Rebels in the Name of the Tsar

No matter how many times he denies it, people keep asking Vladimir Putin if he will seek a third term. He was asked again during Wednesday’s “Hot Line with President of Russia Vladimir Putin”. A driver named Arkady Kokayev asked, “What will happen to us, to the country after 2008?” In addition to assurances that things will be fine after his term is over Putin said,

As for me personally, as I have said before, even though I like my work, the Constitution does not allow me to run for office three times in a row. But even once I no longer have my presidential powers, I think that without trying to shape the Constitution to fit my personal interests, I will be able to hold on to what is most important and most valuable for any politician, namely, your trust. And building on this trust we will work together with you in order to influence our country’s life, ensure that it follows a consistent path of development and have an impact on what happens in Russia

So there you have it. Another denial that he will seek a third term. Though he maintains that his influence will still be felt.

The “Hot Line” is a fascinating event in and of itself; an event whose importance is too often quickly passed over. The switchboard received over a million calls from citizens asking Putin questions that ranged from the economy, Russia’s future, Georgia, the murder of Anna Politkovskaya and issues regarding everyday life. It is one of the few instances where the mediation between leaders and led is reduced to a point that allows for a measure of unpredictability. Far more unpredictability than journalists’ questions seem to provide. It is one of the few instances when a leader is directly confronted with people’s personal grievances.

The process is also a long tradition in Russia. As Dmitry Babich noted on Russia Profile, the event upholds the idea of na?ve monarchism, where the leader appears to be on the side of the people against evil bureaucrats that try to ruin their lives. It maintains the leader as part of the “eternal good,” as Babich calls it.

There are many instances of the “eternal good” in Russian history. When Alexander II emancipated the serfs, thousands of peasants sent petitions were to the Tsar claiming that landlords were defying the Tsar’s will to give them real and complete volia (freedom).

As one N. A. Krylov wrote about cause for the massacre of 55 peasants at Benza, Samara gubernia in 1861,

“Anton [Petrov, an Old Believer who claimed to discover true volia in the emancipation decree] sits in his hut at Bezdna looking at these naughts and smoothly reading out, “Land for the pomeshchik: the hills and the hollows, the ravines and the roads, the sandbanks and the reedbeds, and nor one twig of the forest. If he takes a step over the boundary of his land, drive him back with a kind word, and if he doesn’t obey—cut off his head and you will get a reward from the tsar.” The narod liked this kind of volia, and crowds came in from all sides to hear real volia. . . .Anton preached like this for five days in a row. Then he put abroad rumors that he had received a charter from the Tsar, read the Bible until he attained the power of prophecy, and, mixing the one and the other together preached, “. . . They [the landlords] are going to frighten you with troops, but don’t be afraid, no one dares to kill the orthodox people without the tsar’s order. And if the nobles distribute bribes [to the soldiers] and you are shot at, then get your axes and chop up those who disobey the tsar.” (D. Field, Rebels in the Name of the Tsar, 72)

For the peasantry, the tsar was on their side.

Things were no different in the Soviet period. Party leaders were inundated with letters asking for material and psychological help. Many of the complaints were about injustices perpetrated by Communist bureaucrats. Then, as now, the people turned to the “eternal good” for help even if the Kremlin was occupied by someone as heinous as Stalin. Believe it or not, if Stalin’s handwriting in the corners of letters, passing them to his officials for redress is any indication, sometimes the petitioners even got results to their favor.

One can easily pass this off as PR to keep up the image that the leader cares for the people. And though it is certainly true, I think that explanation is too simple. It also says something about what the “people” expect from their leaders, and how they feel they have a right to have those expectations met.

I wouldn’t call this mentality a sign of “formal” democracy. The fact that citizens feel the only avenue to redress is to appeal directly to the top suggests that the institutions that mediate them are untrustworthy, ineffective or wholly corrupt. But it is a form of “informal” democracy because Russians feel that their leaders have a responsibility to the people and the people have a right to demand redress from their leaders. This mentality may be na?ve monarchism personified, but the last two times Russians lost faith in the “eternal good,” they brought the whole system crashing down.