Monday, May 17, 2021

Putin the Louis Napoleon of Today, Some Russian Scholars Suggest

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 16 – At a St. Petersburg conference on the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, Russian scholars drew some parallels between Vladimir Putin and the first Napoleon but even more between the current Kremlin leader and Louis Napoleon, parallels that point to still more radical changes ahead, Leonid Smirnov says.

            In reporting the proceedings, the Rosbalt journalist quotes European Institute expert Oleg Kharkhordin as saying that “we all live among those institutions which the Code Napoleon marked the beginning of.” And both he and others insisted his most important contribution was to base his authoritarian power “directly on the people without any intermediaries” (

            Bonaparte’s system was based not on three elements as the ancien regime had been but on two, “only the leader and the people,” Kharkhordin says, a structure “which it would be more correct to label not Bonapartism but Caesarism because it was introduced not by Napoleon but by Octavian Augustus.”

            Grigory Yudin of the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service adds that “Napoleon understood that divine right was over and a different legitimation was needed;” and he recognized that he needed to combine the empire and the republic” in order to make the whole that the revolution had won “something more long-lasting.”

            A third participant, Artemy Magun of the European University argues that in some ways Bonaparte was reacting to the resistance of the outside world and the sense of injury France felt from this hostile reaction, a reaction that intensified significantly under the reign of Louis Napoleon almost half a century later.

            “We see parallels in our own history,” he continues. “The collapse of the USSR delegitimized the world order, and we, having received Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq, live today in this state of panic” which recalls that which the first Bonaparte felt to a degree but which the third felt deeply.

            “Our situation is very similar to Bonaparte after the revolution,” Magun says. “Delegitimization has led to the formation of gray zones” which one’s opponents try to exploit and lead to the rise of “Bonapartist figures” not only in Russia but elsewhere, he continues.

            Sociologist Grigory Yudin says that more can be learned from the parallels suggested by Napoleon III who was emperor of France from 1852 to 1870. “The foundation for his coming to power was resentment and the complex of historical defeats.” And he used democratic institutions to legitimate himself -- he was president before he became emperor -- before insisting on the need for “a return to monarchy.”

            Thus arose “a powerful tradition,” the sociologist continues, one “between monarchy to which there was no return and the republic which seemed excessively radical.” That plebiscitarian impulse has appeared elsewhere, of course, but in France, it has never disappeared entirely.

            Russia today, he says, “also suffers from a complex of historical defeat, and we also have a leader who operates directly on the masses, demanding democratic legitimation and trying to actively promote it with the assistance of plebiscites.” In that respect, Russia and its leader now are quite like France in the middle of the 19th century.”

            Magun suggests in response that what we are seeing in Russia is happening around the world because of the crisis that arose with the collapse of the Cold War world. “The demand for a charismatic leader is very great in mass culture, especially now when ever more people are alienated from bureaucratic structures.”

            “This is very dangerous: we can in the course of the next historical turn of events get a Bonaparte, and not only in Russia.”

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