By Konrad Putzier
When Russian dissident Alexei Navalny was recently sentenced to jail only to be released shortly thereafter, many Western observers were surprised. The German Daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung suggested Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had an interest in keeping somewhat open the election for Moscow’s mayor, where Navalny was a candidate. The New York Times concluded that Putin was worried about criticism from abroad over the harsh verdict, which led him to release Navalny. Both explanations may be true, but a broader look at Putin’s presidency suggests another reason fur the unexpected act of kindness. Putin is increasingly trying to create an image of himself as a benign autocrat. This is only one of the many ways Russia’s President has been building on Tsarist imagery to bolster his popularity.
Navalny’s temporary release from jail—he will have to return if his appeal is unsuccessful—fits perfectly with a string of recent pardons. Last year, Putin ordered the release, due to her bad health, of a member of the rock band Pussy Riot, jailed for criticizing church and state. He even publicly contemplated pardoning imprisoned opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky, if he asked. These steps can only be fully understood in light of the Tsarist tradition they implicitly echo.
In the 19th century, the Tsar was widely regarded as a caring ruler by his subjects, often affectionately called “little father”. Standing above the law, he could punish but also pardon. The belief that the Tsar was something akin to a father figure who was there for his subjects when they needed him most was an important pillar of the autocracy’s popularity. Stalin later built on this Tsarist tradition, calling himself “father of the people” and often posing for photos with children on his lap. The various letters written to Stalin in the 1930s by ordinary citizens asking for help or pardon show how deeply ingrained the image of the caring ruler had become in Russian public consciousness.
By showing supposed kindness towards his enemies, Putin is trying to become the father figure Stalin and numerous Tsars have successfully embodied. This imagery is enhanced by its link to another Tsarist tradition—blaming failures on subordinates.
In April, Putin was shown on state television berating his cabinet ministers in harsh language, saying they must do more to fulfill his election pledges on social policy. “If we fail to do it, it means that either I’m ineffective or you are, and I tend to believe the latter,” he said, according to published reports.
The message, intended to bolster Putin’s popularity, is clear. The President is doing all he can and has everyone’s best interest at heart. If things are going wrong, it has to be the fault of incompetent bureaucrats. What makes this message so effective is that it builds on a tendency not go blame leaders for government failures that have festered in Russian collective consciousness for hundreds of years.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Tsar was revered by large swaths of the peasant population as god-like. Any crises and hated government policies were generally attributed to evil advisers and ministers. After all, the thinking went, the Tsar himself wanted only the best for his people and surely had no idea what policies ministers maliciously implemented in his name.
Stalin built on this tradition in the 1930s. Whenever one of his policies backfired, he swiftly blamed it on overzealous followers or supposed foreign agents in the state apparatus. Most famously, Nikolai Ezhov, head of the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) during the great purges, was tried and executed—Stalin claiming that the mass killings were entirely his doing. Many letters from the time testify that people honestly believed Stalin had no idea of the horrors underway in his name.
Today Putin is following a similar, though less blood-thirsty, pattern. And surveys show that people are buying his message. While his party is highly unpopular and generally blamed for the sluggish progress in the still impoverished country, Putin’s approval ratings remain quite high.
In most Western nations, people tend to blame their heads of government for almost everything that goes wrong, even events beyond their control. In Russia, a large part of the population does the opposite. Rather than blaming Putin for his terrible record, they prefer to believe in their strong leader and instead see his party and the bureaucracy as the problem. The explanation for this can be found in the Tsarist tradition Putin is shrewdly building on.
Putin is not only using the Tsarist tradition when constructing his public image, but also when choosing his crusades. His current term as President has been characterized by conservative policies, most notably with regard to orthodox Christianity. Russia’s anti-blasphemy laws, introduced last year, are widely popular in the country, as was the prosecution of Pussy Riot for singing an anti-religious song in a church.
Despite the undeniable impact of communist rule, the Russian population is and always has been overwhelmingly conservative and religious. The Tsars drew legitimacy in part from their official role as defenders of the orthodox faith. Under communist rule, nostalgia for the monarchy was most intense in religious circles, which felt that they had lost a champion of their faith when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in 1917.
With his crusade against Pussy Riot and homosexuals, Putin is placing himself directly in the Tsarist tradition of defending Christianity against real or imagined adversaries. What worked a century ago seems to be working now. Putin’s religious policies have strengthened his popularity.
The Tsarist imagery of Putin’s rule was clearest at the re-inauguration of the Russian Popular Front in Moscow in June. The Front is a political movement created by Putin and evidently intended to emancipate the president from his widely unpopular party United Russia. When Putin entered the room, the crowd erupted in a well-rehearsed chant “People, Russia, Putin”—a slogan clearly derived from the Tsarist “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, Nationality”, which described the system of political legitimacy before the 1917 communist revolution.
Autocracy is now replaced with Putin, nationality with the more concrete term Russia. Clearly, Putin has every intention of leading his country toward the goal of becoming more of a nation state for Russians and less of a multinational empire.
However, the replacement of Orthodoxy with People shows the crucial difference between Putin and the Tsars. While the old rulers could claim they were annointed by God and had a right to rule with impunity, Putin’s legitimacy is still based on whether he is perceived to promote the interests of the people. His approval ratings will be high only as long as citizens’s lives seem to be improving. This is a huge problem for Putin. He has created a system that is quite successful at maintaining vertical power structures and suppressing the opposition. But fundamentally the system is corrupt, inefficient, and will never be able to deliver the progress Russians are demanding in the long term.
Putin may be trying to become Russia’s modern Tsar. But unless he somehow manages to convince Russians he is appointed by God, his rule will eventually lose its legitimacy.
Konrad Putzier is an editorial assistant at the World Policy Journal.