Friday, September 9, 2016

Putin is the Nicholas I of Today, Gurvich Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 9 – Vladimir Putin is ruling Russia in much the same way Nicholas I did two centuries ago, Vladimir Gurvich says, an example of truth in Petr Stolypin’s supposed and oft-quoted observation that “in Russia everything can change in a decade but nothing will change over the course of 200 years.”

            In an essay in today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” the journalist argues that “the present-day state system in Russia very strongly recalls the regime of Nicholas I” and “sometimes the similarity is so great that it is even difficult to believe that is possible” (

            There is a certain logic in this, Gurvich says. Both regimes came to power after periods of stormy and uncertain change, and both “had one and the same ontological meaning, one that lies in an attempt at the preservation of the state on a basis acceptable for the powers that be,” regardless of its consequences for the population or the country’s future.

            Both sought to promote “development without any change in the foundations of the state.” Both believed that “everything must be changed for the better while preserving its former status.” But neither understood that “these two vectors are incompatible” and that their preference for preserving the state unchanged makes progress impossible.

            Both Nicholas I and Putin, having come to power after times of troubles, saw it as their duty to restore the pre-trouble times and thus prevent further disorder and disintegration.  To that end, Nicholas I pursued the centralization of power and established the Third Department, Russia’s original secret service.

            “The Putin regime,” Gurvich continues, “is conducting exactly the same policy” and for the same reasons. It has put in place a power vertical backed by the special services. Both viewed law and the courts as for their subjects rather than for themselves, and both were prepared to use force to suppress any challenge to their way of thinking at home or abroad.

            Nicholas I sought to solve and Putin is trying to solve “in essence one and the same ideological task: to justify as lawful their own way of rule “under conditions when there was and is a serious lack of arguments and ideas,” Gurvich says.  “How all this ended [and will again end] is well known.”

            The Moscow journalist points to two other similarities between the tsar and the president. On the one hand, under Nicholas I, Russia did make major economic gains but it was unable to escape its backwardness. Under Putin, the same thing appeared likely because of the oil boom, success followed by failure.

            And on the other, the two rulers have “many similarities.” Both use police and bureaucratic means to maintain power, both “refuse to recognize their own mistakes, both devote enormous importance to the army … and both seek to convert their country into a besieged fortress” as the best way to mobilize its population.

            Gurvich then turns to the way in which both have sought to promote official patriotism. Nicholas I used the state to impose the so-called Uvarov trinity, “Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality.”  But he was challenged by Petr Chaadayev who noted that Russia had made little progress and contributed little to the world because of that authoritarian patriotism.

            And the Russian thinker famously observed that he “did not learn to love his motherland with closed eyes, a bowed head, and covered ears.”  Such a position, of course, has contemporary relevance, and it leads one to ask whether one could be a German patriot at the time of Hitler, a Soviet one under Stalin, or a Cambodian one under Pol Pot.

            Obviously, many superficial things have changed in Russia since the time of Nicholas I. But the essence has not, and a major reason for this is that Russian rulers have sought to ensure the dominance of the state over society and the individual, something that makes real progress impossible.

            An authoritarian state needs obedient servants not innovators, and thus it can never have the success in the long term that have those countries “which have been able to put the state at the service of society and the population” and which see as the state’s task “not domination but service and the creation of conditions for the development of civic ties and each individual.”

            Russia instead has followed what one might call the Chinese model, Gurvich says. Its people like those of China are capable of many inventions, but the nature of the state prevents them from introducing them in ways that benefit society. And thus, “the Russia of Nicholas I and the Russia of Vladimir Putin are also ill with this still incurable ‘Chinese’ syndrome.”

            One is thus compelled to ask, Gurvich observes in conclusion, “what Russia will be like in another 200 years?”

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