Putting Putin Into the Context of Russian History
How did Putin — like his predecessor Catherine the Great — turn Russia’s gaze inward rather than westward?
May 5, 2008
Despite the striking similarities between Putin and Alexander III, Russia’s president most resembles long-ruling Russian Empress Catherine II (1762-1796), who was one of only two Russian monarchs to be graced with the moniker “the Great” following her title.
Like Putin, Catherine was an accidental ruler. A foreigner with only distant Russian roots, if any, she rose to the throne in a military coup and assumed power in a country that had not been ruled by foreigners since the Varangians were called in to become Russian princes in the 9th century.
Putin’s ascent, while nowhere near as dramatic, was equally sudden. When he was appointed prime minister by President Boris Yeltsin in August 1999, he was an unknown to Kremlin watchers, to say nothing of the general public in Russia or abroad.
Yet by January 2000, he was acting president — and in March won a presidential election in the first round, garnering 53% of the vote.
Just like Putin — whose rule followed a lurch toward the West after the collapse of communism and the fall of the Soviet Union — Catherine came to power in the wake of great Westernizing and modernizing reforms effected by Peter I, the other Russian monarch nicknamed “The Great.”
Czar Peter died in 1725 with his dynastic affairs in disarray. He was succeeded by his wife, Catherine I, upon which 35 years of interregnum ensued due to his reforms keeping Russian society in a permanent period of confusion.
Before Catherine II, three emperors and three empresses followed one another in quick succession, some of them being kids or teenagers and reigning no more than a few years, if not a few months.
Foreigners — regarded with utmost suspicion by Orthodox Russians and kept in strictest isolation before Peter — suddenly had a free rein in the vast country. German-speaking Baltic barons from the new territories conquered by Peter from Sweden rose to sudden prominence in government.
Although Russia participated in contemporary European conflicts, such as the War of Austrian succession, it remained a marginal power on the European scene.
Peter’s dream of having Russia become a major player in Europe was far from becoming fulfilled.
Putin also found Russia in disarray, even though it had lasted only a decade or so. But Russians had become disillusioned with democracy — which even now is a dirty word in Russia.
Moreover, many ordinary Russians believe that the turn westward had been a negative for the country, resulting in a sale of natural resources to foreigners — or worse, to Russian Jews. Having become used to the Soviet Union’s Great Power stature, Russians felt humiliated by its diminished standing.
Catherine showed a far firmer hand than any of her predecessors. And, though a foreigner, Catherine became a dyed-in-the-wool Russian patriot.
She combined her enlightened education, influenced by the most progressive French thought of her day, with a desire to see Russia become a modern, secular society. In other words, she wanted Russia to preserve its original character — without reneging on the modernization efforts undertaken by Peter.
Putin has restored many of the late, unlamented accouterments of the Soviet state. He has also crimped democracy, restricted the freedom of the press, abolished popular elections for regional governors and curtailed political opposition.
He has been criticized for this in the West — as well as by his political opponents at home.
Still, most of those political opponents are allowed to function relatively unmolested.
And the truth is that Putin has preserved private enterprise and has not tried to revive Soviet ideology — no more so than Catherine showed any inclination of returning to the pre-Petrine era in Russian history.
Putin may not be a democrat, but he has surely found a populist touch. A man of the people, he spends hours answering questions from ordinary Russians on live television and over the Internet — something that was not only never done by Soviet leaders, but was completely alien to the communist system.
Catherine was an absolutist monarch and certainly no democrat. Yet she read French writers of the enlightenment and corresponded with such figures as Voltaire and Diderot.
When it came to dealing with rebels, both acted ruthlessly and decisively. Catherine put an end to frequent Cossack risings on the western and southern edge of her empire after defeating a peasant army commanded by Yemelyan Pugachev.
Similarly, Putin suppressed an intractable separatist movement in Chechnya, which had bedeviled Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This being Russia, however, appearances put on to please the rulers all too often conceal a far less palatable reality.
After eight years of his rule — and oil prices that have gone from $10 per barrel when he came to power to nearly $100 now — Putin appears to be sincerely convinced that Russia has become a bona fide member of the exclusive club of rich industrial nations.
To boot, he has been lecturing his partners in the Group of Eight leading world economies, oblivious to the fact that Russia had been invited to join that exclusive group as a reward for not objecting to German reunification, not because it truly belongs there.
Indeed, Russia is still a very poor country — especially outside of Moscow and a few urban centers, where most of the country’s financial resources are concentrated. Yet Putin probably sees a far rosier picture during his frequent trips around the country.
He should probably keep in mind that Catherine once also took a voyage down the Dniepr River to survey her newly acquired lands down south — only to have her minister, Prince Grigory Potemkin, put up “Potemkin villages” along the riverbanks — cardboard facades imitating prosperous, populous settlements.
Catherine was German by birth, and Putin was strongly influenced by Germany, a country where he spent most of his career in the KGB, the Soviet spy agency, and whose language he speaks fluently.
Where Putin is very much unlike Catherine is in his personal life. Catherine was notorious for her prodigious sexual appetites and predilection for various other vices and excesses.
Catherine’s bed was where some of the most spectacular careers were made during her reign. She drew some of her most trusted lieutenants — including Prince Potemkin — from the ranks of her lovers.
Putin, on the other hand, is an exemplary family man and a loving father of two daughters — not to mention a caring owner for his Labrador, Koni.
He is a wrestler and a skier, keeps himself in slim physical shape and looks much younger than his 55 years. Unlike most other Russian males, he doesn’t smoke and, if he drinks at all, he does so in moderation.
Yet Putin’s way of selecting his entourage is not so different from Catherine’s. The president felt most comfortable when working with men and women he had known before his spectacular ascent to power.
These stops include his service in Dresden, civilian life in St. Petersburg and employment at the St. Petersburg Mayor’s office in the early 1990s. Some of the most prominent government officials in Russia today have been members of Putin’s dacha cooperative outside Leningrad.
A joke making rounds in Russia seeks to explain why Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov was abruptly dismissed a few months ago. The day before his dismissal, Fradkov is called into Putin’s office: “Listen, Fradkov. How come I can’t find you in my third-grade class picture?”
Just like Putin — whose rule followed a lurch toward the West after the collapse of communism and the fall of the Soviet Union — Catherine came to power in the wake of great Westernizing.
Russia is still a very poor country — especially outside of Moscow and a few urban centers, where most of the country's financial resources are concentrated.
An exemplary family man, where Putin is very much unlike Catherine is in his personal life.
Just like Putin, whose rule followed a lurch toward the West after the collapse of communism, Catherine came to power in the wake of great Westernizing and modernizing reforms effected by Peter I.
Foreigners, regarded with utmost suspicion by Orthodox Russians and kept in strictest isolation before Peter, suddenly had a free rein in the vast country.