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Last Updated: Friday, 12 March, 2004, 18:30 GMT
Russia's love affair with strong leaders
By Stephen Dalziel
BBC Russian Affairs Analyst, in Moscow

When Russian voters go to the polls on Sunday, many will be firmly convinced that President Vladimir Putin is the strong leader they are looking for.

Tsar Nicholas II was best known for... his weakness
That is, the kind of authority figure that Russians have been used to and have admired over the centuries.

Even a short glance at Russian history shows that it's the "firm fist" that has always won respect.

Ask most people to name the best known tsars, and they will say: Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great.

Ivan was Terrible because of the brutal methods he used to strengthen his rule.

Peter was Great because he made the then civilised world sit up and take note of Russia - but also at great human cost, not least to his own people.

Conversely, Nicholas II may also be high up on the list of best known tsars - but he was known for his weakness, a major factor as to why he was overthrown by the March Revolution of 1917.

Feeding off Nicholas' weakness, the Bolsheviks, who seized power in November 1917, understood that Russia could be governed only by strength.

Lenin was brutal in his conclusions as to how "enemies of the people" should be treated.

Black joke

Much of the brutality carried out on the orders of Stalin was simply a logical continuation of Lenin's thought.

A black joke of the later Soviet period supposedly quotes a history book of the 21st century: "Who was Adolf Hitler?"

Answer: "A petty dictator who lived in the time of Joseph Stalin."

It is estimated that as many as 20 million Soviet citizens perished in the network of labour camps - the Gulag - which Stalin perfected.

After an initial period where he gave Russians back some pride, Boris Yeltsin became an embarrassment
And what is the simplistic, but widely held view as to why the Soviet Union collapsed?

Because Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and only Soviet president, was too weak, toyed with Western ideas of democracy which do not suit Russia, and lost the country.

After an initial period where he gave Russians back some pride, his successor, Boris Yeltsin became an embarrassment for many Russians.

Getting drunk in public and being too ill to run the country in his second term were too much. Enter Mr Putin.

It's hard - even impossible - to contemplate Mr Putin coming out of a lunch with the German chancellor and picking up a baton and conducting an orchestra in a drunken fashion.

Josef Stalin lying in state, 7 March 1953
Was Hitler "a petty dictator who lived in the time of Stalin"?
Or failing to get off an aeroplane to meet a foreign leader because he had imbibed too much vodka.

Mr Yeltsin had heart attacks; Mr Putin's a black belt in judo and a skilful downhill skier.

He has given Russia back some national pride. He has shown the firm fist.

The Chechnya campaign was one of the main reasons why Mr Putin was elected originally.

The campaign was launched at the end of September 1999, when Mr Putin was prime minister. It was done in the wake of a string of bomb attacks on apartment blocks, which left nearly 300 Russians dead.

By this show of strength, Mr Putin showed that he meant business, and would respond to an attack on Russia with force.

Growing power

To those schooled in Western democratic traditions, figures giving Mr Putin 80% approval are staggering. And when they look at Mr Putin's democratic credentials, they find it even more puzzling.

In his first term as president, Mr Putin has overseen the closure or takeover by the state of all six independent national television stations that existed when he was elected in 2000.

The lower house of parliament, the State Duma, is now controlled by the party that hangs on every word Mr Putin says, United Russia.

Big business, the success of which is so essential for Russia's economic life-blood, has been made to understand that it can get on with business - but stay out of politics. Russia's richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, will watch this election from a prison cell for overstepping that particular mark.

And Mr Putin continues to pursue a military campaign in Chechnya which has led to the deaths of thousands of Russian soldiers, and even more thousands of Chechen and Russian civilians who lived in the would-be breakaway republic.


But partly through luck, partly through good judgement, under Mr Putin's presidency the Russian economy's improved and living standards for millions have risen.

And if the liberals wring their hands and complain that democracy is now weaker in Russia than at any time since the collapse of the USSR?

There are plenty of Russians who will shrug their shoulders and say that Russia's too big to be ruled any other way than by the strong hand in Moscow.

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