Page last updated at 14:18 GMT, Monday, 25 February 2008

How Putin is inspired by history

As part of the Putin Project - the BBC World Service's special programming ahead of the Russian elections - Lucy Ash looks at how the country's leaders are inspired by their history.

Vladimir Putin
Mr Putin has been likened to a number of historical figures

Under President Vladimir Putin's leadership, a resurgent Russia has acquired a booming economy, a newly assertive foreign policy and a strong sense of state.

It has also gained a glorious history. Films and television programmes continually drive home the message that Russia is a great nation with a unique destiny.

Some of Mr Putin's ideological advisers believe Russians have spent far too much time being ashamed of their past. For example, a new manual for history teachers in Russian high schools now states that Joseph Stalin was "the most successful Soviet leader ever".

As for the purges, which killed millions, they are dismissed as a necessary evil. Mr Putin, himself, recently said they weren't as bad as atrocities perpetrated by other nations.

But going beyond the Soviet era, I wondered which role models from the past might have inspired Mr Putin?

What about the first Russian ruler to call himself Tsar Ivan IV - better known as Ivan the Terrible? The title is derived from the word Caesar because Ivan claims to be a descendant of the Roman Emperors.

He saw Muscovite Russia as the last Orthodox state on earth and the heir to a global Christian Empire after Constantinople - capital of the Eastern Roman Empire - fell to the Ottoman Turks.


Russians today are still proud to see themselves as defenders of the true Orthodox faith.

Orthodox priest
Russians see themselves as defenders of the Orthodox faith

At his coronation in the Kremlin's Assumption Cathedral, 16-year-old Ivan also assumed the title of Autocrat of all Russia. If the Orthodox Church is central to understanding Russia - and is used by Putin to legitimise his policies - autocracy is another vital component. It is principle of the absolute supremacy of the Tsar.

Many Russian liberals complain these days about "Tsar Putin". The president has certainly strengthened what he calls the "vertical line of power" - a euphemism for his own authority.

It seems far fetched, though, to compare him to Ivan the Terrible, who murdered hundreds of thousands of his countrymen in a decade-long reign of terror. But not to Russia's most controversial novelist, Vladimir Sorokin.

"Russia is like a block of ice floating back into the 16th century," he said on the phone from Germany where he is currently on a book tour.

"Again we are living under a centralised government like in the time of Ivan the Terrible. This power vertical, which Putin keeps talking about, is a completely medieval model for Russia. There is no accountability, no transparency."


Mr Sorokin's latest work, Day of the Oprichnik, is named after the oprichniki who were the secret police of the 16th Century, Ivan the Terrible's KGB.

Joseph Stalin
Stalin - the country's "most successful Soviet leader ever"

Dressed like monks, they rode black horses and carried a broom and dog's head at the saddle "to sweep and gnaw away treason."

Mr Sorokin's 21st Century oprichniki drive around in black Mercedes and use computers, but they behave like feudal lords.

The novel is set in a big brother land in 2028, when all that counts are oil, gas and unswerving loyalty to a tyrant and his henchmen.

It's a satire of today's Russia, in which three quarters of senior politicians and bureaucrats have a background in the security services - just like ex-KGB colonel Vladimir Putin.

"Russia has a pathological relationship with power because most of our rulers believe power only exists when it is absolute," says Sorokin. "Just look at the examples of Ivan the Terrible and Stalin."

But Mr Putin's background in St Petersburg has led to parallels with another infamous Russian autocrat.

In the early years of his presidency, Mr Putin was most often compared to Peter the Great, according to a study by G808, a private media analysis group that often works for the government.

Today Peter I is seen as a harsh moderniser who was determined to drag his country out of the medieval era and turn its face towards the West. He built an elegant city of stone on a marshy swamp plagued by flooding.

Professor Stanislav Tkachenko
For many Russian nationalists, Peter the Great is a contradictory figure
Professor Stanislav Tkachenko
"He was a cruel leader and I wouldn't like to have him as a friend or a boss but the results are marvellous - just look around you," says Serge Polotovsky, editor of the St Petersburg edition of Kommersant magazine. "It's a great city that came out of nowhere and he did it."

Mr Putin has not founded a new city but he does share some characteristics of Peter the Great. Both men cracked down hard on their opponents and consolidated the state's power.

Just like Peter the Great, President Putin has been eager to explore the world. In his two terms he has visited 64 countries on more than 190 foreign trips. He speaks fluent English, French and German, and clearly enjoys playing a role on the global stage.

But Stanislav Tkachenko, a professor of St Petersburg University's School of International Relations, says Mr Putin does not welcome such comparisons.

"He is far too modest. Anyway for many Russian nationalists, Peter the Great is a contradictory figure," he says. "On the one hand he raised the status of the country in the world, but he is also seen as a man who destroyed some Russian values because he was too much of a Westerniser."


Strangely, Mr Putin says his role model is neither Peter nor any of Russia's past leaders, but America's longest-serving president. He has often compared his mission in history with that of Franklin Roosevelt's in the 1930s.

Franklin D Roosevelt
Putin has likened his mission to that of US President Roosevelt

Just like FDR, the Russian president believes he has rescued his country from a Great Depression - in Russia's case, the chaos of the Yeltsin era in the 1990s - and laid the foundations for a new era of prosperity.

Other Russians I spoke to felt Mr Putin was much closer to reactionary Tsars of the 19th Century. Some compared him to Nicholas I, the Tsar who crushed the Decembrists' uprising in 1825.

The Decembrists were young noblemen who had gone to fight in the Napoleonic wars and returned to Russia from Europe filled with dangerous new ideas.

Impatient with the slow pace of reform at home, they called for the abolition of serfdom, a constitution and a representative form of government. But instead Russia got Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationalism. That was the triumphant motto of Nicholas I once he had executed the ringleaders of the revolt and exiled the rest to Siberia.

Despite his cosmopolitan side, the president also likes to quote another 19th Century Tsar, Alexander III, who said that Russia has no allies apart from its army and navy. Today's pipeline politics, rows over missiles and suspicions over politically motivated killings have helped to create the impression that Russia is surrounded by enemies.

Orlando Figes, professor of history at London's Birkbeck College, says Mr Putin's home city of St Petersburg may be a window on Europe, but it can also been seen as a fortress against foreign opponents.

"St Petersburg is very much an imperial city wielding power over a vast Russian empire. And it is that imperial legacy that Putin plays on in his rhetoric," he says.

"You can't say he is a Slavophile or a Westerniser because he is both, but above all he stands for a great Russian state."


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