Putin: A Return to the Romanovs | Daniel Hawker
Vladimir Putin spent the majority of last year not focused on the COVID-19 global pandemic, but on tightening his already iron grip on Russia. July saw a referendum in which he gained the right to serve an additional two terms following the end of his current one in 2024, and he also had Alexei Navalny, his arch political rival, poisoned and then imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Moving into this year, April saw him pass a law allowing him to serve until 2036, which would make his tenure as Russian leader even longer than that of Joseph Stalin (who led the Soviet Union for 29 years).
Looking back in Russian history, we come across another time in which the country’s leaders were as autocratic as Putin: a period of roughly 300 years when it was ruled by the Romanovs, beginning with Michael I in 1613 and ending with the abdication of Nicholas II in 1917. Whilst Russia was under this governance system, all decisions and abilities were held by an all-powerful Emperor, or Tsar. The majority used this power to crackdown on political dissent using secret police, heavily regulate press freedom, and spread Russian influence through geopolitical expansion.
The two figures of this dynasty most like Putin were undoubtedly Nicholas I and his grandson Alexander III. Ruling from 1825-55 and 1881-94 respectively, both were seen as traditionalist conservatives, viewing Russia as a majestic land and culture separate and superior from Western Europe, and both strongly believed in the principle of autocratic rule. Putin mirrors these values, being committed to keeping Russia from European integration, and also believing himself to be the strong ruler his people need, maintaining order and authority.
To understand these two figures in particular, you must be aware of the ideological doctrine they followed: known as ‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality’, it sought unity under Orthodox Christianity, emphasised the supreme and unrestricted power of the Tsar and the need for a united Russian Empire. This last point served as the catalyst for a ruthless policy of forced cultural conformity known as ‘Russification’, which saw the destruction of many non-Orthodox churches, as well as the stamping out of many languages and cultures (which culminated in 1885 with Alexander III’s decision to make Russian the official language of the Empire). Under Putin, Russia has recently been undergoing a resurgence in Russification, with the president announcing at a press conference in 2018 that the Russian language was “the spiritual framework of our country”. Following this, the Russian Duma adopted a Bill that made education in 34 of Russia’s 35 official languages (every language except Russian) optional, limiting teaching in other languages to 2 hours per week.
A dedication to Orthodox Christianity is very much present in the mindsets of all three leaders, with the Romanovs’ very legitimacy relying on the Divine Right of Kings doctrine, believing themselves to be ‘ordained by God’. Thus, their staunch protection of the Eastern Orthodox Church served to ensure the continued public acceptance of their dynasty. President Putin similarly presents himself as a fierce protector of Eastern Orthodoxy, having proposed constitutional amendments in early 2020 that would’ve amongst other things, included a proclamation of Russians’ faith in God
Another similarity between Nicholas I, Alexander III and Putin is their role as reactionaries, with all three of them succeeding liberal and reformist leaders, whose policies they saw as damaging to the fabric of Russian society. For Nicholas, it was his brother Alexander I, who pursued major liberal educational reforms, most notably the building of many more universities.
For Alexander, it was his father Alexander II, whose era-defining liberal reforms (the most notable being the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861) paved the way for the growth of radical opposition movements, one of which (‘People’s Will’) was responsible for his assassination in 1881. In response, Alexander III quickly resumed hard-line autocracy in Russia, with historian Orlando Figes describing the new Tsar as a political reactionary who soon sacked his father’s liberal ministers and passed a series of decrees rolling back their reforms”. Furthermore, he restored the use of secret police (an institution very well known to the Russian people) in the form of the Okhrana, with Figes stating the 1880s as being “a time of renewed political repression following the assassination.”
For Putin, it was President Boris Yeltsin. Having instituted various political, economic and social reforms, Yeltsin is viewed through the telescope of hindsight as either a radical reformer or a leader who oversaw economic mismanagement, coupled with damaging Russia’s international standing following the breakup of the Soviet Union. In stark contrast, Putin has thus far been committed to taking Russia back to a time of military strength, a devotion to Orthodox Christianity and traditional values.
Also shared by Putin and the Russian Tsars is a love and devotion to autocratic and absolute rule. Following the broadly liberal reign of his father Alexander II, Alexander III decided, encouraged by his tutor and advisor K.P. Pobedonstev, to reassert the Tsar’s absolute power, and delivered a statement in 1881, now known as ‘the Manifesto of Unshakable Autocracy’. Believing his father’s assassination as having been the result of his reformist tendencies (and thus the ever-increasing demand for reform by progressive groups), Alexander saw the necessity to ensure Russia was once again under the supreme and unquestionable control of the Emperor, and thus severely restricted the powers of the zemstvos – local government bodies that his father had established. Putin is similar in his position, having amended the Constitution and various laws to ensure his continued political power, in what has widely been seen as an attempt to ‘Tsarify’ himself and his rule.
Now seen across the modern world in many authoritarian regimes, the use of secret police to root out and arrest political opponents was and still is very much an aspect of state control in Russia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union (and thus the infamous KGB) in 1991, the Federal Security Service (or FSB) was established in 1995. Since then, the agency has grown and expanded, now being involved in the mass-suppression of internal dissent and anti-Putin action and demonstrations, even having faced accusations over the murder of corruption journalists.
Similar organisations were established and utilised by the Tsars. Founded by Nicholas I in 1826, the Third Section oversaw the censorship of reformist newspapers, surveyed the population for non-conformists and overall ensured all people and societal institutions revered and respected the paternalistic authority of the Tsar. Despite it’s repeated failures at stopping revolutionary attacks, the Third Section survived until 1880, when Alexander II dissolved them. However, following his assassination the next year, a new body with even greater powers and oversight was created by his son: the Okhrana.
Founded in 1881 by Alexander III, it had the responsibility of rooting out all reformist sentiment that may have arisen during the liberal reign of Alexander II, and crushing it to ensure the strength of autocratic rule. To do this, the Okhrana used and refined secret police methods now considered as standard: espionage, the use of paid informants, torture and extra-legal killing – in fact, historian Richard Pipes points out that KGB manuals written in the 1970s included many of the same methods as used by the Okhrana approximately 100 years earlier.
Censorship of the media and severe restrictions on press freedom are other icons of the Putin Regime: 2019 saw the introduction of a new regulation which criminalised publications containing opinions that show “disrespect for society, government, state symbols and government institutions”, with this vague wording clearly being used to allow for selective application against political opponents of the president. This was unsurprisingly also the case in Tsarist Russia, with the vast majority of the rulers taking steps to ensure the continuance of a restricted press (the notable exception being Alexander II, who granted the media greater publication freedom – however, these along with other liberal reforms, were greatly scaled back in 1866 following an assassination attempt).
Nicholas I saw censorship as very much a means by which to ensure the maintenance of his and the State’s centralised power and control; “step by step, Nicholas came to dominate Russian ecclesiastical censorship and decreed an age of caution and conformity”.
Alexander III, with a similar outlook to his grandfather, took action to prevent the spread of liberal and reformist ideas, severely restricting press freedom: 14 major newspapers were banned between 1882 and 1889 for displaying ‘liberal tendencies’. Furthermore, foreign books and newspapers were also rigorously censored, in order to prevent the Russian people from reading material possibly spreading dangerous foreign ideas, such as democracy or parliamentary government – security services in modern Russia have notably acted in a similar fashion, severely restricting online access to content exposing Russians to the corruption and crimes of their elected officials.
Clearly Vladimir Putin, like so many conservative nationalists, harkens back for the days of past glories in Russia’s history, in which the country was ruled by an assertive leader, one who could both quash domestic enemies and keep Western Europe at bay – indeed, he’s already proclaimed his admiration for Alexander III via a 2017 statue unveiling in Yalta. We in the West must, as with all authoritarians, be wary of Putin and whatever moves he makes next. But to understand how he thinks and decides, the best source material is the historical period which he longs to re-establish in the present day, wanting to return Russia to the Romanovs.
For anyone wishing to dive deeper into this topic, I’d highly recommend the BBC documentary Putin: The New Tsar (2018), which offers an in-depth look into Putin’s rise to power, and features interviews from a whole range of different people.