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A Tsar Reborn

What would Alexander do?

There were two monumental anniversaries this week in Russia: Mikhail Gorbachev’s 80th birthday and 150th anniversary the abolition of serfdom by Tsar “Liberator” Alexander II.  The fact that these two moments symbolizing Russia’s struggle to reform fell on the same week shows the whimsicality of history.  And though Gorbachev and the Emancipation have been given due commemoration in Russia (serfdom less in the West, though with notable exceptions), it is the latter that proves to be more politically interesting, not to mention curious.

First, is Mikhail Gorbachev’s 80th birthday. The anniversary of the last General Secretary has rightly given rise to a number of retrospectives on the octogenarian’s historical importance.  A few noteworthy reflections can be found here, here, here, and here.  Gorbachev’s birthday has also given him recognition in other ways.  He’s done a number of interviews over the last week or so, and in them he’s wasted no time in giving his assessment of Russia today. In an interview with Vladimir Pozner on Channel One, Gorby criticized Putin, United Russia, and the state of Russian democracy.  He advised Putin to not run for President and called United Russia “the worst copy of the Communist party.” At the same time, President Medvedev honored the ex-Party boss with the Order of St. Andrew, Russia’s highest award, for his “enormous work as head of state.”  A few weeks ago, I argued that Russia has no tradition of elder statesmen, but perhaps for this brief birthday moment, Gorbachev comes as close as it gets.

But if you want to really feel the pulse of Russian high politics, it is the commemoration of the abolition of serfdom that stands out. Despite claims that present day Russia is “neo-Soviet,” I’ve maintained that if there is any historical legacy underpinning the “Putin system” it is first the Great Patriotic War, and second the Tsarist past.  The first is a natural choice–the war united Russian society through collective trauma, and remains the one unblemished moment in the Soviet past around which a new national identity can form.  The war is so sacred that even controversial elements of Soviet communism, like the October Revolution, are commemorated through the idiom of the war.

The second, Tsarism, is the most intriguing for reasons I’ve outlined here.  It has undergone a subtle rehabilitation among Russia’s post-Soviet reformers, a temporal point of reflection for lessons to avoid another Soviet-like sonderweg toward modernization. The last 50 years of Tsardom remains a series of what ifs–if reform was enacted sooner rather than later, if there was a strong civil society, if there was no World War I, if there were no Bolsheviks.  The beauty of the historical “if” is that because what actually happened was so disastrous, that Tsarism implicitly gets a pass.  Namely, Nicholas II, for example, is remembered as a saintly martyr, rather than as Nicholas the Bloody.

The Tsarist past as future template came to fore this week with Dmitrii Medvedev’s speech at the conference “The Great Reforms and the Modernization of Russia” held in St. Petersburg.  Medvedev said a number of interesting things which placed Alexander’s Great Reforms in the context of “modernization” in Russia today.  Some even contend, and I tend to agree, that the speech represents a pre-election salvo, particularly with his reiteration of the slogan “Freedom is better than no freedom” If it isn’t an election statement, then it certainly marks an interesting tone.  So what did Medvedev say?

First, he made parallels between Russia in the 1860s and Russia today.  He opened with stating that the Great Reforms are not only of historical and intellectual importance, vital to “everyone who believes in the development of modern Russia” and how its careful study is “essential” Russia’s present modernization. In addition, he noted that Russia like in the 1860s, faces a “choice” to embrace European values.  Equally intriguing, Medvedev went on to praise Alexander’s “extremely brave act” and his clairvoyance that Russia needed freedom.  There are moments when I thought Medvedev was really talking about himself.

Medvedev as Alexander II reincarnate became clearer with this passage:

“Alexander II had inherited the country’s major political institutions which were feudalism and the military-bureaucratic chain of command (vertikal’ vlasti).  Behind the power of the empire – and beyond the dust we have always been able to put in our eyes- he saw the weakness and futility of these institutions. An inefficient economy and an inadequate goals for developing the social structure threatened the country with imminent collapse.”

From this, one would presume that Medvedev sees himself as the present day version brave reformer with the clarity and will to pick up where Alexander left off?

Why certainly, at least Medvedev seems to think so.  He went on to contend that Alexander set Russia on a course it continues on today.  Conviently forgotten are the counter-reforms of Alexander III, the ineptitude of Nicholas II, and the entire Soviet period.  Apparently in Medvedev’s view of Russian history these are merely moments of bad indigestion in an otherwise healthy digestive system.  Medvedev’s belief in the sonderweg became clearer as he positioned himself as an advocate of a “third way” to Russian modernization distinct from the Imperial bureaucracy of Nicholas I (he formed nine secret committees to abolish serfdom.  All of them came to naught.) or the terror laden industrialization of Stalin.  No, in Medvedev’s historical translation, the “Liberator” Alexander II offers several lessons to present day Russia: 1) freedom can’t be postponed; 2) transformation must be rational, gradual, and steady; 3) there will be enemies to gradual reform; 4) change can only happen through the coordination of the state and society; 5) corruption and bureaucratism are hindrances to the process of reform.

Some of this is standard Medvedev refrain, in particular references to freedom, “modernization,” and anti-corruption.  But there are also important messages between the lines in these five lessons.  First, his reference to the enemies of reform came with a reminder of the terrorism in the 1860s.  This is undoubtedly a message to the liberal opposition and not the terrorists from the North Caucasus.  His emphasis on rational and gradual reform through the coordination of the state and civil society has a particular Tsarist refrain.  I think it is important to remember that Alexander was no liberal, and his reforms stopped short of what historians call “crowning the edifice” that is, giving Russia a constitution and a parliament.  Like reformers before and after him Alexander wanted the rule of law, not freedom, and certainly not democracy.  The Great Reforms were an attempt to do this from above without upsetting the Tsar’s monopoly on power.

Therefore, Medvedev’s speech maintains a key aspect of reform in Russia, whether it has been enacted by Peter I, Catherine II, Nicholas I, Alexander II, Stalin, and Gorbachev: revolution from above. It is the state, not the people, that are the primary engines of change.  All the masses can do is assist but only as the state proscribes.  And it is this component–revolution from above–that makes Medvedev’s summoning Alexander’s ghost is nothing more than the same ideas clothed in different rhetoric.

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