This year’s centenary of the 1917 Revolution always had the potential to expose underlying but usually concealed friction within the ‘patriotic majority’ that is the bedrock of the Kremlin’s popular support. The memory of Russia’s last Tsar, Nicholas II (1868-1918) particularly divides contemporary Russia’s ‘Reds’ from its ‘Whites’. (While the former take pride in the Soviet state inaugurated by the Bolshevik coup d’état of October 1917, its achievements and Communist way of life, the latter confess their loyalty to ‘God, Tsar and Fatherland’ and look to the restoration of the historical honour of ‘Old Russia’.)
And, indeed, the past week has seen these tensions come to the fore, with President Vladimir Putin’s Press Secretary, Dmitri Peskov, moving last Wednesday to dispel the notion that the monarchy’s return was something the Kremlin had under serious consideration.
‘On this subject, the President has repeatedly said that he – let’s say – considers such ideas without optimism. He has a very cool attitude towards such discussions’, said Peskov last Wednesday.
State Duma Chairman (‘Speaker’) Vyacheslav Volodin reiterated this position later the same day, saying ‘We live in a free country, so everyone can express their own different point of view. But we should probably look to the future, not the past’. (Until late last year, Volodin was first deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration and has long been considered Putin’s ‘grey cardinal’.)
Responsible for sparking the public debate was the head of the regional government of Crimea, Sergei Aksenov, who in an interview with local television on the centenary of Nicholas’s renunciation of the Throne affirmed his support for the monarchy’s restoration, something which he believed would correct the ‘collective irresponsibility’ inherent in democracy.
‘When there is no unity of command, collective irresponsibility follows’, Izvestia reported him saying. ‘Today, in my opinion, Russia needs a monarchy’, he continued, supported by ‘traditional Orthodox values.’
Though Aksenov clarified his position a few days later by saying that he didn’t have a Romanov but President Putin himself in mind for Russia’s restored Throne, this wasn’t the first ‘royal’ headache with Crimean the Kremlin has had to deal with in recent weeks.
Thus, in the lead up to the centenary of the Tsar’s abdication, Natalya Poklonskaya, the high-profile member of the State Duma from Crimea – who last year provoked controversy by carrying an icon of Nicholas II in a procession in honour of the Soviet Union’s 1945 Victory over Nazi Germany – accused the makers of the forthcoming film Mathilda of ‘offending the feelings of believers’ – an offence under Russian law – by portraying Nicholas’s youthful romance with a leading ballerina of the late Imperial stage.
She also called on the leadership of the Russian Church to investigate an alleged miracle (which subsequently failed to be substantiated) at the site of a newly-erected bust of Nicholas in the Crimean capital of Simferopol (one of several erected since the peninsula’s ‘reunification’).
The irony is that no event has helped galvanise the Kremlin’s current popularity more than Russia’s annexation of Crimea on 18 March 2014 – to Russians, the ‘Crimean Spring’.
Yet, while the Kremlin’s concern not to offend the patriotic feelings of contemporary ‘Reds’ saw public commemorations of the centenary of Nicholas’s abdication last week largely delegated to the Russian Orthodox Church, the third anniversary of Crimea’s reunification a few days later was intended as a celebration to unite all sides – only for the head of Crimea’s own government to put not only the monarchy’s demise but also its possible restoration back in the spotlight.
Partly this reflects the special connection between the Romanovs and Crimea, which before becoming a favoured Soviet-era Kurort and holiday retreat of Communist Party General-Secretaries, served with its Mediterranean-like climate as the spring and autumn refuge of the Tsar and his family from the sleet and rain of St Petersburg.
It was in the Crimea that Alexander III (1881-94) died and the new Emperor Nicholas II took the oath of accession. Also here scarcely more than 25 years later, the remnants of the persecuted dynasty would a final refuge from the Bolsheviks before evacuation by the Royal Navy to England in 1919.
With Russia’s last emperor and empress now saints, Nicholas and Alexandra’s white cliff-top palace at Livadia has become a pilgrimage destination for Russian church groups. Indeed, only months after the annexation a large bronze bust of Nicholas II was installed at the entrance. Like the others that have since appeared, these symbolise not only the dynasty’s special connections to the peninsula but also many Crimeans’ own distinctly ‘White’ Russian identity.
Beneath the surface of these debates about the past, it’s possible to detect the tectonic plates of contemporary Russian identity grinding together.
At stake is less the possible restoration of the monarchy as the post-Soviet Russian state’s ability to forge a viable sense of contemporary Russian patriotism, one capable of binding latter-day ‘Reds’ and ‘Whites’ together in a lasting patriotic union.
Since the ‘Crimean Spring’ Putin has scarcely made a major speech since without reference to Russian history, meaning many Russians will have raised an eyebrow at Duma Chairman Volodin’s instruction that they ought instead to be thinking about ‘the future’.
Certainly, the Romanovs have been major beneficiaries of Putin’s third term (which has seen the restoration of monuments to Russia’s Imperial dynasty defaced during the Revolution as well as the commissioning of new ones). Given the rifts now visible within its support base, however, it would make sense that the Kremlin doesn’t want to push this rehabilitation too far.
Thus, in disavowing plans for a restoration, the Kremlin isn’t seeking so much to shape public opinion as follow it. A survey this week suggests that somewhat more than a quarter (28 per cent) of Russians are either supportive of or ‘not in principle opposed’ to the monarchy’s restoration, with some six per cent able to identify ‘someone who could be a new Russian monarch’. Dashing the hopes of any would-be pretender to Russia’s vacant Throne (Romanov or otherwise), however, at 68 per cent of respondents the percentage of those outright opposed is higher than it has been since 2006.
Ultimately, Putin’s ‘cool’ attitude towards the monarchy sounds like a sensible hedge, implicitly leaving open the possibility that something might warm it up. But it’s safe to say that, save a dramatic upsurge in sympathy for the institution (perhaps in connection with next year’s centenary of Nicholas and Alexandra’s murder), a restoration is for the moment off the cards.
If all of this teaches us anything, it’s that in this centenary year of the Revolution, whether the issue at stake is the monarchy or calls from (‘White’) émigré elements for the removal of Lenin’s corpse from its famous Red Square mausoleum – something which, in a sign of the Church’s sensitivity about antagonising lingering Soviet (‘Red’) sentiment, the Moscow Patriarchate again spoke out against last week – debates about historical memory not only demonstrate the means at the Kremlin’s disposal for shaping public discourse in contemporary Russia but also remind us of their limits.
Matthew Dal Santo is an Australian historian and foreign affairs writer resident in Europe. He’s a former fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and officer of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. You can follow him on Twitter at MatthewDalSant1.
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