Nicholas I, Emperor of All the Russias 1825-1855 – a role model for Vladimir Putin? History Lessons By Grigory Pasko, journalist On 8 February of this year, at a conference at the University of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (MGIMO) timed to coincide with the 125th anniversary of the birth of US president Franklin Roosevelt, deputy head of the Kremlin administration Vladislav Surkov drew a direct parallel between the activities of Roosevelt and Putin. “Just like Roosevelt in his time, Putin today is forced, and required, to strengthen administrative management and use the potential of the presidential power to a maximum degree for the sake of overcoming a crisis”, said he. Comparing Putin with some historical personage has long ago become a tradition for all manner of officials and obsequious journalists. Only once did I hear another kind of comparison, from a very famous Russian stage and screen actor – he compared Putin with a white moth. Surkov’s speech inspired me to find historical parallels on the theme “Putin and someone else”. Here’s what I came up with. And so, we have Putin. A poor, forgotten C-student from the hinterlands outside Leningrad. A person with a huge inferiority complex. Exceedingly vindictive; never forgives or forgets. Like any dependent person, he is devoted to his master to the point of subsuming his entire self to this devotion. And his master is the KGB system. Comparisons with Peter the Great simply don’t hold any water whatsoever: Putin absolutely can not be compared with the emperor on any count – not in brains, not in courage, not even in height. Peter pulled Russia, out of the feudal backwoods of historical non-existence. Putin is stubbornly returning Russia back to socialism. The best example for comparison (and even this is a pretty lame comparison, inasmuch as Putin is such a characterless personality that you really can’t compare him with anybody) would be the emperor Nicholas I. The historian M. Rakhmatullin (“Nauka i zhizn” No. 2/2002) writes that Nicholas I “was doomed to take on the role of ‘strangler of the revolution’.” Nobody doomed Putin: he chose for himself the role of strangler of Russia’s young democracy – as deformed as it was in some respects, like some “ugly duckling”. The way he took care of the free press was absolutely brilliant (from the point of view of a thick-headed martinet). Putin was lucky in that there wasn’t that much of a free press to begin with. Now nearly all the press sings Putin’s praises. And it seems that Putin himself likes this a lot. When he is being praised, he only smiles shyly, like the little gay thief Alkhen in Ilf and Petrov’s novel “The Twelve Chairs”. Following in Nicholas I’s footsteps, Putin could also say that he too has “cleansed the fatherland of the effects of the infection that was lurking so much in its midst.” By “infection”, Putin has no doubt often understood the oligarchs in general, but he has gotten rid of only a few in particular. Why these specific ones? Because one had brought him to power (and tyrants have always, in all times and ages, gotten rid of those who had brought them to power). The second considered himself no stupider than Putin and didn’t hide this. The third dared to fund the opposition. Dozens of other oligarchs are flourishing, plundering Russia clean, and don’t disturb Putin. And he doesn’t disturb them. It is possible that by “infection” Putin may have meant the human rights community, opponents of that criminal organization known as the KGB, independent journalists, environmentalists, and intelligent, honest, and normal people in general? In this case, he has certainly succeeded if not in cleansing the fatherland of them, then at least in forcing them to either go hide in their niches or fight for their very existence. Nicholas is famous for the fact that in 1825, he created the Third Department of the Special Chancellery, with Benckendorf as its head. Nobody in Russia is talking about how the infamous Fifth Administration of the KGB has renewed its criminal activities in full force. But it is enough that one of the prominent suppressors of dissidents, the KGB chief for Leningrad City and Oblast, the initiator of the “Nikitin affair”, general Cherkesov, is now one of the main leadership officials of Putin’s Russia. In principle, all of today’s KGB (or, as they have named it, the FSB) is one sheer Fifth Administration. They are supposedly fighting terrorism, but in the meantime all of Russia is convinced that it is the KBG and not anyone else that is bombing apartment houses. They are supposedly catching spies, although the whole world including all of Russia is convinced that there isn’t a single real spy among these. For this reason, the main objective of the existnec of the KGB is obvious – to protect the regime and prevent any attempts to change the totalitarian order under which power in the country belongs entirely to the KGB. Putin is merely the placeman for this system. Thank goodness he’s not the smartest of placemen. Although even under him, the KGB is present in absolutely all spheres of the life of the country – either in the form of managers-officials from the KGB, or in the form of the multitude of toadies and stoolpigeons (in the words of A. Hertzen – “listening up and listening in” [slushayushchikh i podslushivayushchikh]. As under Nicholas, the chief of the Third Department (in our case, the director of the FSB) “judged all, repealed court decisions, and interfered in everything” with the blessing of the tsar. There are more than enough examples of this today. Wherein lies the difference? Under Nicholas I, the people looked down with disdain on the “blue uniforms”, and scorned even simple acquaintance with the spawn of this agency. In our time, everybody’s trying to get into the KGB; the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Emergency Situations, Customs, the Army, taxmen, governors, and just about everybody are kowtowing before them! If the “cast-iron” Censorial Statute was created in 1826, then now even the publication of such a monster isn’t needed: officials and hireling journalists are prepared to oblige the KGB in any which way all by themselves, of their own free will, without any further incentive, as long as today’s system is benevolent towards them. Under Putin, we are seeing the founding of alternative organizations such as the Union of Journalists (the Mediasoyuz) or economically “correct” civic organizations, up to and including the odious Public Chamber. But we’re also seeing the rebirth of old, tried and true groups, such as the Pioneers, the Komsomol, and voluntary people’s guards attached to the police. And then there are the “innovations” with an openly fascist character – “Going together” and “Nashi”. Like it was under Nicholas, under Putin people have begun to bray about “getting back to the sources” and about the “Russian spirit”. Neo-fascists are being encouraged, albeit not openly. The rah-rah patriots are ready to burn books that are, in their opinion, bad. Xenophonia and spy mania are on the rise, as manifestations of the “defense of Russia” from enemies who are everywhere and all around. Inasmuch there is practically no economy at all, the you can always cast the blame on spies and “democraps” [der’mokraty]. Russia under Putin is counterposing itself against Europe more and more. But this, like so much else, is taking place in a two-faced manner. On the one hand, Russia is worming its way into Europe, into the EEC, the IMF, the WTO, NATO. On the other hand, it is criticizing these institutions every which way through the mouths of compliant journalists. If Putin has ever read Karamzin (by the way, we were never told about how reactionary the thought of this historian was), he would no doubt like Karamzin’s words about how in Russia, the sovereign is “living law”: he shows mercy on the good, and puts the evil to death. At the same time, Putin will be quick to add that he doesn’t meddle in the affairs of the courts, although even an idiot can see that when you have supine courts grovelling on their bellies, it is enough for the president to say nothing at all or to mutter something obscure. Judicial reform deserves a separate discussion. Under Nicholas I, as we know, the person in charge of judicial reform was the former governor-general of Siberia, Mikhail Speransky. A man of exceptional intelligence. And progressive, in contrast to Karamzin. He proposed, for example, making the judicial power elected. The executive power would merely oversee the forms of judicial proceedings. And the executive power itself would have to be accountable to the legislative power. And what do we have now under Putin? Even Putin’s comrade in arms Kozak, responsible for judicial reform, has declared that the judicial system has broken down. Lots of noise, but it’s all just hot air. Cosmetic changes to the status of judges and to the criminal-procedure and criminal codes. And that’s it. Nothing substantive. We don’t have a judicial power; all we have is cowardly judges who adopt their decisions dependently on the supreme power – the KGB and the governors. The Russian courts have even acquired a new label – Basmanny. The executive power doesn’t execute laws, the legislative power is essentially subordinate to the executive. The “aggressively obedient” majority in the State Duma, to use a term coined by Yuri Afanasiev, is a quagmire in which common sense drowns. The new Duma will no doubt confirm this many a time yet. The electoral system is nothing short of a parody of democracy. Only those who are advantageous for the power “win”. This is proven by the most recent State Duma elections. We needn’t expect any better from the upcoming elections. Under Nicholas I, there were departmental courts – military, naval, mining, railway, and so forth. We’ve got them under Putin too – military courts. Military courts are a true grimace of totalitarianism, a clear rudiment on the way to judicial independence. Just like the toughening of entry and exit into and out of Russia. Quietly, without any fanfare, Putin has brought back a concept some thought was gone forever: nevyezdnoy [a person prohibited from foreign travel—Trans.] Scientists are now not allowed to travel abroad – in the opinion of the KGB, they are potential spies. For all the rest, like in the times of Nicholas I, it has become harded to get a foreign-travel passport. Like under the tsar, under the communists the only way to get permission to obtain a foreign-travel passport is through the KGB. So far, thank goodness, travel abroad has not been prohibited. But who can say for sure that this will always be so? And as concerns entry into Russia, wel, last year, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, now an opponent of Putin’s, actually had a problem entering his own country. And dozens of foreign journalists have had and continue to have problems when they are not granted entry visas into Russia. Reading the papers or watching TV, you sometimes hear the thought: we have nothing to learn from beyond the border. A popular contemporary comedian has become famous for his phrase about the Americans: “Boy are they dense!” His routines often propagandize a thought that was already being voiced by Nicholas I: “Our imperfection is in many ways better than their perfection”. The issue of supporting the domestic producer is constantly being massaged. The government is acting particularly absurdly and awkwardly on the automobile market. Domestic coffins-on-wheels are being advertised like Rolls-Royces, but the only thing they have in common is the price. By the way, I’ve noticed the following subtlety: if the mass media want to praise something in Russia, they mention the name of the president, just like they used to mention Stalin and Brezhnev in their day. And if they need to berate, then they say: “The government of so-and-so (Kasyanov, Fradkov)…Zurabov’s Ministry…Chubais’s Agency…”. But what do premiers and officials have to do with anything, if the head of the executive power is the president? Under Nicholas I, in order to avoid “intellectual ferment”, they closed down publications of progressive orientation: A. Delvig’s “Literaturnaya gazeta”, N. Polevoy’s “Moskovsky telegraph”, and N. Nadezhdin’s “Telescope”. Under Putin, we’ve had the closure of the magazine “Itogi”, the newspaper “Segodnya”, and the television channels NTV and TV-6… Putin never does anything blatantly. He acts under the guise of observing legality. The strangulation of freedom of speech is taking place under the cover of the phrase “dispute among economic agents”. One can confidently say about Putin, and about Nicholas I for that matter, that he, not possessing economic knowledge, did not particularly interfered in the economic management of the state. By the way, under Putin, it seems that nobody is particularly interfering in the economic management of the state. Other than the oligarchs, who are concerned about their own pockets and a cloudless future for their own great-great-grandchildren. But then political management is something Putin considers his personal turf. Putin himself is praised for the creation of the vertical of power. At the same time, nobody can actually explain what this is and why the hell anybody needs it. The visible result of this vertical – the creation of the “semiboyarshchina” [state of the seven boyars—Trans.] – an additional armada of officials in the person of the staffs of the plenipotentiary representatives of Putin in the newly created seven federal districts. At the same time, the plenipotentiaries interfere with the governors and have a fierce hatred of them – and the feeling is completely mutual. No doubt it was to liquidate this feud that it was decided to no longer elect governors, but to appoint them. Like Nicholas I, Putin expresses a commitment to a mighty centralized administrative apparat. To this day, nobody knows for sure what the central Putinite administrative apparat, and in particular the president’s administration, consists of. The know-how of today’s power is in the creation of a multitude of funds and foundations – economic, political, to support the KGB and veterans of the KGB. Nobody stops to think whose money all these hundreds of funds exist on. But then foreign grant-giving foundations are living in expectation of unpleasant changes and the total liquidation of their activities in Russia. But when we take a look at the militarization of the apparatus of state, Putin leaves Nicholas I behind in the dust. Under the emperor, only three out of 13 ministires had civilian ranks. Today, it’s the same thing. Plus seven generals in the rank of plenipotentiary representatives (the only exception/misunderstanding being in the person of Kiriyenko). Under Putin, the quantity of “power structures” [military and paramilitary government agencies—Trans.] has increased to twenty – we didn’t have such a thing under Stalin or under Brezhnev. It has gotten to the point where at the parade of Victory in May 2002 along Red Square, we watched as a column marched by of the new mighty military organization – the ministry for emergency situations. According to certain assessments,the numerical composition of these “power structures” comprises in excess of 6 million persons. The uniform, the money, the privileges, and the power – this is what attracts young people into these structures. Liberally paraphrasing S.M. Solovyov, we can say that under Putin, the “military person” (perferably from the KGB), like a stick, as someone not accustomed to reasoning, but to carrying out orders, and capable of teaching others to carry out orders without reasoning, was considered the best, the most capable commander.” The myth that the KGB was the elite of Russian society was already deficient under Stalin. Under Putin, it has acquired a new lease on life only because Putin himself comes from the KGB. However, this myth has absolutely no substance underneath it. Furthermore, a multitude of facts testifies that everything the KGB sets its hands to collapses with a crash, be it running the country and the economy, catching spies, or fighting terrorists. Like it was under Nicholas I, under Putin, with the accession of KGB men to all posts, ignorance, tyranny, corruption, lies, and hypocrisy have set in everywhere. Nicholas I spoke of “strict unconditional legality”. Putin is famous for his phrase about “dictatorship of the law”, under which he was even unable to reach the procurator-general on the telephone in his time. The usual reply of the “man of law” Putin to a question that worries the Western world is “I’m not up on what’s going on there; this is a purely legal question”. Like Nicholas I, Putin, it seems, is not in a condition to understand, to cite the historian M. Rakhmatullin, that “the movement of true life needs to go not from the top down, but from the bottom up”. Like Nicholas I, Putin has surrounded himself with people who carry out orders obediently and don’t show any initiative. How can we not, after the manner of the historian, remember the words of the marquis de Custine: “There are no big people in Russia, because there are no independent characters”. Today, I don’t see a single area of human endeavor in Russia in which lies and double standards, ugliness and indolence, arbitrariness and just plain idiocy do not reign supreme. Those who try to exhibit intellect and honesty or at least a different point of view about what’s going on are constantly and in every way running up against lies, idiocy, and… (see above). In many ways, the existence of such a system has become possible thanks to the personal efforts of comrade Putin. If Pushkin is our, Russia’s, everything, then Putin is our nothing. The saddest thing is that Putin is for a long time. Nicholas I, as we know, occupied the throne for 30 years.