Putin, the Modern Czar

Despite opening Russia to West, is Putin actually reviving Czarist ruling traditions?

January 5, 2002

Despite opening Russia to West, is Putin actually reviving Czarist ruling traditions?

Russian peasants had an unshakable belief in the goodness of the Russian czar. No matter how hard their lives were, their czar — the ultimate ruler — bore no responsibility.

Or so the farmers believed. In their minds, the true state of affairs in the country was concealed from the czar by his ministers and courtiers, who were the true villains exploiting all ordinary people. The only hope was to somehow go over the heads of the czar’s entourage, inform him directly about the injustices carried out in his name — and he would set everything right.

That mythological czar was also a great alms-giver. For someone with a problem, the best course of action was to appeal directly to the czar. People who tried this avenue were called “truth-seekers,” and it was the czar alone who could establish the truth.

In popular lore, the czar could pardon the wrongfully convicted and punish those who were responsible for the injustice. Not surprisingly, the traditional way to address the monarch by his subjects was to use the familiar “ty” form in Russian — and to call him “Czar — Our Father.”

When Mr. Putin answered questions from his constituents during a recent live TV broadcast, he was well-prepared and had a slew of statistics at his fingertips. Whenever a caller raised an issue — whether it concerned low wages, official corruption, drug addiction or the condition of Russian-speaking minority populations in the former Soviet republics — Mr. Putin would invariably declare that he is aware of it and that his government is working to resolve it (see also Part 1 of this series, “Mr. Putin: Super-Democrat”).

Yet, some of Mr. Putin’s answers, as well as the tenor of many of the questions put to him, contained quite a bit of the old “Autocrat of All Russia” thinking — which was, of course, the official title of the Russian czar.

Typically, Mr. Putin would talk about the difficulty of addressing the issue raised by a caller, and then assure the caller and the audience that government officials had already been directed by the President to work on the solution.

If somebody got blamed, it was invariably local officials who either were not doing their job properly or not quickly enough. Even though a broad array of intractable social, economic and political problems were raised, Mr. Putin presented himself as someone in total control. In most cases, he promised eventual improvements.

In fact, in the fawning manner of old serfs, some callers felt obliged to thank Mr. Putin for whatever progress there had been. One pensioner gushed effusively that at last Russia has a decent president.

Another thanked him personally for raising her pension and taking good care of them — even though after a 23% increase, the average pension still amounts to around $60 per month. That amount affords only a bare-bones existence, pretty much on the edge of starvation.

A few questions appear to have been set pieces, giving Mr. Putin an opportunity to come to the aid of his constituents — just as they would expect of a czar.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, Antinina Rzhanova had been carefully pre-selected to ask a supposedly impromptu question that revealed a glaring injustice. Evidently, Ms. Rzhanova gets paid a pension of only $30 per month, even though as a war veteran with combat duty during World War II, she is required to get at least three times as much.

“I hope that they have your phone number at the studio,” responded Mr. Putin. “They will pass it on to us here, and I promise to you that this issue will be resolved.”

One 10-year old was concerned because his school had been shut down for lack of heating. He feared the students would be made to repeat a grade. In a typical czar-like manner, Mr. Putin hinted that the governor of the boy’s region was watching the show on TV — and “would do everything necessary to restore the viability of educational institutions.”

The plight of kids typically melts the hearts of even the most hardened cynics. No surprise then that Mr. Putin personally selected this quote from a letter sent to him by a seven-year-old named Vanya. “Our life is hard,” read Mr. Putin on national TV. “Our house has burned down. We live with grandmother. We have to rent an apartment. I rarely see my mother, she has to work so much. I’m very lonely.”

So heart-wrenching. Yet, there is help on the way. In a gesture reminiscent of Santa Claus, movies by the American director Frank Capra or, indeed, a long line of Russian czars, Mr. Putin hints at a Christmas miracle: “I have a strong reason to believe that you and your family will be helped.”

Thank you, Mr. Putin, Our Father!

Read Part 1 of our series on Vladimir Putin.