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Putin's plan to restore the Romanovs (Part 3)

Russian monarchists are remarkably fond of observing that nobody says Russia's next tsar must be a Romanov.

Putin's plan to restore the Romanovs (Part 3)
Published 18 Aug 2016   Follow @MatthewDalSant1

Part two of this series examined the public rehabilitation of the Romanov Tsar Nicholas II. This part analyses what the restoration of the Romanovs might mean for Western policy.

Could Putin really be planning a restoration of the Romanovs?

Of Putin's three 'favourite' philosophers (Vladimir Solovyov, Nikolai Berdyaev and Ivan Ilyin) it's Ilyin who is thought to have exercised the greatest influence over Putin's understanding of Russia's political and spiritual history. 

In his best-known work, Our Tasks, Ilyin depicts all of Russia's 20th century woes (its descent into tyranny, its economic collapse, its cultural and spiritual ruin) as flowing flow from the Tsar's abdication. Seeing the essence of what he calls Russia's 'national legal self-awareness' to rest on 'two foundations, Orthodoxy and faith in the Tsar', Ilyin asks why that self-awareness failed in 1917 and what can be done to repair it. 

'The obligation rests upon us', he writes, 'on this generation of Russian people who have suffered this revolution with sorrow and torment, to ask ourselves wherein the essence of healthy, strong and deep monarchical legal consciousness consists and how to replant it in Russia.' 

Certainly, Putin's views have moved in step with Russians' changing perceptions of the 1917 revolution. When in January of this year he reproached Lenin for errors of moral and political judgement during and after the Revolution, he provoked rage among Russia's remaining Communists.

'Everyone accused the tsarist regime of repressions', he said. 'But what did Soviet power begin with? Mass repressions.' [fold]

Of these, he said, 'the execution of the Tsar's family together with his children' was the 'most outstanding example' (one wonders whether he had the icon of the 'New Russian Martyrs' in mind).

Certainly, Putin has come to see it as part of his legacy as president to 'restore the links of time, the unbrokenness of [Russia's] history', as he put it when in August 2014, he dedicated Russia's first memorial to the dead of the First World War, written off in Soviet times as an inglorious imperialist venture. 

But when it comes to Russia's public memory, the Kremlin shares power with the Russian Orthodox Church, a critical voice in any future zemsky sobor. Indeed, it was the Patriarchate that last year frustrated the government's plan to rebury the remains of two of the Romanov children alongside those of their parents in the Imperial mausoleum, lest it stir undue controversy among the many Russians still nostalgic for Soviet days.

Vakhtang Kipshidze, a Patriarchate spokesman, cautioned against any perception that the Church was looking for a restoration. 

A 'political struggle', he said, was 'not on the Church's agenda'. The goal instead was spiritual, what Patriarch Kirill in a 2015 address to the Duma called 'historical reconciliation'. 

Central to this project have been the three 'My History, Orthodox Rus' national historical exhibitions staged annually in Moscow's Manezh Exhibition Center under the joint aegis of the Patriarchate and Ministry of Culture since 2013, when the first opened in honour of the Romanovs' 400th anniversary. 

Each attracted around half a million visitors in Moscow before touring the country. They're now permanently if incongruously housed in a brand-new building in the dated, Soviet-era surrounds of Moscow's All-Russia Exhibition Park. A portrait of Alexander III flanks the entrance. 

In the spirit of the times, advertisements in the Moscow metro bear the famous riposte of Peter Stolypin (Nicholas II's liberal conservative prime minister and a known Putin 'hero') to anti-tsarist deputies in the Duma: 'You, gentlemen, are in need of great upheavals; we are in need of a Great Russia.'

To be sure, this is an essentially conservative project. But 21st century Russia resembles more the conservative, but ultimately limited, authoritarianism of the last Romanovs than the industrialised totalitarianism of the Soviet Union (with its goal of worldwide Marxist-Leninist revolution). Like the tsars, Russia's ruling caste today seeks to control a programme of modernisation based on the selective imitation of the West. Though the government is hostile to competitors for political power, the Soviet-era ambition of absolute control over Russians' thought and economic lives is foreign to it.

What might all this mean for Western policy?

Talk of a 'New Cold War' has made it commonplace to cast Putin's Russia as a neo-Soviet power in deluded search of vanished global superpower status, an aspiring and implacably anti-Western hegemon in Europe, and an imminent threat to Western democracy. It has fuelled calls for NATO to embrace a policy of 'Containment 2.0' (as the Alliance effectively did at its recent Warsaw summit).

But rethinking the sources of Russian behaviour possibly changes this picture.

Between 1613 and 1917 the Romanovs transformed a remote and backward principality on Europe's periphery into a leading power not in opposition to, but within the European state system. There's a good argument that what Moscow wants today is not a return to the superpower confrontation of 1947 to 1989, but a version of the 'European concert' of 1815 to 1914. 

Thus, unveiling in 2014 a bronze statue of Emperor Alexander I (1801-25) in the shadow of the Kremlin wall (pictured above), Putin hailed the tsar who defeated Napoleon as a 'farsighted strategist and diplomat, a statesman' who created 'the conditions for a so-called balance, built not only on a consideration of countries' mutual interests, but also of moral values.'

We needn't take this at face value. Alexander was inspired more by a vision of Christian universalism than realism. But as a statement of present-day Russia's aims, it's consistent enough. In the face of NATO expansion, re-establishing such a balance has been a theme in Russian foreign policy for well over a decade.

Finally, there's the question of the succession – to Putin. His present term ends in 2018, the centenary of Nicholas II's murder. Nobody knows for sure whether he'll run for president again (he has left open the possibility that he might not). 

But absent a single legitimate heir, Russian monarchists are remarkably fond of observing that, should it ever come to a zemsky sobor, nobody says Russia's next tsar must be a Romanov.


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