Anatoly Bershtein: Medvedev is Not a Proper Tsar

Medvedev and Putin as tsar. Source: Yezhednevny ZhurnalExcept for Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, there’s still nothing certain about who plans to run for president in Russia’s 2012 elections. But speculation is getting more heated by the day, as President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin snipe back and forth over where the battle lines might be drawn.

As Brian Whitmore explained in a column for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:

Medvedev set off the latest frenzy with his interview with China’s CCTV, where he gave the strongest indication yet that he plans to seek reelection in 2012. For good measure, he also said it was time to move beyond the authoritarian “state capitalism” model that has been a hallmark of Putin’s rule.

Putin then weighed in, saying elections were still nearly a year off and that either he or Medvedev (or perhaps both) could run. Putin also seemed to take a swipe at Medvedev by saying that all the “fuss” over the election is disrupting the work of the government.

A separate question altogether is which one of these two leaders Russians citizens would rather vote for in the first place. In this article for Yezhednevny Zhurnal, journalist Anatoly Bershtein explores how the history of the relationship between Russians and their leaders might affect that outcome.

Which Tsar Do Russians Need?
By Anatoly Bershtein
April 18, 2011
Yezhednevny Zhurnal

So Medvedev announces unequivocally that he’s ready for a second presidential term. And he even lays the foundation for it: Putin’s time has passed; what was good ten years ago has become antiquated; the time for change is ripe.

The dispute has been going on for at least half a year – Putin or Medvedev. And for the most part, political scientists and people who consider themselves to be adults are certain that Putin is going to be president: the real power is in his hands; the fundamental forces and finances. Medvedev’s entourage isn’t serious, and he himself – no matter how hard he tries – is little more than a marionette. And therefore he looks ridiculous when making his own “independent” statements.

But the main argument against Medvedev is actually that he isn’t a “real tsar;” that is to say, he doesn’t look like a Russian tsar, doesn’t rule like one, doesn’t behave in an appropriate manner.

In Rus’, the tsar was seen as a consecrated figure from the very beginning. His power had no earthly basis; it was based on divine right. And as Boris Uspensky justifiably points out, there was no talk about “good” or “bad” tsars, but only about “proper” or “improper” ones.

In the mind of a medieval Russian person, a real, proper tsar is first of all not he who cares for his subjects or even he who builds up power. It is he who behaves as befits a true sovereign: that is to say, following an elaborate ceremonial and living in exact conformity with “procedure.”

Why didn’t the young and talented False Dmitiry I last in the seat of power? Largely because he didn’t behave like a tsar: he didn’t nap after lunch, ate with a fork, didn’t go to the baths, traveled around Moscow practically without guards, talked to laypeople. And on the other hand, he undertook all sorts of incomprehensible reforms, thought up new names. And so people started hearing rumors – “this is not a proper tsar.”

Much water has passed under the bridge since then, but nevertheless, the process of desacralizing the government has been extremely slow and incomplete over that period of time. And traces of ancient Russian impressions of this can be found in the Russian mentality even today.

The distinction of “higher” in regards to “power” continues to reflect not so much its position in the administrative hierarchy as reflects its special, almost “unearthly” status. A ruler is expected not so much to care about the prosperity of the citizens of its country as it is to fulfill some special mission and correspond with the image of an ideal ruler.

Although religion lost its core role in society long ago, the current throwback to the old religious consciousness has turned out to be wonderful aid for political spin. The work to fix a certain mythology around the country’s chief executives has allowed substantive conversations about their politics to be frequently be substituted with discussions of purely superficial displays of their actions.

I can’t say that this is a Russian phenomenon. A mythologized consciousness is characteristic for any society at any time, and Western political scientists construct the image of their own high-ranking “fosterlings” with the same accuracy as their Russian colleagues do. Although myths aside, there’s much that’s interesting to say about reality in the West.

And here people continue to pay markedly more attention not to what a person in the government does, but to how he presents himself. And so Putin – a self-promoter from God – looks like a more natural ruler than Medvedev.

Yeltsin ruled like a tsar, Putin like a national leader, and Medvedev is trying to become a reformer president. The fate of reforms in Rus’ is well known. Nevertheless, is our population finally ready to choose a president and not a leader or a tsar? It seems that the fate of the 2012 elections depends on the answer to this almost rhetorical question.