A Monarchist Solution for Russia
Published: October 18, 2005 (Issue # 1114)
When former Soviet bloc countries shook off the one-party state and rejoined the community of nations, it seemed self-evident that they should all remain republics. Attempts in Bulgaria to restore a legitimate sovereign to the throne produced ironic sniggers in civilized quarters.
In Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, monarchist movements have never been anything but a fringe element, even if it has now been acknowledged that its liberal democracy has failed. Elections for governors have been abolished, and while the president and the State Duma are still elected, the process increasingly resembles Soviet-era rubber-stamping. Yet, for all the criticism of Vladimir Putin’s “power vertical,” there has never been any question about whether or not Russia should remain a republic.
Nevertheless, the restoration of a legitimate monarchy, with a sovereign drawn from one of the Romanov heirs, may hold out a solution to a variety of Russia’s problems. First and foremost, it is the question of identity that holds the key to Russia’s future. Post-communist Russia has always been an organic outgrowth of the Soviet system. Russia has never found a way to acknowledge and condemn the crimes committed by the Bolshevik regime, and it is unlikely that it will ever undergo any form of de-Stalinization. Reaching back to the monarchy, then, Russia could finally connect to its pre-communist history and turn the page on the tragedy of Bolshevism.
More importantly, ever since the October 1917 coup, Soviet rulers had trouble legitimizing their rule. Their justification was Marxist historical necessity, which quickly proved to be a sham. The legitimacy problem clearly lingers on. Today, it is a staple of official propaganda to contrast Putin’s strong, purposeful Russia with Boris Yeltsin’s chaos and drift.
Lack of legitimacy is the root of the 2008 succession problem. Having undermined liberal democracy, the Putin administration has deprived itself of the legitimacy of the ballot box. And, lacking legitimacy itself, it cannot bequeath it to a rightful heir. The next ruler will have to seek his own legitimacy — most likely, by heaping abuse on Putin and his cohorts.
A constitutional monarchy could provide the continuity that republican Russia has lacked for nearly a century. It could also be a solution for the succession issue. With United Russia dominating the Duma, there is no limit to how many terms a Prime Minister Putin could end up serving.
Today, advocating monarchy is a thankless task. Republics not only predominate among the 191 members of the United Nations, but the view that the state is better off when headed by an elected politician is probably the most widely shared political idea of our otherwise contentious age.
This state of affairs is fairly recent, however. Only a century ago, most states lived under some kind of hereditary rule. Republics were few and, except for tiny San Marino, fairly recent. British historian Edward Gibbon may have admired republican Rome, but contemporary republicans were regarded as dangerous radicals and subversives.
Not without reason, it turns out, since modern republics have a distinctly checkered record. Those in Latin America, established in the 1820s, are hardly an example to emulate. They were mostly ruled by dictators, military juntas and demagogues, attaining true democracy only in very recent years.
In Europe, the Republican Age dawned after World War I, and promptly provided overwhelming evidence that even so-called “civilized nations” do a poor job choosing their own leaders. Elections in communist Russia and Nazi Germany may not have been entirely free, but there can be little doubt that Stalin and Hitler enjoyed a clear mandate to rule. There may have been plenty of fatuous or cruel monarchs in history, but going back two millennia it is hard to find such homicidal monsters in power anywhere. Then, the young Republican Age produced two at the same time.
If anything, the 21st century promises to be even worse. The United States was the first modern republic and, to quote Abraham Lincoln, “the last, best hope of mankind.” America has been instrumental in spreading the ideas of democracy and republicanism around the world — as evidenced by a dozen variations on the Stars and Stripes motif among national flags.
History has known the occasional dud to occupy the White House, but never on the same scale of incompetence and detachment as now. Nor has America been so thoroughly despised around the world. Ironically, it is doubtful whether George W. Bush would have become president had his father not been one — a dynastic distinction he shares with other staunch republicans, such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, Syria’s Bashar Assad and Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev.
True monarchies, by contrast, have had a rather praiseworthy run. The 19th century was dominated by constitutional monarchies and produced a long golden age of peace and prosperity. Modern constitutional monarchies in Europe are among the most enlightened and tolerant states in the world, and even in Africa, small monarchies Lesotho and Swaziland manage to do a bit better.
More to the point, after the death of Francisco Franco, Spain faced many of the same challenges as post-Soviet Russia. One of the generalissimo’s wisest acts was to restore monarchy upon his death. Under King Juan Carlos’ wise stewardship and moral authority, Spain has gone through the difficult process of reconciliation, democratization and integration into the West, overcoming the heritage of a bloody civil war, repression and isolation — something that Russia has yet to start.
Here is a telling difference. Only a miniscule proportion of people in Spain now sympathize with the aims of the attempted right-wing putsch against the king in 1981. In Russia, a recent opinion poll shows that a majority now fault Yeltsin for putting down the pro-communist parliamentary coup in 1993.
Alexei Bayer is a writer for Vedomosti. He contributed this comment to The St. Petersburg Times.