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Russia 2012 – History Repeating?

*** Kelly Hignett from The View East recently did an interesting report examining Vladimir Putin’s role in a historical comparison to the role of other leaders in Russia’s past.

March 14, 2012 - Example Author - Articles and Commentary

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Matryoshka_Russian_politicians.jpg

Her analysis includes commentary from the Guardian’s Luke Harding, the Economist’s Edward Lucas, and Mark Galeotti from New York University. She has allowed us to republish part of her analysis here. ***

Russia 2012 – History Repeating?

By Kelly Hignett

Original post can found here: The View East

As you have probably guessed, I have been following the recent Russian presidential election with great interest. In many ways the election itself was unremarkable: the outcome was a fait accompli before the first ballots had even been cast and the result simply confirmed what everybody expected – Vladimir Putin’s triumphant return to the Russian Presidency with a respectable 63% of the vote, despite widespread evidence of electoral fraud (in addition to the numerous video clips showcasing blatant examples of ballot stuffing and carousel voting available online, both GOLOS and the OSCE have issued formal statements highlighting ‘serious problems’ with the election).

In another sense however, March 4th marked something of a watershed. Russians were genuinely divided. Opposition to Putin’s proposed return to power crystallised, manifest in a series of demonstrations and protest marches held in the run up to polling day. Then more Russians took to the streets in response, not to condemn Putin but to cheer him. There has been much talk about the 2012 election sparking the ‘re-politicisation’ of the Russian citizenry. Putin’s re-election has dominated international media coverage too, provoking a deluge of commentary and providing a platform for airing a broad spectrum of views about contemporary Russia. Last weekend, as Russians went to the polls, my Twitter feed was alive with analysis, opinion and a wealth of wonderful visual and oral snippets about election day, providing some fascinating insights into events as they unfolded.

Something that particularly struck me during the recent election coverage was the widespread use of historical analogies when discussing more contemporary political developments. 

Vladimir Putin – Tsar or Comrade?

I’ve seen numerous references alluding to Putin as a ‘modern day Tsar’, with parallels drawn with c16-c17th Tsar Peter the Great in particular. This image was seemingly endorsed by protest leader Alexander Navalny, who referred to Putin as the ‘Emperor of Russia’ in a derogatory speech made after his re-election was formally confirmed. However, Putin has also been critically compared to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, with 4th March 2012 referred to as Putin’s ‘Brezhnev moment’ , with widespread suggestions that the prospect of another 6 years (at least!) of ‘Putinism’, coming at a time of economic decline, will lead to the same kind of stagnation and frustration in Russia that characterised the Brezhnev era.

Putin’s face superimposed onto Brezhnev’s portrait – this popular image went viral during the Russian election earlier this month.

Traditionally, in the post-Stalin era, communist leaders in the USSR and Eastern Europe used a combination of coercion, compromise and concessions to try to minimise overt expressions of opposition to their rule (something that was particularly prevalent during the Brezhnevian era ‘Little Deal’) and while it is still early days, Putin appears to be approaching his third term in office by adopting a similar approach – with the recent announcement that the case of imprisoned oligarch and outspoken Putin critic Mikhail Khororkovsky is to be reviewed after 7 years,  balanced with a crackdown which resulted in the arrest of many protest leaders (including Alexander Navalny) inthe aftermath of March 4th.

I asked a ‘troika’ of seasoned Russia watchers – Mark Galeotti, Luke Harding and Edward Lucas – to share some thoughts about these historical analogies and their uses, and to make some predictions about what the future could hold for Russia during Putin’s return to the Russian presidency. Their responses provide a good indication of the broad range of opinions that exist. Their overall consensus was that when it comes to Putin, some historical analogies carry more weight than others, but that we should always beware of drawing overly simplistic comparisons between past and present.  So, over to them:

I have seen a lot of recent references describing Putin as a ‘modern day Tsar’. Is this a fair description? On balance, would you say Putin was more of a Peter the Great, an Ivan the Terrible, or another Tsar altogether?

Mark Galeotti: As always with these kind of comparisons, none fit perfectly. Ivan the Terrible was an effective institution-builder in the first period of his reign, an increasingly destructive paranoiac in the second, which may prove to be a decent metaphor for Putin, but we’ll have to wait and see. In many ways, I’d also throw in a comparison with Tsar Nicholas I (who reigned 1825-1855), an authoritarian with a military background, who came to see the intellectual case for reform, but who never was able ultimately to overcome his visceral mistrust of it and the chaos change tends to bring.

Luke Harding: I’m not sure how helpful it is to compare Putin to either Peter or Ivan. But I do know that staff in his administration quite often use the phrase “Tsar Khochet” [The Tsar Wants….]

Edward Lucas: Personally, I don’t like any of these historical analogies. Russia now is quite different from Imperial Russia. Putin is a Red-Brown-White amalgam:  his approach is friendly to orthodox while keeping Lenin in his mausoleum and using fascist rhetoric. To view him as a ‘Tsar’ is too simplistic.

****

To what extent have we seen a continuation of communist-era election tactics to influence the 2012 vote in Putin’s favour?

Galeotti: Well, I would for a start challenge the suggestions in some media reports about a strong military presence at polling stations. None of the ones I visited had more than a bored cop or two…

There was a degree of fraud, but that was certainly not communist-style. Back then, if they wanted to stack the votes, they just counted them appropriately. Phenomena such as carousel voting is very definitely a post-Soviet development. Where there is a degree of continuity though, is in the dominance of the public narrative, largely through control of the TV and through ‘administrative resource’ – but on the whole I think the idea of linking this to the Soviet era is a mistake. Election fraud is election fraud.

Harding: There are plenty of similarities here, but the most important factor has been State controlled TV – a glossily updated form of Soviet telly – which has broadcast wall-to-wall pro-Putin propaganda…

Lucas: I disagree. In my opinion, this is another wrong comparison. Election-rigging in its modern form started under Yeltsin (eg during the 1994 constutional referendum, the 1996 presidential vote). Communist elections were single-candidate so there was no need to rig them.

What do you think the future will hold for Russia, during Putin’s third term as President?

MG: This term, Putin’s last in power in my opinion, will see the slow, painful, two-steps-forward-one-step-back emergence of a genuine political alternatives — and maybe alternatives — to Putin and ‘Putinism’, but he and it will not go easily or quietly…

LH: Stagnation, frustration, emigration. A growing consciousness among Russia’s thinking population that the country is going nowhere under its current leadership…

EL: Change will be messy and remain inside the elite/system, at least at first. My bet is that Putin will not be leader after 2 years and one month.

***

For the full article please visit: http://thevieweast.wordpress.com/2012/03/13/russia-2012-history-repeating/

Kelly Hignett is a historian, focusing primarily on communist and post-communist Eastern Europe and a Lecturer at Swansea University. She maintains the online blog The View East.

 
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