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Vladimir Putin follows a long Russian tradition of enlightened autocrats

Like the czars, he sometimes shares power.

- February 3, 2020

As the 2020 presidential race gears up, news reports include reminders of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s influence over past U.S. elections. But Putin also made news last month with an election-related maneuver in his own country — what one Russia expert called “the most dramatic changes to Russia’s constitution since 1993.”

On Jan. 15, Putin proposed reorganizing the government to give more power to the Russian Duma — the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia. Once these reforms are clarified, Putin says it’s necessary to have a “vote of the citizens on the whole packet” of constitutional changes.

It’s tempting to view Putin’s actions as a mere contemporary authoritarian maneuver, designed to extend power beyond his presidential term, which ends in 2024. Like Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped away from the presidency but remains a power broker in Kazakhstan, Putin could retain power from a new position.

Russia’s prime minister has just resigned. Putin clearly has plans.

But looking into Russia’s past gives important clues about the proposed political changes. In particular, Russia’s czarist period has many precedents of liberal reform from above. This is what historians traditionally identified as forms of “enlightened despotism” — rulers who retain absolute power, but use it to the advantage of their subjects.

Is Putin planning his own legacy?

Academics and journalists alike have called Putin a contemporary Russian “tsar.” An article in the Economist, for instance, said Putin may be “preparing to rule forever.” Calling the Russian president a monarch is inherently a misnomer — but this does evoke Putin’s own appreciation for Russia’s past. Putin has often shown great appreciation for Russian history, regularly citing intellectuals from the past, including Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov and the far more controversial Ivan Ilyin.

After having been in power in one way or another for over 20 years, Putin may be seeking his exit strategy and legacy shopping in the process. And enlightened despotism, born out of Russia’s czarist past, is one legacy he could be striving for.

How Russia’s enlightened despots fostered change

During the czarist period, the Russian people believed their autocratic czar or emperor’s power was absolute — these leaders had the divine right to lead the country.

Russian rulers used the term “autocrat” (samoderzhets), which in the Russian original reads as equivalent to holding the country entirely in one’s will. In practical terms, emperors were not only in control — they also knew better than the masses what the country needed. This meant there was no need for a participatory political system.

Russians’ trust in Putin has plummeted. But that’s not the Kremlin’s only problem.

Right alongside absolutism, the gesture of autocratic leaders moderating their own power is also a well-patented one in Russian history and Russian political theater. Because of the absolute power that many Russian czars enjoyed, the few who even envisioned the possibility of greater freedoms for their people tended to leave behind a positive legacy: Russians viewed them as “enlightened.”

And a little goes a long way in the collective memory. “[L]ike the sun, like the moon, I shall present your image to future ages, I will elevate and praise you” wrote the great Russian poet Gavrila Derzhavin about Catherine the Great, Russia’s best-known enlightened despot, who ruled from 1762 to 1796. Her patronage of science and the arts, and the code of laws that freed the Russian nobility from their obligation of government service, helped label Catherine as a moderate in her historical afterlife — despite her occasionally ruthless treatment of those who disagreed with her.

Other Russian emperors have also been assigned this label. For instance, despite all the wars he fought and all the lives lost in the building of St. Petersburg, Peter the Great — who ruled from 1682 to 1725 — is revered even today for his efforts to westernize Russia, which involved putting into effect the Russian Table of Ranks, a formal list of governmental positions that expanded participation in public service beyond the hereditary nobility.

The 19th-century Romanovs alternated between tyrannical and progressive. Of the more liberal czars, Alexander I is remembered for giving Poland a very progressive constitution, even though he eventually decided that Russia was not ready for one. Alexander II earned the moniker the “czar liberator” for freeing the Russian serfs by imperial edict in 1861 without any bloodshed. Years later, Russia’s last emperor, Nicholas II, experimented with creating a constitution and a congress.

A little reform goes a long way

As these historical examples suggest, despite consistent absolutism and perhaps because of it, Russia also has a tradition of enlightened despotism — and autocrats willing to share some power.

Many historical milestones in Russia have happened from above. One instance of attempted changes from below was the 1825 Decembrist revolt. A series of gentry officers fought for a constitution, the liberation of the serfs and greater political representation — at least two of the three changes that Putin is proposing to enact now.

The rebellion was short-lived; Nicholas I crushed it brutally. The Decembrist ringleaders were hanged, and although history has not remembered Nicholas fondly, the movement failed to produce meaningful political change.

Will Vladimir Putin become Russia’s prime minister after 2024?

Is Putin giving a little to keep a lot?

Putin’s gesture of democratization fits precisely within Russia’s historical tradition of autocrats giving a little, so that they may still retain the reins of power. Even as he called for greater participation, Putin was behind the Russian government tendering its resignation. The Russian Federation now seems to be embarking upon a major political shake-up.

Participation may increase because of the greater power afforded the representative Duma, but the process to achieve this is inherently non-participatory in nature. As Dennis Diderot wrote in a letter to Catherine the Great, even the most enlightened despotism “takes from the nation the right to deliberate, the right to desire and not to desire, and the right to be opposed — even to what is right and good for it.”

Implicit in Putin’s actions is the notion that he alone knows best — like the czars of old — and will always be the one making the final decisions. The symbolism of the Russian government tendering its resignation in response to the president’s wish for constitutional change merely underscores how much of Russia’s political system lies in one man’s hands.

For better or worse, it is a uniquely Russian kind of legacy.

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Ani Kokobobo is associate professor and chair of the Slavic Department at the University of Kansas. Follow her on Twitter @ani_kokobobo.