President Putin as Prince Hamlet
No. 4 2006 October/ December

An epoch of full-blown
antidemocratic ideologies has become a thing of the past. Today, it
is difficult to find people who would oppose democracy out of
principle, like the monarchists or fascists did in the past.
Everyone is in support of democracy and human rights today. Even
the Soviet leadership did not oppose democracy – it opposed those
moments when “anti-Socialist forces raise their heads under the
cover of pro-democracy slogans.” Nor did it object to the freedom
of speech – it only objected to using free speech for “spreading
libel against Socialism.” So there can be no doubt that President
Putin and his associates are advocates of democracy as well, to say
nothing of Putin’s predecessor who stood at the helm of a
democratic revolution.

And yet the distance between
recognizing the benefits of democracy and the actual establishment
of democracy per se may be greater than the distance between the
recognition that smoking and drinking are unwholesome habits and
the practical abstinence from them. Today’s Russian society does
not have any feasible alternatives to democracy or any integral
ideology that offers an alternative method of social organization.
On the other hand, Russia lacks the specific culture or
psychological capability for nurturing a democracy – a feature that
is not at all uniquely Russian, since nations of this mold spread
across approximately half of the globe. What we have instead is a
habit of being subordinated, which formed over the course of many
centuries, and a fear of independent decisions and being left
without a strong guiding arm.

A society that lacks the ability
to live in a democracy, as well as having no alternatives to it,
produces the sort of political system that has taken shape in this
country. This phenomenon has parallels in many other countries: it
is a system of presidential power disguised in the vestments of
democracy. Yet such a system does not stem from malevolent intent,
but rather emerges on its own. Both Yeltsin and Putin were pushed
into building this system both by society and the circumstances of
history itself, and little actually depended on their personalities
along the way. One may even say they did not have other


The task of building democracy
cannot be a task for the president as the head of state, since
setting forth this objective would naturally create a political
opposition, which would eventually replace him later. He would thus
shackle his own hands and fuel criticism against himself. Thus,
such an objective is unnatural and contradicts normal human
instincts. Mikhail Gorbachev did something in that vein, but he is
a bit of an anomaly. A man in power, even if he is totally
committed to democracy, cannot help forcing others to obey him, and
avoid meddling with his work or from putting spokes in his wheels.
He will necessarily wish to prevent the rise of individuals who may
spoil the fruits of his own efforts. He will want to see key
positions filled by people whom he finds easy to work with, and he
will want to see particular scoundrels get what they deserve. As he
implements these normal human desires, he creates an authoritarian
system, if society is unable to restrict his powers and ready to
obey him.

Neither Yeltsin nor Putin had any
plan for “undermining democratic freedoms;” these values vanished
on their own as the two presidents were forced to solve specific

Yeltsin, for example, did not
fight against democracy by ordering tanks to open fire on the
building of the rebellious parliament. Certainly, he thought at
that moment that he was fighting for democracy. He simply did not
want to give power over to the audacious parliament speaker Ruslan
Khasbulatov, the ungrateful former vice-president Alexander
Rutskoi, or the Communists and nationalists. As he created his
Constitution, he had no wish of restricting democracy either.
Yeltsin just sought to deny the oppositionists a chance to hamper
the reforms that he believed were vital for this

Nor did Putin seek to curtail the
freedom of speech as he liquidated independent television. In
reality, he wanted to snatch it out of the hands of the oligarchs
and prevent them from showing the Kukly puppet show, which he found
personally insulting. Putin did not want to “de facto dismantle
Russia’s federated structure,” but rather eliminate loopholes for
electing incompetent – and sometime even criminal – regional
governors, while he could not do anything about it as president. He
did not purposefully create “a lawless environment and an
unfriendly investment climate for business” – he merely wanted to
remove the ambitious oligarchs, who overrated their importance and
were always getting underfoot. So he placed a single individual,
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, behind bars. Nor did Putin wish to “de facto
liquidate parliamentarian system,” rather, he sought to prevent
parliament from obstructing him in his efforts to “revive Russia
and redouble its Gross Domestic Product.” All of these are normal
and legitimate human desires, since a president naturally has
egotistic and private motives along with idealistic and
businesslike ones.

The huge machinery that services
Putin does not set itself the task of stifling democracy either.
Very simply, each governor wants his region to look as good as the
others; they want to prevent elections for the demagogues or foes
of the respected president. Each prosecutor wants to be an
outstanding and watchful “eye of the Caesar.” And naturally, each
of them cares just as much for his career and well-being at the
same time. 

If a society is incapable of
maintaining any sort of democratic self-organization, if the very
idea that a new president can be elected from persons not chosen by
the current president seems frightening and revolutionary, then
trying to resolve each specific problem that Yelstin, or Putin, or
their appointees confront would only lead us away from democracy
and introduce a system that replicates the contours of the old
Soviet system. Yeltsin and Putin perhaps even believed that their
course of actions was consistent with the construction of democracy
under the very specific conditions that Russia found itself in,
since Western standards cannot be applied here, at least for the
time being. If a person walks along a path that is circular, he may
get the illusion of moving forward, but after some time he will
start to notice to his astonishment that he has returned almost to
the exact point where he started.

In our present situation, we have
traveled the greater part of the way, with only a small distance
left to go.


So what is all that is needed now?
First, we could always lift the constitutional restriction that
prohibits an individual from occupying the presidential office for
more than two terms in succession. This goal is natural for
Russia’s current system and is not necessarily linked to a craving
for power on the part of the president. Indeed, why on earth should
a popular president, who has managed to achieve so much, search for
a successor (and will he find a worthy one?) while he is in the
full bloom of life? Why should he look for some obscure future job
just because his predecessor composed the Constitution, thinking
that eight years would be long enough a term and it would be an
accomplishment just to survive through to its end? Why should the
president interrupt work on his various plans and hand them over to
some other person? Moreover, Russian society does not want Putin to
depart from power and cannot even imagine the president stepping
down from his position.

Second, we could declare the
United Russia party the pro-presidential party once and for all,
and rule out any alternative to it as much as to the president
himself. This seems to be a natural and necessary thing to do
considering Russia’s very special conditions. If this step is
achieved, the authorities will get extra levers of power, be able
to define the circle of loyal people committed to the common cause,
and pool together a reserve of human resources. It will save us a
lot of energy formerly wasted for projects like setting up the
leftwing Rodina party, then splitting it and, finally, utilizing
its fragments. Thus, elections will cease driving society into
frenzy. There are no obstacles in the way of implementing this
project; actually, it is almost realized already.

Of course, Putin’s hypothetical
decision to amend the Constitution will produce uproar in the West,
but should this bother us, after all? Our reserves of oil and gas
and the Western demand for fuel makes the West depend on us – not
vice versa. Even pushing us out of the Group of Eight is scarcely a
feasible task. And do we even need the G8?


In the meantime, something strange
is happening. The building of a new Russian state, made up entirely
of the decrees of our presidents, is almost complete. Just a bit
more effort is required, but the authorities suddenly appear
apprehensive. More than that, they are beginning to do strange
things, threatening the stability of the entire

Putin says he has no plans for
amending the Constitution and will quit the scene in 2008. He said
this on one occasion and then repeated it; such statements are
normal in terms of respect for etiquette. You must make a pause and
wait until someone repeats the question, and that is what everyone
expected to happen (some are still expecting). But the pause
becomes protracted over time and the impression that Putin is
really set to leave the scene is growing. No one can tell

It has been said that the United
Russia party would stay in power for three dozen years or so, but
all of a sudden the president issues a new order, forcing the very
same people who made their predictions to start hastily conjuring
up a second party. Of course, no real party can be set up this way,
yet the format of “managed democracy” enables one to create a
second or even a ninth party in that manner. Recall the former East
Germany that had about ten parties. Uzbekistan has four, and each
of them is more dedicated to President Karimov than the other

We are heading into an anxious
period now that Putin said that he would leave office, we start
thinking hard about whom the successor will be. Will this
individual be a real master or will Putin retain that function
while the new president drops out after four years? And what is to
be done with Putin’s portraits decorating virtually every office?
Take them away or keep them together with the new ones? And should
the new portraits be larger than Putin’s, or should they be the
same size? The president’s decision to quit and the appointment of
a successor will create much confusion in the public mindset. And
do we need more confusion at a time when there is so much anxiety?
Do we need more confusion over which party to vote into

The third symptom of indecision is
smaller in scale by equally fitting to the picture. Putin’s
Administration staff boss, Vladislav Surkov, has invented the
notion of “sovereign democracy” that brings to mind the “people’s
democracy” and “socialist democracy” of the Communist era. The
terms are devoid of meaning but they perfectly match today’s
situation (“The West is no model for us, we’re sovereign, and let
our presidents have ten terms of office if we want them to”). But
all of a sudden, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev
disclaims the term in public, saying democracy has universal


It looks like the following
explanation may be valid. Both Yeltsin and Putin made great efforts
to build a new Russia without giving much thought to how the
general plan and façade of this state would look. They built
it by parts as new needs emerged, and now it is almost finished. It
has a clear shape, contour and image, which are plainly visible –
as plainly as the fact that they do not resemble the democracy
proclaimed in 1991. But they certainly resemble the old Soviet
system. “Whatever party we build here, we always get a CPSU,”
former prime minister Chernomyrdin once said.

Only a few final touches and steps
are left, and they cannot be made as unconsciously as before. We
can see with our own eyes what we have arrived at. We must either
admit that we wanted a different destination (and this is almost
impossible psychologically) or that we have found the place we
need, although everything contrasts with the West in a typically
Russian manner (frankly speaking, not so much Russian but equally
Uzbek, Kazakh or Egyptian). The latter realization, however, will
require an ideological grounding of some sort, and where can we
take it? It is no accident that Putin has so much interest in the
conservative émigré philosopher Ivan Ilyin, who wrote
that Russia would need “a Christian dictator after the overthrow of

The leaders must summon their
courage and take the last steps, but they are frightened. This is
not a fear in the face of the West, the people or the opposition.
The fear stems from the necessity of reappraising the path we have
gone – a circular path – and the necessity of summing up. It seems
that the president is standing motionless before these last steps
and cannot venture to take them, while society is waiting for a
decision, since it has long stopped making decisions on its own.
And the clock is ticking and time is running out.

Next year, the decision will become