Since Sunday’s election of Russian President Vladimir Putin, analysts and foreign policy planners have been searching for clues as to what is on the mind of this curt man. For a historian of modern Europe, however, the answer is obvious, as it takes only one glance at the history of France over 200 years. The modern history of France is known for its classical clarity of the stages of the political process. It provides a lesson in what we should anticipate in the case of post-totalitarian Russia.
Similarities between Napoleon Bonaparte and Vladimir Putin are not limited to facial features and short stature. Matching is the time of their arrival on the political scene and the social need for a statesman of this caliber. Separated by the distance of 200 years, the circumstances in post-revolutionary France and post-communist Russia are strikingly similar, for, notwithstanding all the technological progress, the nature of man and human society has changed little, if at all.
An old historic axiom holds that, after a period of revolutionary change, inevitably comes a period of reactionary consolidation or counterrevolution. The political leader of such period is to be of the statecraft represented in contemporary Russia by Vladimir Putin, like it was exemplified by Napoleon in France 200 years ago.
The great Russian historian Eugene Tarle wrote in his biography of Napoleon that, if it had not been General Bonaparte, the French people and the social requisites of post-revolutionary France would have found another leader of exactly the same type among the bevy of young French generals propelled to the highest military ranks in the period of revolutionary wars, including the bloody civil war in the province of Gironde.
Likewise, the accession of Mr. Putin was largely carried on the support among Russians for his prosecution of the civil war in Chechnya. More important, Russian society as a whole is tired and exhausted of the political and economic upheaval, as were the French 200 years ago. The Russians need the stability and predictability of strong government rule to rise from the abyss of social-economic plight into which the post-communist reforms had cast them. Had the conditions in Russia been more stable than they were in 1999, it is probable that Mr. Putin would have lived out his days as no more than a diligent KGB officer.
But we have seen that conditions in the past decade were exceedingly chaotic. Corruption, profiteering and financial ruin added to the woes of a people already bowed down by the miseries of a lingering transition period and the national humiliation of an imploded superpower. So profound is the mood that the millions who supported the Chechen war would welcome a new autocracy as the only hope of relief.
The same mood resulted from the decade of terror and turbulence during the French Revolution of 1789-1799. When Abbot Sieyes, one of the members of the ruling Directory who actually called Bonaparte to power, was asked later what he had done to distinguish himself during the revolutionary terror, he responded dryly, “I survived.”
In some respects, the Russian liberals and reformers have become victims of their own success. Both reformist leaders who plucked out of obscurity and promoted Mr. Putin to the Kremlin prominence, are now gone, symbolically closing the decade of reforms: The ex-mayor of Saint Petersburg and his former law professor Anatoly Sobchak died recently, and his former boss President Yeltsin abruptly resigned one month before.
Mr. Putin’s election as the legitimate president will signify the end of the tumultuous period of Russia’s democratic change and the commencement of a period of consolidation of the Russian state. Similarly, in the fall of 1799 the Revolution in France came to a close with the 18 Brumaire (Nov. 9) coup d’etat of Bonaparte. Russia is ready for the same fate; if not Mr. Putin, another strongman shall be called to complete the work of history.
We don’t know much about Mr. Putin, but we know almost everything about Napoleon. No matter how shrewd, egotistical and unscrupulous he was, he knew that the people were tired of disorder and corruption, and that they longed for the return of stability and welfare.
Like Napoleon, the energetic Mr. Putin is going to deal what in effect will be a final blow to the transition period with all its features, as we knew them under the Yeltsin presidency. In general historic terms, Mr. Putin’s ruling period may be regarded as the initial stage of the Russian popular reaction against the liberal ideals which had made all those great changes, but ruined millions of lives in the 1990s.
Mr. Putin has already revealed his ambivalence toward democratic principles and practices, believing perhaps that Russia might have to sacrifice part of democracy in the short run to achieve more important economic, social and state consolidation goals. His real aim is to preserve those achievements which comport with national greatness and the military glory of Russia, and will continue those accomplishments of his predecessors which he can adapt to the purposes of concentrated government.
Mr. Putin has said in an open letter to voters that, after having a popular mandate, he would not continue to tolerate the circle of prominent financial magnates known in Russia as the oligarchs. His pledge echoes the want of an overwhelming majority of the Russian people. As for the former Soviet republics, the resurrection of Russian nationalism will demand a revision of internal borders of the former USSR hastily disbanded by the three Slavic presidents in 1991. Rebuilding Russia as a great power, Mr. Putin will begin to reassert its influence throughout the former USSR’s territory, but without restoring the unitary state with all its mounting problems. He is smart enough to understand that Mr. Yeltsin’s rationale in getting rid of peripheral indigenous republics is irreversible.
Having no certain political ideology, Mr. Putin has a certainly predetermined place at the helm of contemporary Russia, for he is the type of leader that history has unerringly chosen for this role at this time, regardless of whether we like it or not.
Alec Rasizade is a senior associate at the Historical Research Center.