There has been a lot of discussion lately about history, historical parallels and the historicization of the contemporary Russian ferment. I’ve played with parallels to 1905 and more recently Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy have written thoughtfully in the National Interest about Putin’s ‘historical turn’ and his self-identification with repressor-modernizer prime minister Pëtr Stolypin. In a conversation yesterday with RFE/RL’s excellent Brian Whitmore, we touched on the historical parallels (I suggested that in some ways he might be a Nicholas I figure – intellectually able to understand the need for reform, viscerally unable to sanction anything he felt weakened the state or brought the risk of instability).
Combined with the – in my opinion – likely accession of Kudrin as prime minister in the new Putin presidency, it got me wondering whether Putin really understood the historical parallel he likes to draw. Kudrin is personally close to Putin, but a technocrat rather than a silovik, more interested in modernization that statism. Unlike Medvedev, Kudrin has the stature, personal leeway and character to go nose-to-nose with Putin and demand a degree of control over policy. Furthermore, although I think Putin will will March’s presidential election, it will probably be in a second-round run-off and leave him weaker than he has been at any point since 1999. In short, he will need Kudrin and through him the technocrat wing of the political elite and in turn through them, some relationship with the aspirant middle class who represent the base of the current protests.
Kudrin will want to modernize by economic liberalization, which will have powerful socio-economic and thus political implications. It will lead to a drift of power away from the modern chinovniki, the bureaucrats of the state and security apparatuses, and towards the middle class. This is in some ways akin to Stolypin’s “wager on the strong” in the countryside, seeking to privilege a rural yeoman classes a new social backbone of tsarism, while modernizing the urban economy.
Perhaps the real Stolypin would actually be Kudrin. So who does that leave Putin? Possibly Nicholas II, turning to his self-confident (even arrogant) and able prime minister in desperation, despite having little personal sympathy for or understanding of his strategy. The real Stolypin failed to save autocracy from itself. Nicholas was unable or unwilling to support him against increasingly disgruntled aristocratic elites and ultimately may have turned a blind eye to the plot to assassinate him. It remains to be seen whether history offers any repetitions, but I can’t help but wonder how far Putin – no historian – is kidding himself about his own place in history.