“I shall be an autocrat: that’s my trade”

Following the news about Russian political life these days – notably in the aftermath of the poisoning of opposition figure Alexey Navalny – one might think that this quote comes from President Vladimir Putin. But it would be wrong to assume that. These words were pronounced by none other than Catherine the Great.

In his brilliant and insightful book A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, from the Pagans to Putin, Professor Mark Galeotti chronicles the historical continuity – and I could add ingenuity – of power in the land of the double-headed eagle. During his reign (980-1015), Vladimir the Great took “[…] the Rus’ beyond their Viking roots”, made a show of piety that “[…] was actually a piece of ruthless statecraft.” If that sounds familiar with today’s operating mode, that’s “[…] because one can draw a direct and often-bloody line between these times and the present day. The origin story, in which vulnerability is spun as agency, sets the tone, especially as this is not simply a story of weakness, but of embracing conquest and creating something new from it.”

Ever since, Russian leaders have proven pragmatic and ruthless in crafting power. To remain at the top, Russian stateswomen and statesmen had to thwart the power and influence of indocile aristocrats, because a strong state requires subjecting real and potential opposition to undivided authority. Those considering Vladimir Putin to be a scandalous anomaly should consider the fact that Peter the Great “[…] had his eldest son tortured under suspicion of plotting against him, a torment from which he died.” Or that the great Catherine was complicit in the assassination of her husband-tsar to ascend to the throne.

Not that I condone violence, poisoning and assassinations – far from it.

But past leaders who did not abide by the rule that power is acquired and kept at all cost – sometimes at the price of violence – did not last. Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev were excellent cases in point. Before them, tsar Nicholas II impotently saw power escape from his hands because of his lack of political skills.

Vladimir Putin, of whom many say that he is a keen student of history, certainly keeps this storyline close to mind. Western governments can draft protests condemnations, launch inquiries and express the most eloquent outrage. Alas for them, they have little to say in who occupies the Kremlin. The day he loses his grip on power and the forced docility of current-day boyars will be the last of his reign. One can and should feel sorry for what happened to Alexey Navalny. Making a political opponent suffer physically – and potentially die – is something I guess I will never be able to understand. At the same time, the trends of Russian history are much larger than the evolution of our current values. Mr. Navalny is not the first nemesis of the throne to be tossed aside in the land of the tsars. And my guess is he won’t be the last either. I imagine that few tsars and successors departed this world with a conscience clean of such lethal political maneuvers.

All in all, those who seek to better understand the nature and demands of power in Russian politics should grab a copy of Mark Galeotti’s latest book and embark on the journey of understanding why Vladimir Putin acts the way he does. “Much is known about Peter [the Great]; much less is truly understood”, writes the author. The same applies to the current defender of the double-headed eagle. You may dislike him and what he does, but that does not diminish the urgent need to better understand the sources of Russian power.

At the stylistic level, Pr. Galeotti has an acknowledged quality offering the reader a simplified version of the intricacies of names and events – where other authors could simply bore the reader. He writes in a way that requires being peeled away from his book in order to attend to other tasks. I will await with great eagerness his next book.

________________

Mark Galeotti, A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, from the Pagans to Putin, Toronto, Hanover Square Press, 2020, 224 pages.

I would like to express all my gratitude to Emer Flounders, from HarperCollins, who provided me with a review copy of this excellent book and who is always more than generous and helpful whenever I need some assistance about a title published by this fantastic publishing house.