What Putin Isn’t Learning From His Role Model, Czar Alexander III

On November 18, Vladimir Putin traveled to Yalta in the annexed Crimea to unveil a new monument to Czar Alexander III. The bronze statue of the Russian monarch, who reigned between 1881 and 1894, is adorned with a stele depicting what are supposed to be the symbols of his rule, including the Tretyakov Gallery and the History Museum, and the images of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Dmitri Mendeleev, and other Russian intellectuals of the era. The pedestal features one of the czar’s famous phrases, that “Russia only has two allies: her army and her navy.”

Unfortunately for the monument’s creators, the Tretyakov Gallery and the History Museum were actually founded under Alexander II (respectively, in 1856 and 1872); Tolstoy wrote his most important works and Mendeleev formulated the table of periodic elements during the reign of Alexander II (in any case, these were surely their own achievements rather than the czar’s); while Dostoyevsky did not live under Alexander III even for a day, having died a month before his reign began. The phrase about “Russia’s allies,” meanwhile, is at best apocryphal, and was likely said not by the czar, but by his minister of war, General Pyotr Vannovsky.

Beyond the comical gaffes, however, the monument holds a serious message. This is the eighth monument to Alexander III unveiled on Vladimir Putin’s watch. The penultimate Romanov appears to be Putin’s role model; his idea of the optimal leader for Russia, on whom he styles his own rule. Indeed, the parallels are not hard to discern. The legacy of Alexander III was in rolling back the reforms of his predecessor: he strengthened government censorship of the press and annulled the autonomy of universities; introduced emergency rule in the provinces and curtailed the powers of local government; limited trial by jury; and, cut urban franchise. In the words of his chief advisor, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, all of these measures were intended to “freeze” Russia and prevent revolutionary upheaval.

As history shows, “freezing” usually has the opposite effect. The counter-reforms of Alexander III did, for a time, suppress changes in Russian society—but by doing so only exacerbated the political and social problems, making the eventual upheaval more dramatic. Having begun his reign with a promise to “maintain the principle of autocracy as firmly and as constantly as did my unforgettable father,” Nicholas II was overtaken by events and forced to realize the very “senseless dream” of the liberals—a national Parliament—that he had so vehemently denounced. But even the semi-constitutional system established after the 1905 revolution was, in the end, too little, too late; unable to withstand the internal and external pressures and culminating in the calamity of 1917. The “freezing” turned out to be delusive. That is one lesson of Alexander III’s reign that Putin would do well to remember.


PHOTO CREDIT: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/56125

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