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Interview: Is Putin a modern-day tsar?

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his address to the nation at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 21, 2022. (ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Andrei Zorin is a cultural historian and chair of Russian at the University of Oxford. In a recent interview with Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL Georgian Service, Zorin discusses whether Russian President Vladimir Putin meets the criteria of a modern-day tsar, Russia’s long legacy of authoritarian rulers, and how Putin’s invasion of Ukraine may have been fueled by the Russian ruler’s misguided mythical goal to “unite” the Slavic peoples of Ukraine with Russia.

For Ukraine, Zorin says, the battle against Russia is “textbook national liberation.”

RFE/RL: Let’s begin with the phenomenon of the tsar and the Russian people’s thirst for one. How much of it is a myth and how much of it is conventional historical wisdom?

Andrei Zorin: The phenomenon and the role of the tsar is extremely important in Russian history. It is deeply rooted in the cultural mythology of Russia. At least for 500 years, maybe slightly more. But one thing to understand is that the word “tsar” naturally brings [comparisons to] the idea of the conventional monarchy. The main part of the conventional monarchy is domestic succession. The king is dead, long live the king. And this never existed in Russia.

There are two main terms applied to the Russian political system. Some people say it is personalistic or monarchical. And I say, “yes, it’s deeply personalistic, but it never was monarchical.”… There was just once in Russian history, after [19th-century Tsar] Nicholas I, when Russia had three regular successions in a row, and it ended in the October [1917] Revolution. But the second half of the 19th century was the only period where something remotely like monarchy started to exist in Russia.

And then it collapsed. And the most important thing here — and I want to give credit for this to the late Vladimir Sharov, recently deceased, who I think was the most important Russian writer of the post-Soviet period and thinker — and he said that, in Russia, nobody asks the question whether the tsar is legitimate. But everyone asks the question whether the tsar is true or real. We have true tsars and pretenders. And the tsar always has to prove that he’s the true one. It’s something which is proved through your reign. And in the course of the reign, you prove and legitimize yourself. You don’t get the legitimacy by the fact that you’re somebody’s son, as in a regular monarchy.

The Soviet Union tried to introduce the system of succession through the apparatus of the Communist Party. But it never worked smoothly. Every transition we had some sort of coup d’etat, or semi-coup d’etat. So, the party line of succession also didn’t work.

RFE/RL: In one of your lectures, you call it a “basic myth of rational people, a basic myth that exists 500 years.” Has it blurred into reality somewhat?

Zorin: Yes. Well, the important part of the basic mythology is that it blurs into reality because it defines people’s expectations. This mythology is semiconscious. It’s not ideology, something you articulate, and choose, and say, “I believe in this ideology and not in that one.” The myth lies deeper. You inherit [it], but not genetically.

The important thing is that I never use words like “mentality” or “cultural code” because that implies some kind of genetical inheritance. They’re inherited culturally, through religion, through art, through propaganda, through school education, very important is the system of national holidays, celebrations, rituals, and other things like this. You imbibe this mythology. And in a normal way, you do not think about it. But at the same time…it’s not something you do not realize; you just feel this way.

RFE/RL: If that’s true, then can, or rather are, average Russians able or willing to see the future without a tsar? And what does it mean for Russia’s capacity to change?

Zorin: You know, there are a lot of talks now and a lot of intellectuals are terribly nervous, and what they say is: “We don’t need another tsar. We need to change the system completely.” And one of the [reasons] why I said that the myths are not inherited genetically, is that they do change. They appear, they develop, they die out — that happens.

I was asked, “What is needed for the myth to go away?” You need one of two [things]: One, you need long-term social changes. And one thing that was going on, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was this rapid development of the urban, young, Western-oriented sort of middle-class people. And in two, three generations, probably the mythology could have completely changed. It happened in many countries; Russia is not unique here. But here, you need decades of social change. Because, for example, the tsarist mythology is deeply rooted in the peasant mentality. But if you move from the village to the city, you don’t immediately get rid of [the mentality]. You need generations for that.

Another possibility is a deep-rooted cultural shock. The atomic bombing of Japan (at the end of World War II) completely changed their national mythology. A nuclear bomb completely changes everything on the spot. You don’t need generations. It’s such a shock, that everything becomes — well, not completely different — but much different.

RFE/RL: Germany probably could be another example.

Zorin: Germany would be another example. Yes, absolutely. The whole vision of the Teutonic, powerful, strong male, which underlined German culture for ages and ages, suddenly lost its absolute appeal. Yes, some people on the fringes are still excited about it. But it’s a very fringe way of thinking.

RFE/RL: Which of those scenarios do you think is more likely to happen? What would you pick?

Zorin: Well, I would not desire either, God forbid, the nuclear bombing, or the dismemberment of Russia. There is a lot of discussion of it. I think it will be utmost disaster — [that is] the dismemberment and occupation [of Russia]. So, my hope — the mythology I didn’t think particularly productive — was on gradual development. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen and only God knows what’s going to happen. It’s not my preferences that are going to define what’s going to happen. We don’t know. The future is blurred. But my vision actually is that Russia will not get rid of the tsarist mythology within the short term.

RFE/RL: Let’s move on to the person who, at least in this century, is most commonly associated with the word tsar. Has Vladimir Putin become a tsar in everything but word? An absolutist monarch?

Zorin: Yes, most definitely, yes. And I would say that, more or less, for the first 20 years of his reign, he proved himself to be the true tsar. I’m not saying this as a compliment. I was never mildly his fan, never voted for him, and so on and so forth…. But yes, he managed to prove that he is the true tsar by winning the Second Chechen War after they lost the first one. And this is the mark of the true tsar [who] changes the initial defeats into victories, by visibly stopping the rule of the boyars (powerful members of the feudal nobility). The rich men, not that they disappeared, they became very important, but they absolutely don’t have a voice of their own. Some oligarchs actually said that: “If the tsar Putin demands [it], we will give everything we have, that’s fine.”

And [there was also proving to be a tsar] by many other, smaller, more or less important things. One of them, for example, was this thing I called the check of your charisma. Because one of the things is that you have to show that your power does not depend on the position you have. Ivan the Terrible proclaimed the small Tatar Simeon Bekbulatovich as the ruler of Russia (between September 1575 and September 1576). Everyone knows who is really in power, but formally you say, “Here is the guy.” Stalin never signed any document as general secretary of the Communist Party.

RFE/RL: Why go to Ivan the Terrible when you have Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian president and current deputy secretary of the country’s powerful Security Council, right at hand?

Zorin: Exactly. You show that it’s not your presidency, which makes you the most powerful person in case anyone doubts [it]. But your power lies within your physical body, beyond the institutions.

RFE/RL: Let me ask you this: What do you think of this popular theory that one of the key reasons for Putin to launch this full-scale war on Ukraine was a deeply egotistical one, that he wanted to be seen alongside the great Russian tsars in the history books?

Zorin: That’s not inconceivable. I can’t get into [Putin’s] mind, of course. This is a question that has been discussed many times. A lot of people say: “Well, [something] is not going to happen, because that’s not rational and not in Russia’s best interests.” And being in Georgia, I probably can mention that I talked with Kakha Bendukidze (former businessman and Georgian economy minister), who was, I would say, the most intelligent person I’ve ever met in my life. And he said — it was before 2014 — but he said Russia would never annex Crimea, because by annexing Crimea, it would completely lose its influence over Ukraine. And that’s not in Russia’s interests. And [then] this immediately happened.

And the main mistake here — he was, of course, completely correct — but the main mistake was that he believed that rulers act in the interests [of] the country being prosperous, having influence, and so on and so forth. Here you can say it (the invasion) was against [Russia’s interests]. But in the vision of the Russian elite, maybe Putin himself, maybe of people around him, I can’t speculate…. But this was a feeling that Russia should be great, it should become expansionist, imperial. And the great rulers did annex important lands and territories, in the south, like Catherine the Great; the northwest, like Peter the Great; in the east, like Ivan the Terrible.

But as far as the current war is concerned, I think that there was another reason, no less deeply rooted and mythological: this vision of the “one people.”… From the Ukrainian point of view, it is a very classical and traditional, textbook war of national liberation. The nation fights for its independence against the former empire. Yet from the Russian point [of view], it’s not [an] imperial war, like, for example, the war in Chechnya was, because nobody ever believed that Chechens were a part of the Russian people. It was a purely imperial war of control.

But this war, at least at the beginning — now this situation [is starting] to change — the feeling was that you will restore the former unity of the nation; that Russians [and] Ukrainians are one people, basically, and it is dismembered. And Russia can’t be great without regaining, as the nation, its body. It is the feeling that actually the body of [the] Russian nation is dismembered; that you have part of it forcefully torn apart by the West, and we’re now fighting for reunification of the national body.

This was the game played already with the Poles 200 years ago, with, to put it very mildly, no success. But the initial belief was: We are bringing back the Poles. They’re, of course, seduced by the Catholic priests of [the] Vatican. We are [bringing] them back into the Slavic unity.

Then, of course, you start the hatred, because they’re traitors. And here the problem is terrible, because the enemy is somebody you can make peace with. You fight, and then you make peace, because for the enemy to fight you is legitimate.

RFE/RL: So, you are fighting with yourself.

Zorin: Yes. Here, the people are traitors. They’re not enemies. They’re traitors. How can you make peace with a traitor? And thus, we have what I call a Carmen-type life, you know, the opera Carmen, where she sings: “I love you, but you don’t love me. So, beware of my love.” So, if I love you, you have to be mine, otherwise, I am going to murder you. And from the Russian [point of view,] it was this sort of strange, murderous love. Yes, we should be one nation. They don’t want it. So, they’re traitors, we probably will murder them. And finally, they’ll understand that we are the same nation.

I think — I may be wrong — but I think that after a year of the war, that is fading away. That feeling of the war for the unification of the Russian nation is gradually morphing into a classical territorial war about to whom this or that chunk of the land belongs.

RFE/RL: Accepting that Ukrainians are different. Just like they did with the Poles.

Zorin: Yes, exactly. They did it with the Poles. And then you find that you argue where the border should actually be.

RFE/RL: Another myth or historical pattern that you also write about is — let me quote you: “Traditionally, in every major war Russia has initially faced severe setbacks. These eventually turn into triumphant victories, albeit at tremendous sacrifice.” Let’s discuss both scenarios in the war on Ukraine: one where this is proven false, and one, where it’s proven true and Russia emerges triumphant despite the costs. What do those scenarios look like?

Zorin: There are countries that [base] the foundation of their national consciousness on major victories. There are some, much fewer, countries that [base] that foundation on major defeats, like the Serbs, for example. But the Russian basic pattern is the war, which started with defeats, but then was turned into victory. You have the Swedish war of the early 18th century, which started with a catastrophic defeat at Narva (in 1700)…. Then you had the war with the Poles. In the early 17th century, the Poles were in Moscow. And then Russia dismembered Poland, together with Prussia and Austria. Napoleon, who occupied Moscow. And the final — and most important part of contemporary Russian political mythology — is the war of 1941-45. Hitler, like the Poles and the French, didn’t occupy Moscow, but he came very near to it and finally he was beaten, and the [Soviet] Army ended up in Berlin….

But there are other wars which fit into a different pattern. The wars which failed and showed to the country that it should completely reshape itself, like the Crimean War of the 19th century, the [Russo]-Japanese war in 1904-05, and the [Soviet]-Afghan War, which is the latest [example], which starts this revolution, reform, or whatever. These are wars that are neglected because the major narrative doesn’t know how to deal with them.

RFE/RL: Let’s now turn to the recent rebellion led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the former head of the Wagner mercenary group. Weeks have passed, and we still don’t know what it was about. What we do know is that it probably was the biggest threat and strongest challenge to Putin’s rule since he took power. What’s your take on all this?

Zorin: You know, first of all, I don’t have any inside knowledge whatsoever. So, it’s very difficult for me to speculate. Historically, it is not unknown, and it’s a rather traditional part of a rebellion, which doesn’t claim to be a rebellion against the tsar. It is what they say in Russian — “boyarina s kriltsa.” (The phrase is used to describe a politician or official who deserves punishment or dismissal and is based historically on boyars being thrown from the entrance of a house to soldiers armed with spears.) You want some of the boyars, who tend to be responsible for the defeats and the problems, to be lynched immediately in front of [everyone].

And there are piles of these rebellions. Actually, the reign of (17th-century Tsar) Peter the Great’s started with the Streltsy rebellion, [where] Peter’s tutor, Artamon Matveyev, was given to the mob to be lynched. And the reign of Peter arguably owes some of its incredible cruelty to his experience as a boy, when he saw his tutor lynched. He stuttered for his entire life after that.

But this is a type of rebellion against the distribution of power. Probably, it was less an attempted coup d’etat, but I think more the Condottieri (Medieval Italian mercenaries) renegotiations of the terms [of power]. It was the idea that the tsar is legitimate, a true one, but the people around him are traitors. A renegotiation not only of the commercial terms but the system of power within the country.

So, historically speaking, there is an old tradition behind that. What makes it, from my point of view, unique is that these types of events always belong to the period of the so-called Smuta, usually translated into English as the Time of Troubles (a period of political crisis and social turmoil in Russia that began in 1598). But troubles do not completely convey the meaning of Smuta, which is more about murkiness. You can’t see; the situation is not transparent. And the main question is: Who’s in power? Thus, such a rebellion is typical of this period when you don’t know really who’s in power and how the system of power [will be] redistributed.

RFE/RL: So, would that mean the presence of a “true” tsar, as you mentioned in the beginning?

Zorin: Yes. Mythologically, it precedes the appearance of a true tsar. And one of the signs of him being true, is [the tsar’s] ability to quell the Smuta. And I really can’t think of any example when this type of rebellion happened after 20 years or more of successful — in this mythological meaning — rule of a tsar who [has] sort of already proved he’s [the] true one. And thus, I think it’s in a way unique. Does it point to the end of the reign or doesn’t it? I will not predict, but it is a substantial break of the pattern. Especially as I don’t believe that Putin — for one of the first times in his entire career — actually showed himself as the true tsar. He appeared before the nation and said, “Here are the traitors.” OK. Traitors happen. Then cut their heads off.

RFE/RL: Was that a “the tsar is naked” moment?

Zorin: It might be, it might be, [but] maybe not yet. I would be rather cautious to predict…. I think the inertia of him being recognized as a true tsar is still very strong.

RFE/RL: If the fig leaf has fallen down for a second, the Russian people very generously picked it up and proffered it back to Putin and said, “Cover yourself.”

Zorin: Yes. It is difficult when for 20 years you’ve been accustomed to the idea that we have a tsar. Overnight, to say, [now] we don’t, it’s difficult to change that pattern. But clearly, it is a sign. And this time we can use the English word, a sign of deep trouble.