Putin’s Defenders: Still Disconnected from Reality

Russia’s minister of culture, Vladimir Medinsky, is a self-styled historian who recently acquired a much-criticized and allegedly plagiarized Ph.D. in the discipline and has penned numerous publications on the political history of Russia. His knowledge of the basics, however, does not appear to be strong. In a recent blog post that instantly became an internet sensation, the minister called Vladimir Putin “the first Russian ruler since Nicholas [II] Romanov who came to power 100 percent legally … who preserves power 100 percent legally … the first [leader] in Russia’s history [to have come to power] in an honest universal-suffrage election.”

Regrettably, not one of the three parts of this statement is true.

Russia has had three legal and legitimate leaders since Nicholas II’s abdication. Prince Georgy Lvov, prime minister between March and July 1917, received a dual mandate: a last-minute appointment from the departing czar and the nomination of the Provisional Committee of the State Duma, which represented the parliamentary majority. Alexander Kerensky, prime minister between July and November (October, old style) 1917, became head of state and government following Lvov’s resignation. He held the position before being deposed in the Bolshevik coup d’état.

In 1991, Boris Yeltsin became Russia’s first legitimate head of state after a seven-decade-long dictatorship, and the first democratically elected leader in the country’s history: in the June presidential poll, the then leading critic of the Kremlin defeated the ruling Communist Party’s candidate, Nikolai Ryzhkov, by 57 percent to 17. In 1996, Yeltsin was re-elected to a second term in a vote often criticized for the anti-Communist bias in the national media, but assessed by the Council of Europe as free and fair.

Putin did come to power legally: first, by becoming acting president following Yeltsin’s resignation, and then by winning the 2000 election, whose results were judged by European observers “as the free will of the Russian people” (though there were already serious allegations of ballot-stuffing). Subsequent elections that prolonged Putin’s power—by himself or through his proxy, Dmitri Medvedev—fell significantly short of acceptable standards, be it in 2004 (“the elections … lacked elements of a genuine democratic contest”), 2008 (“still not free and still not fair”), or 2012 (“the voters’ choice was limited, the electoral competition lacked fairness and an impartial referee was missing”).

Rewriting history is in the nature of authoritarian regimes, so the culture minister’s statement, however absurd, does not come as a surprise. Indeed, in one respect the comparison between Nicholas II and Vladimir Putin may prove valid. Russia’s last czar lost power because of his inability to appreciate the strength of the growing opposition, and his unwillingness to heed the liberals’ calls for fully fledged democratic reforms.


Photo Credit: www.kremlin.ru

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