Czar Putin

As the centenary of the October Revolution approaches, Russia’s current rulers have decided that ambiguity towards the events of 1917 is the second best response, after trying to ignore it. Ideally it would be left to ‘experts’  to deliberate, which is probably why planning official commemorations only commenced in December 2016.

Looked at from President Putin’s perspective, there is not much to like about 1917. While the Putin regime has selectively appropriated many aspects of the Tsarist past, Nicholas II lost an empire and one of Europe’s great powers imploded. There is nothing Putin can celebrate in Prince Gyorgy Lvov or Alexander Kerensky, so the February Revolution is passed over in silence, save to note the murky British role in these proceedings. 

Putin detests Lenin whom he blames for the dilution of Russian power in the polyglot Soviet framework, and was moreover another tool of meddling foreign powers: in this case Imperial Germany, which used the Bolsheviks to propel Russia out of the Entente alliance, before the Western allies intervened to fight the regime that resulted. The Bolshevik’s war against the Orthodox Church is another black mark in a contemporary regime where ‘smells and bells’ add an odour of piety to the ruthless President.

For Putin’s big lesson is that revolutions destroy established states, and they are very often the handiwork of malign foreign actors, as in the Colours’ Revolutions in Georgia or Ukraine and the Arab Spring. ‘Was it really not possible to develop not through revolution but through evolution, without destroying statehood and mercilessly ruining the fate of millions, but through gradual, step-by-step progress’ was the question left hanging in the air by Putin at his recent Valdai conference.

In practice, this means a laissez-faire official response to those who are nostalgic for either the Tsarist or Soviet eras. Since the original statue of Cheka chief Felix Dzerzhinsky was removed from outside the KGB’s Lubyanka HQ in August 1991, Communists have been trying to put one back, managing a plaster replica a few years ago, outside what is nowadays the headquarters of the FSB. In 2014 Putin also allowed the police unit that maintains public order in Moscow to be called the ‘Dzerzhinsky Division’. Museums celebrating the technological accomplishments of the Soviet Union are fine too, though not anyone commemorating the million fold victims of its murders.

On the other side of these memory wars, a black and orange Order of St George medal ribbon once used by Catherine the Great from 1769 onwards, was ubiquitous among Russian volunteers fighting to re-establish ‘Novorossya’ in Ukraine, while a statue of Nicholas II has appeared opposite one of Lenin in what for the time being is still called Leninsk-Kuznetsky.

A regime that trades on its social conservatism has also had to take a stand in Russia’s version of ‘culture wars’.  In the 1980s the regime manufactured a chauvinistic movement called Pamyat, which fused militant monarchism and Orthodoxy with belief in a Zionist ‘world conspiracy’.  With the regime’s guidance, this ‘evolved’ into the Liberal Democrat Party as the Soviets made their peace with the nationalist, fascist and Orthodox traditions in Russian life. Among the artistic targets of these ‘Orthodox Taliban’ were Martin Scorsese’s film ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’.  But it was only in the 2010s that this mentality made significant strides in being adopted into Putin’s syncretic and post-modern ideology. We saw that,  not only in the draconian sentences for the girls of Pussy Riot, but in the adoption of laws to protect the sensitivities of believers and in condemning ‘homosexual propaganda’ despite both abortion and homosexuality being legal in Russia.

A new movie called ‘Matilda’ has reignited these wars, literally so since there have been fires aplenty.  Religious folk who venerate Nicholas II as a saint are appalled by this account of the Tsar’s youthful affair with the prima ballerina Mathilda-Marie Feliksovna Kschessinskaya (d. Paris 1971). The director’s offices have been hit with Molotov Cocktails, as were two cars outside his lawyer’s offices. Despite Putin having pronounced that the director is ‘patriotic’ and ‘talented’, Russia’s largest cinema chain has declined to show the movie lest its theatres go up in flames too.

The most virulent opponents of ‘Matilda’ are Christian fundamentalists called ‘Christian State- Holy Russia’ who are led by a 33 year old bearded activist called Alexander Kalinin. He has convictions for murder and robbery.  Among his quirkier views are that a revived Soviet Union should model itself on Iran, under a real monarch rather than Putin who Kalinin says is ‘tired’.

While the authorities have not hesitated to detain Kalinin, their enquiries never venture into his connections with the Orthodox hierarchy, as they undoubtedly would in the case of any Islamist terrorist’s relations with imams and Muftis. How could they since Putin’s own confessor, Bishop Tichon, is of the view that the Bolsheviks' murder of the Imperial Family was an example of ‘ritual murder’, with no prizes for guessing who the ultimate culprits were.

An instrumentalised Orthodoxy is but one of the elements that comprise Putin’s syncretic ideology. Others include the doctrine of ‘Eurasianism’, in which Russians (and others) are encouraged to discover their inner cultural Mongol so as to dominate a huge space and help to secure Putin regards as Russia’s neighbouring sphere of influence.

Meanwhile, Putin’s Russia remains what some call a ‘managed democracy’ and one in which the longest serving leader since Leonid Brezhnev comes up for re-election next year with a view to beating Stalin’s record. But the stooge opposition parties to the President’s umbrella United Russia are looking shop worn, whether they are the Communists under the 73 years old Gennady Zyuganov, or the Liberal Democrats of 71 year old Vladimir Zhirinovsky. His most recent interventions include the thought that like Trump, Russia should build a wall to exclude Muslims, or, in response to Turkey’s shooting down a Russian jet last year, that a nuclear explosion in the Bosphorus would generate a tidal wave that would drown nine million of Istanbul’s inhabitants.

To inject glamour into an election which might otherwise be discredited by apathy and a low turnout, ultimately rebounding on a winner whose name is not in doubt, Russians have recently been entertained by the candidacy of the glamorous blonde Ksenia Sobchak. She is the daughter of Putin’s erstwhile mentor, Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of St Petersburg under whom Putin first ventured on a political career, before the mayor died of heart failure in 2000 and Yeltsin elevated Putin as prime minister. Putin may even be Sobchak’s godfather.  She is a well-known clothes designer and reality TV star. A cross between socialite Paris Hilton and, with designer glasses, a more earnest version of Jemima Khan, Sobchak’s mission is to split any opposition vote, nullifying the impact of 41 years old Alexander Navalny, who in any event is currently in jail and may not be allowed to run. In 2012 Putin had billionaire nickel oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov run as a third candidate to drum up some excitement. After winning nearly 8 per cent of the vote, he has never been heard of again.

We in the West often lament the degenerated state of our politics. Much of that is both irrefutable and justifiable. But we should look at Russia more often than we do, to see that the alternatives are not great, even though the dynamic Mr Putin seems to enjoy such popularity among western populists and conservatives nowadays.  Probably the best thinking Russians can hope for is that the oligarchs and securocrats whose common and rival interests Putin manages in a perpetual balancing act, grow weary of his dotage years, and find someone more plausible than Ms Sobchak to replace him.


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