February marked the 100th anniversary of the abdication of Czar Nicholas II of Russia, the last ruler of the Romanov dynasty. As of that moment, the vast Russian empire ceased to exist ushering in a century of earth-shattering change and upheaval. Putin directed his advisers that it was unnecessary to commemorate it. Russia does not need revolution or reminders of it, according to Putin; it needs stability. What Putin pines for is the days of the Russian (not Soviet) empire. The idea of empire comes naturally to him. His ideology is built upon a feeling of Russia’s inherent greatness- a country to be respected, if not feared.
Thus it should come as no surprise that 1917 represents an uncomfortable memory in contemporary Russia. In the story of the fall of the Russian empire, there are no heroes and no one with which Putin can compare himself. Nicholas II? He was the weak loser who surrendered an empire through ineptitude and being spineless. Vladimir Lenin? He was the revolutionary who totally wrecked the empire. Putin’s antipathy towards Lenin is well-documented.
Instead, we have to delve slightly further back into Russian history to determine who Putin most emulates. Under the more liberal Czar Alexander I, the Russians crushed the French forces under Napoleon chasing him to the gates of Paris. As a result, educated Russian military officers were exposed to the wonders of the Enlightenment prevalent in Western Europe. Nicholas I succeeded his brother to the throne in 1825 and in December of that year, he had to confront an uprising by these more liberal elites. The revolt was easily and brutally repressed. But, it had another effect: Nicholas I turned away from a program of modernization that had begun under Peter the Great.
This culminated in his adoption of the policy of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality. And we can see this conservative, anti-Western policy evident in the ideology and actions of Putin. Orthodox Christianity was so entangled with the state under Nicholas I to the point they at times seemed one and the same. Putin has reached out to the Russian Orthodox Church and they to him and many of his policies are a direct outgrowth of the Church’s.
Under Nicholas I’s autocracy, he demanded loyalty to the House of Romanov. To Putin, it is unconditional loyalty to his cult of personality and rule. But instead of demanding, he has oddly “earned” it. Finally, there is nationality which defines Putin’s whole persona and rule. It is recognition of the state’s founding role on Russian nationality and the equal rights of citizens for all others within Russia’s borders.
As to the latter, there was one exception: Jews. They were excluded because, as Nicholas I noted, they had “imminent hate towards Russian people, and their (Jews) anti-human nature.” Although anti-semitism always existed in Russia and one can make a great argument that Alexander II was the worst of the offenders, the Cantonist Decrees under Nicholas I were equally horrendous as the pogroms under Alexander II. This forced Jewish males between the age of 12 and 18 into military conscription for 25 years! During their service, they were converted to Christianity. Many Jewish parents would cut off fingers of their sons to avoid conscription. This is one area where Putin diverges from the nationality aspect of Nicholas I’s rule.
There is one glaring similarity between Nicholas II’s Russia in 1917 and Putin’s Russia in 2017. That is the proliferation in the beliefs in conspiracy theories regarding Russia. The February Revolution of 1917 that led to the abdication of Nicholas II was blamed by traditionalists on the British. Even today, history lessons in Russia teach about the alleged British role in the fall of Nicholas II even though most Western historians discount this theory. Conversely, the October Revolution which brought the Bolsheviks into power was blamed on the Germans.
Under Nicholas II, the autocracy and supporters of the House of Romanov said the entire opposition were traitors who had sold soul their Russian souls to the British. On the other hand, the liberal elites that opposed Nicholas II believed the government was crawling with German spies. Although Germany certainly allowed Lenin safe passage into Russia from his self-imposed exile in Switzerland in an effort to get Russia out of World War I, the German spy theory lacks historical documentation.
Today, Putin blames opposition to his rule domestically on Western NGOs and security services. Instead of the British monarchy or German spies, today the bogeymen are the CIA and various other Western agencies fomenting opposition. Russian propaganda today is rife with these conspiracy theories. For example, it is now taken as gospel in Russia- thanks in large part to outlets like Sputnik and RT- that the 2014 Ukrainian revolution that ousted a pro-Russian regime was instigated and financed by the United States and other Western countries. Likewise, even events not even tangentially related to Russia are blamed on Western sources- the Arab Spring, the ouster of Qaddafi in Libya. Shreds of truth are strewn into absolute fact with Russia the ultimate object of nefarious Western plans.
With the fall of the Soviet Union even, Putin and many in his inner circle maintain that possibly Gorbachev and definitely Yeltsin were dupes of the Americans and other Western nations. This Western conspiratorial theory definitely fits nicely into any notion of the ingrained Russian belief that they are unique and “chosen” which is the end product of a strong nationalist spirit.
Putin emerged from the turmoil of the collapse of the Soviet Union. That initial burst of newfound political freedom was tempered by economic reality as the country transitioned from a centralized economy to a freer market. Coupled with separatist movements, especially in Chechnya, the disarray was palpable to the average Russian left behind by the enormous changes taking place all around them.
As Putin assumed power, the people of Russia traded some newfound political freedoms for a sense of security and prosperity. There was no downside since the vast majority of the population knew nothing but strongman leadership under Communist rule. In fact, during the 2000’s the Russian people were better off than their counterparts under 75 years of Communism. This was largely due to the boom in oil prices. But when the bottom dropped out on oil prices, Putin had to fall back on something else and that something was national pride, much like Nicholas I. In effect, they traded this temporary prosperity for national pride.
Many Russians had not expressed any national pride after the fall of the Soviet Union. Under Putin, that has completely changed. A recent poll indicated that Russians are now more proud of the fact that Putin annexed the Crimea than they are proud of the fact Russia sent the first man into space. Taking back the Crimea runs deeper into that national pride than any advancement under Communism. The glories of the distant yesteryears and correcting the injustices along the way are a good propaganda tool and mask potential contemporary setbacks such as those at risk in Syria.
For contemporary Russia, great culture or a vibrant civil society are not important. What is important is a victorious Russian empire. Anything that runs counter to this vision is simply discarded.
Putin, at a conference in Veidai, made clear that he saw himself as heir to the Russian empire and the Soviet Union. It is why he states that the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. He is not lamenting the fall of Communism, but of the geopolitical influence that incarnation of the Russian empire projected. The Soviet Union was predicated upon ideology; the Russian empire upon nationalist pride. He combines the symbols of the USSR and the Russian empire into an ideological soup that appeals to the masses- that the Russian people are chosen people, that they have a historic mission and that the collapse of the empire/Soviet Union is indeed a crime that must be corrected. To them, Putin is the man to do that.