Opposition supporters attend an unauthorized anti-Putin rally OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images

Down with the Czar Putin

The protests that rippled across Russia ahead of Vladimir Putin’s fourth inauguration as president suggest deeper stirrings of popular discontent. As he reaches for Monomakh’s Cap, the ruby-studded relic of the Russian czars, President Vladimir Putin risks paving the way for widespread turmoil.

SAN FRANCISCO – The protests that rippled across Russia ahead of Vladimir Putin’s fourth inauguration as president followed a familiar script. Police declared the gatherings illegal, and the media downplayed their size. Alexey Navalny, the main organizer and Russia’s de facto opposition leader, was arrested in dramatic fashion, dragged out of a rally in Moscow by police. On May 15, he was sentenced to 30 days in prison. More than 1,600 protesters across the country were beaten and detained.

But one element of the recent protests came from a much older show. The rallying cry “Down with the Czar!” was brought out of obscurity and onto the streets of Moscow almost 100 years after Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II, was riddled with Bolshevik bullets in a Yekaterinburg cellar.

A century before that, in a bid to lift the spirits of his friend Pyotr Chaadayev, a philosopher who was declared mad for his criticism of Czar Nicholas I, the poet Alexander Pushkin predicted the advent of better times, when “Russia will start from her sleep.” On “the ruins of autocracy,” he wrote, “our names will be inscribed!”

Nearly 200 years and three revolutions later, from the pedestal installed in the center of the square that bears his name, Pushkin’s bronze effigy gazed over throngs of his modern compatriots in mock paper crowns still working to raise Russia from its “age-old slumber” – and at their whip-brandishing detractors in Cossack uniforms. Pushkin’s name may have been inscribed on many a monument, but his prophecy has yet to be fulfilled.

Though Putin is a product of the Soviet Union, where “czar” really was a derogatory word, he shows considerable fondness for the autocrats of old. With the ardent support of the Russian Orthodox Church, he has relentlessly promoted the concept of state power as sacred, and resistance to it as sacrilegious. He has ascended the throne of the Byzantine emperors on the Holy Mount Athos in Greece, and portrayed his perpetual presidency as a burden he must carry, in service to his country and his people.

Whereas the Bolshevik leaders tore down monuments to the czars, Putin has built massive monuments to Vladimir the Great in Moscow and Alexander III in Crimea. Four years before famously shunning the centenary of the Russian Revolution in 2017, he sponsored lavish celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the House of Romanov.

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With the recent protests’ rallying cry, Navalny – Putin’s unbending opponent, who continues to demand truth from his government, even as its agents drag him toward yet another jail cell – called Putin’s imperial bluff. The demonstrations thus served as both an acknowledgement of and a challenge to Putin’s autocratic ambitions.

The odds are stacked in Putin’s favor. Navalny has a YouTube channel; Putin controls  the entire state apparatus, a mechanism of suppression vaster than any of the Russian czars ever had – and one that decades of totalitarianism have made virtually bulletproof. Beyond the amped-up military and the powerful security services, there is now the National Guard of the Russian Federation, or Rosgvardiya, a contingent of some 340,000 personnel created by Putin in 2016 that answers directly to him.

Putin also manages a highly effective propaganda machine, which churns out a post-modernist pastiche of old Soviet slogans, pre-revolutionary religious rituals, and state-of-the-art marketing ploys inspired by the “consumerist” West. “Nothing is true and everything is possible,” the narrative goes.

Ostensibly, Putin’s system is working. Official surveys insist that 86% of Russians – and it is usually 86% – support him on everything from the annexation of Crimea to his latest term as president. But Putin’s ambitions as a post-modern autocrat may be his Achilles’ heel. After all, autocrats often mistake their people’s proclamations of love and admiration for the real thing. The truth about what people genuinely feel remains impossible to know.

With the Russian economy stagnating, owing largely to international sanctions and Kremlin counter-sanctions, discontent will continue to simmer. Any shock – even a seemingly minor one – could cause it to boil over. At that point, targeting rivals and dissenters may no longer be enough; Putin would have to resort to Stalin-style mass repression instead.

Just how viable such a dictatorship is in the Internet age remains an open question. Consider the failure of the Kremlin’s attempt to block Telegram, Russia’s leading instant messaging service: far from quashing dissent, that effort has fueled support for the recent protests.

The allegiances of Russians are notoriously hard to pin down. The very people who stood for hours in the cold to glimpse Nicholas II aboard the royal ship were revolting against him a decade later. The people may be silent for a time, as they devastatingly were at the end of another Pushkin masterpiece, the tragic play “Boris Godunov,” when a false new czar ascended to the throne. But silence does not always mean consent.

The recent protests may seem insignificant compared to the scale of Putin’s repressive resources and the spectacle of his inauguration. But it is hard to ignore the history to which the protesters are appealing. Pining for a crown, Putin forgets that Russian monarchy, for all its splendor, was always a minefield, because an autocrat’s contempt for law leaves him vulnerable to mob justice.

As he reaches for Monomakh’s Cap, the ruby-studded relic of Russia’s czars, Putin risks paving the way for yet another round of violence. Whether or not that upheaval finally fulfills Pushkin’s prophecy, it would tear Russia apart – and most likely drive today’s would-be czar into the dustbin of history.

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