Even for the flamboyantly flamboyant Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the remarks sounded surprisingly provocative: “God save the Tsar!he said, raising his hands high in an ornate room in the Kremlin where President Vladimir Putin had just hung a Service to the Fatherland eagle and cross medal around his neck. “Reign for our glory, reign to sow fear among our enemies, Orthodox Tsar. God save the Tsar!”
Putin’s reaction is not visible in footage from the September 22 ceremony, four days after tightly controlled elections gave the staunch United Russia party more seats than ever before in the State Duma – easily enough to pass a constitutional amendment abolishing presidential term limits, should Putin seek to stay in power for life.
But whether Zhirinovsky quoted an imperial-era national anthem off the cuff or under orders from the Kremlin, his outburst perfectly complemented an image that Putin seems to have assiduously cultivated during 17 years in power — that of a Russian czar.
The image-making is evident in words and actions large and small, from its lavish surroundings in the Kremlin and a lavish summer headquarters in Sochi to surprise decrees and dismissals, as well as efforts – like an annual broadcast hour–presenting itself as the only hope for ordinary Russians beleaguered by cowardly tycoons and indifferent bureaucrats.
Abroad, he also acted with Czar-like poise, particularly during his third term, seizing Crimea from Ukraine – a move he says righted a historic wrong. by restoring Russian control over a region previously annexed by Empress Catherine the Great in the 18th century – – and challenging Western rulers while seeking to strengthen Moscow’s power in Europe and beyond.
The glaring flaw of the Empire
But Putin’s image as czar has one glaring flaw, and it’s clearly visible in the heart of Russia: the embalmed corpse of Vladimir Lenin, whose rise to power after the Bolshevik Revolution sealed the fate of the Romanov dynasty. and ushered in more than 70 years of communist rule, sits in a chunky stone mausoleum just outside the Kremlin walls.
Visited by tourists from Russian provinces and the rest of the world, the tomb in Red Square is a stark reminder of a great break in any line drawn from the Russian tsars to Putin, who was born in the middle of the Soviet era – – in a town then named after Lenin – and served for 16 years as a KGB officer.
The stain that Lenin’s body places on Putin’s image as czar is particularly evident each year on May 9, when the mausoleum is hidden as the president addresses a military parade commemorating what for many Russians, is the proudest moment of the troubled Soviet era – the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.
Putin drew on aspects of the Tsarist and Soviet eras in his efforts to shape Russia. Many critics accuse him of echoing Soviet-era practices — and even those of dictator Josef Stalin — in his quest to tighten his grip on Russia.
But he has done more to tie his image to the long history of the czars than to the relatively brief and battered Soviet experience – seven oppressive decades that began with the kind of upheaval that Putin seems determined to secure so as not to threaten his rule. .
“We have seen a long-term accumulation of the feeling that the real model is not so much in the Soviet era, but in fact in the Tsarist era,” says analyst Mark Galeotti, senior policy researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.
“And I can’t help but wonder if Putin once was prepared to say that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, he might now say that 1917 was. “, said Galeotti. adds.
Time to relegate the Soviet era to history?
Amid intermittent calls from the Russians to take Lenin down, Putin – who is often described as pragmatic – may have considered the possibility for years. And 2017, the centenary of the revolution, seems like the time to do it.
On the one hand, burying Lenin could send the message that revolution is bad.
He criticized Lenin last January, accusing him of planting a “time bomb” under the state and virulently denouncing the brutal repressions of the Bolshevik government.
Others have gone further. Natalia Poklonskaya, a Russian legislator and former prosecutor in the Russian-imposed Crimean government, grouped Lenin with Hitler and Mao Zedong as “monsters” of the 20th century. And the ultranationalist Zhirinovsky called for Moscow’s Lenin Prospect – Lenin Avenue – to be renamed in honor of Ivan the Terrible.
In a reference to the Bolshevik Revolution during his state of the nation address on December 1, Putin said coups invariably lead to “loss of life, casualties, economic decline and misery”. . He warned against “speculation about the tragedies that happened to almost every Russian family” in the wake of the revolution – a warning, at least in part, not to try anything like this again.
No regime change here
Putin’s fear of revolution appears to be partly rooted in his dismay at the protests that have brought down the governments of the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine over the past 13 years – a political shift he blames the United States for having fomented.
Analysts say he was shaken by major street protests that erupted in Moscow over widespread evidence of fraud in the December 2011 parliamentary election and anger over his plan to return to the presidency after four years as Prime Minister.
Putin resisted these protests and, returning to the Kremlin in May 2012 for a six-year term, moved quickly to reduce the scope of street protests and suppress dissent. Now he is preparing for the next presidential election, scheduled for March 2018.
Putin is expected to run and win. But the future will be clouded from the moment he takes the oath, as the constitution bars him from running for a third consecutive term in 2024, when he turns 71.
At the very least, burying Lenin months before the election would inject a jolt of energy into the tightly controlled political process.
It could also help Putin dispel a potential future threat from the Communist Party, which Galeotti says is Putin’s only major independent political machine in Russia and could be revitalized by a new generation of leaders and supporters. “It affirms that the Kremlin is in charge and moving forward, and it’s time to forget the past,” he said.
More broadly, burying Lenin would significantly add to Putin’s legacy, etching him into history as a leader who broke with the Soviet past. It could help him replace Lenin as a father figure and aid him in his quest to unite Russian citizens around a comprehensive national idea – a hitherto elusive goal.
And on a practical and political level, it could help pave the way for constitutional change or a less formal arrangement that would keep him in power after 2024. Or, if Putin prefers to step out of the limelight and help Russia forge a political system more dependent on institutions than on a single leader, the dismissal of Lenin would give this process a symbolic impetus.
But it could be risky.
There have been calls for Lenin’s burial since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 2013, a poll by the independent Levada Center found that only 25% of Russians thought his body should remain in the mausoleum in Red Square.
But the Kremlin has always been cautious, keen to offend Soviet-era nostalgics and anger Communists – who have come second in every parliamentary election since 1995, when they came first.
Just as the Bolsheviks feared that revealing where the bodies of Tsar Nicholas II and his family were dumped after being shot in a provincial cellar in 1918 would give them posthumous power as martyrs and trigger protests , post-Soviet leaders fear that moving Lenin’s body from its prominent place could give the Kremlin’s left-wing opponents more strength and focus.
Putin will want to avoid any move that “unleashes forces that will spiral out of control very quickly,” Anna Arutunyan, author of The Putin Mystique: Inside Russia’s Power Cult, said in a statement. Vertical Power Podcast on RFE/RL in November. “A moving thing like this – it could actually backfire by creating more support for the Communist Party instead of less.”
Galeotti, however, believes that Putin’s government could seek to end such a threat – and also clear the body from Red Square – by publicly presenting his burial as a “last gesture of respect” for a man who played such a crucial role. in Russian history, good or bad.
But as 2017 approached, Russian officials made it clear that Putin planned to use the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution as an opportunity to realize the idea of national unity. While Putin may see Lenin’s funeral as a chance to do just that, he could also decide that Russia still isn’t ready for such a step.
“There’s this backlash against Lenin, but he’s still in the mausoleum, and I don’t really see him coming out of the mausoleum anytime soon,” Arutunyan said.