in Russia, has published an unusual Special Report on the mysterious "Russian soul". Fifteen articles by both Russian and foreign contributors examine this concept, which has been used by Russia watchers for some 150 years, from a contemporary perspective. The following article is part of this collection.

The Russian autocrat is perhaps the most “marketed” type of the Russian soul, a sort of a negative trademark applied to Russia both by its honest critics and malevolent detractors. The belief that Russia has been ruled, is ruled and will be ruled by autocrats on all levels is widespread and, like many popular stereotypes, is rather a simplification.

Very often the mere lack of Western democratic institutions in Russia at various stages of its history is viewed as reason enough to present any Russian head of state (or any Russian official, for that matter) as an Asian despot. Such an attitude may sometimes be right from the point of view of abstract political science (however, only Ivan the Terrible, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin behaved as classic Asian despots, while all other Russian leaders strove to be European and respected at least their subjects’ right to live). But this simplified look at Russian autocrats is certainly unjust, if we look at the personalities (or, as George Bush Jr. put it at his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Ljubljana, at the souls) of the people who have happened to be Russia’s leaders. Very often the autocratic manner of governing proved to be a sign of weakness of character, not of strength, since the demand for autocracy came from “below,” both from the bureaucratic hierarchy and from ordinary people. So many of Russia’s rulers were in fact unwilling autocrats. For centuries, the Russian ideal of a statesman was that of a “responsible autocrat,” a benevolent strong-willed reformer, and not an Asian despot. Most of Russia’s leaders both before and after the October Revolution of 1917 strove to fit this ideal. Fitting it was in fact almost impossible, since autocracy means absolute power and absolute power does not jive well with responsibility.

Strangely enough, Russian autocrats usually understood the need to modernize Russia and tried to do it from “above,” forcing European standards and norms upon Russia’s populace. That was the case with Peter the Great, Empress Catherine II, Alexander I and numerous other figures, including Soviet and post-Soviet leaders. Most of the methods chosen to achieve this modernization were autocratic ones, some were even democratic (freedom and self-government for the gentry under Catherine II, abolition of serfdom under Alexander I).

However, there were two people in Russia’s history who made an honest and consistent effort to modernize Russia by purely autocratic methods. They were Emperor Nicholas I (ruled Russia between 1825 and 1855) and Vladimir Putin. The similarities between these two men’s souls, intentions and even appearances have been noted on numerous occasions. In fact, the similarity was so obvious that in the last ten years Russia witnessed a certain “rehabilitation” of Nicholas I in official Russian historical science. Reviled for several generations as the executioner of the revolutionary Decembrists and a cruel bureaucrat, Nicholas got his fair share of sympathetic research only in 2001 to 2007, when several books on his persona were published.

Propelled by fate

So, what are the similarities? The first similarity is the revulsion both figures felt toward any sort of elections, opposition movements, local self-government and other limitations on the power of the state and its hierarchy. This revulsion probably had its roots in the men’s biographies. Both Nicholas I and Putin did not prepare themselves for a career as a head of state. They had never been public politicians before, suddenly rising to the top by the force of circumstances. Nicholas I was 29 and serving happily as a military commander of a division when his brother Alexander I died in 1825. Since Nicholas’ elder brother Konstantin, who was still ahead of him in the succession line, was seen as unfit to govern, the youngest son of a large family suddenly became the tsar. Putin, in the same way, had never showed any presidential ambitions and had been quite happy with his career as a KGB officer and city manager until President Boris Yeltsin chose him as his successor in 1999.

Having suddenly entered politics, both Nicholas and Putin tried to introduce some order in state affairs—in the way they understood it. As former officers, they understood it as strict hierarchy, where people evenly follow the given instructions and fulfill their duties. Everything had to be nice and orderly—at least on paper (in Nicholas’ times) or on the television screen (in Putin’s times). To achieve this accuracy, both men went to great lengths.

“A German in the Kremlin” was the title of Alexander Rahr’s book about Putin published soon after the latter came to power in Russia. “A state function reincarnated, an inhuman man!” grumbled the liberal press at the time. Everyone agreed that Putin did not embody the Russian archetype of a “good tsar.” Neither did Nicholas at his time—being 95 percent German by blood, he aapointed Germans as his foreign minister, his finance minister and even the chief of his infamous secret police (the famous Alexander Benkendorf).

Here we have a remarkable distinction between the classical Russian autocrat (Nicholas I, for example) and the average Asian despot. Russian autocrats (including Peter the Great) were not primitive xenophobes or nationalists, blind to the defects of their own people. They all realized that the gap separating Russia from the rest of Europe in technological advances and the quality of state service needed to be narrowed. Strangely, it was the autocrats who tried the hardest to Europeanize Russia—in their own way, without compromising their own authority by such European institutions as elections or a free press. Passion for everything European set the reforming autocrats on a collision course with the conservatism of the population, which often viewed the numerous “departments” and “chancelleries” of Nicholas or the “electronic government” of Putin as interferences between the fatherly figure of the tsar and themselves.

And here we have one more paradox not always understood in the West—the “Europeanizing” autocrat in power is rarely loved by the people. At best he is viewed as a healthy, but still bitter pill. Always good at adapting to circumstances, Russians adapt even to the autocrats’ Europeanizing drives, but very often the Russians’ “adoption” of the new Europeanizing rules is superficial and insincere. As soon as the autocratic controls are relaxed, we happily shed off the “civilizing” constraints and return to the good old Asiatic way of “informal” regulations.

The competent tsar

Were, for example, the good Tsar Alexei (deemed “the quietest one” by his contemporaries in the 17th century) or Leonid Brezhnev autocrats? Yes, they did not have developed systems of checks and balances which would limit their power. But they had a pretty clear idea of the wishes of their subjects and made every effort not to act against those wishes. They went with the flow of the Russian people’s longing for a stable, modest, dignified life, an ideal never attained, but never abandoned in Russia. Spiritually, Alexei the Quiet and Brezhnev were not dictators, behaving like autocrats only when the establishment expected them to protect their personal power in the interest of the state. Brezhnev was clearly unhappy about deposing his former friend Alexander (Sasha) Dubcek after the Prague Spring of 1968. The good tsar Brezhnev was also limited by the “collective leadership” of the Politburo which, for example, barred him from making further cuts in nuclear arms arsenals during the brief period of “détente” that Brezhnev had with the American President Richard Nixon. In that sense Mikhail Gorbachev was much more of an autocrat than Brezhnev, since he completely disregarded criticism from some of his Politburo colleagues, making unheard of concessions to Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior in the late 1980s. However, even Gorbachev’s critics would agree that calling him a dictator would be unjust and unfair.

The Russian ideal of a ruler was (and, despite numerous disappointments, still is) an accessible tsar, a listening tsar, whom one can approach in person with complaints against the local bureaucrats abusing their authority. Such was the tradition in the old princedom of Muscovy and the memory of it has been instilled in the Russians’ genes. Both Nicholas I and Putin sympathized with this attitude of the people and traveled the country a lot, meeting the locals and often listening to their complaints. Putin even raised this procedure to a new level, organizing the so-called “call in sessions” on television during which people would ask him direct questions from their respective locations.

Disgusted by public criticism

The difference between the “good tsars” Yeltsin and Gorbachev and Nicholas and Putin is that both of the latter absolutely reject complaints delivered in the form of protests. Viewing their citizens in the same way as an officer views good soldiers, the Russian autocrats want the improvements in people’s life to be seen as “presents” from the state, not as a realization of a citizen’s rights. Nicholas, for example, read hundreds of complaints from oppressed peasant serfs and encouraged local courts to sentence the cruelest lords to severe punishments. He was enraged, however, when he learnt of a protest of young military cadets from the Gatchina orphanage in 1834. The protests of future officers were staged against the orphanage’s principal Grigory von Derwiz, who ordered to punish the protesters by flogging. Nicholas ordered the instigators of the protest to be demoted to simple soldiers—a tough punishment at the time. When a supervisor pleaded for mercy, citing the good grades and excellent personal qualities of the mutineers, the emperor softened the punishment, but insisted that instead of making a scandal the cadets should have sent a complaint to him.

The negative attitude that Vladimir Putin has toward protests is well-known, and the story with the dispersal of demonstrations on Triumfalnaya Square in Moscow is a good example. An alternative way of getting feedback from the ruler was tried in June of 2010 by the blacksmith Nikolay Shutrov, who, having learned via Putin’s Web site of the premier’s coming to visit his Avtodiezel plant in Yaroslavl in central Russia, invited “our dear Vladimir Vladimirovich” to his old and dirty shop. Having come to the plant, instead of staying in the brand new section built with the help of Japanese investors, Putin identified Shutrov in the crowd of workers and suddenly asked the blacksmith to show the head of the government his workplace.

“There was a moment of consternation in the premier’s retinue when Shutrov, in his workman’s attire, got into the squeaky clean van of the premier,” the Izvestia daily reported. “A few minutes later the roaring motorcade stopped before a smoked red building.”
In the shop, which happened to be 50 years old, the blacksmith had a small verbal brawl with the plant’s General Director Viktor Kadylkin. “Why don’t you take a broom and clean the place yourself?” the enraged CEO asked the blacksmith. “I am not paid for this,” Nikolay Shutrov retorted. Putin, having familiarized himself with Shutrov’s workplace, said he had seen “some places even worse” and encouraged Kadylkin and the plant’s owner, Oleg Deripaska, to include Shutrov’s workplace in their modernization plans. “We have talked about this with the owner of the plant,” Putin said to Shutrov.

Justice at a price

A few days later Shutrov said in an interview to the Life News Internet portal that he was told that his contract might not be extended when it expires in six months. One hundred and fifty years earlier Nicholas I reacted to complaints from his subjects (not citizens!) in a very similar way. Blessed with an excellent memory but fatefully addicted to the idea of hierarchy, Nicholas forwarded the complaints to local courts or bodies of the gentry’s self-government. The idea was that judges and members of the gentry would punish the wrongdoers or at least put them to shame. As research by the Rodina magazine has shown, in most cases the local justice took the side of the wrongdoers, who usually happened to be influential local bureaucrats or landowners. Only in a few cases when the tsar, thanks to his memory, personally insisted on settling the matter, were the culprits punished and justice restored.

The failure (or the lack of desire) to protect the authors of complaints reflects not so much an autocrat’s naivety or ill-will, as his belief in order and the established succession of proceedings. Calling the Russian “krepostnye” (peasants having no right to leave their landlords) serfs, as the Western historiography often does, is an unfair simplification. Catherine the Great prohibited the use of the word “serf” in official documents and the brother and predecessor of Nicholas, Alexander I, after 1812 discouraged the use of the word “krepostnoy” in print, as a sign of gratitude to the Russian peasant population which played the main role in rebuffing Napoleon’s invasion earlier that year. In principle, peasants were not supposed to be serfs, but “children” of their more educated and cultured landlords. In many cases, this system worked, with gentry families adopting peasant orphans and helping the poor in general. But while this was supposed to be a rule it was more often an exception, and Nicholas I simply refused to believe this uncomfortable truth.

Lie to me

Should the root cause of this self-deception be found in the lack of information? Hardly. Soon after the revolutionary conspiracy of the Decembrists failed in 1825, Nicholas I asked Alexander Borovkov, the head of the group of officers investigating the conspiracy, to compile for him a synopsis of the Decembrists’ criticisms, suggestions and projects. A lot of these drafts were used during Nicholas’ rule in the work of several secret commissions preparing to abolish serfdom (in reality, most of the honor for the cancellation of serfdom in Russia should be given to Nicholas, who secretly, in his preferred way, prepared the basis for this bold decision adopted in 1861 by his son Alexander II). So there was no lack of information for Nicholas in 1825 to 1855 and there is no lack of such information for Putin.

The failure to protect and encourage the advocates of openness has its roots in the autocrats’ psyche, in their fear that by limiting the arbitrariness of local abusers they could weaken their own power. The fear of a sudden destabilization of the political situation (“Revolution is at Russia’s doorstep, but as long as I am alive, it won’t enter our country,” Nicholas said not long before his death) led to the silencing of both opponents and critical loyalists. “I have differentiated between those who want fair reforms coming from authorities and those who wish for radical change brought about by God knows what,” Nicholas said in a talk with the French Ambassador.

Putin could sign his name here too.

By Dmitry Babich
Russia Profile

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