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Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown

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At the end of June Prince Michael of Kent attended a retro aircraft festival organized by The Air Squadron in Ukraine. The Russian press always followed such events with adulation, but this event was hardly covered and the media have clearly decided that he is unworthy of their attention. Why?

Daniil Kotsyubinsky
12 July 2013

Prince Michael of Kent is the great-nephew of the last Russian emperor Nicholas II; until recently he has been a figure of great interest for Russian journalists and political scientists. Any vague, slightly risky suggestion of restoring the monarchy in Russia inevitably brought his name into play. The last time Prince Michael was at the centre of Russian media attention was during the 2013 February celebrations dedicated to 400 years of the Romanov dynasty, a gathering of the descendents of Russian tsars and aristocrats who emigrated to the West in 1917. At that time the British prince received as a symbolic gift a replica of the Crown (in Russian Cap) of Monomakh (the historic Russian crown used at the coronation of all Russian tsars and emperors).

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Shiny--and Putin approved! The Kremlin has deftly coopted imperial themes to bolster its own image. Prince Michael of Kent tries on a replica of  Monomakh's Cap, the crown worn by Russia's tsars, earlier this year. Photo: Russian Imperial Foundation

There is, of course, no question of the Kremlin having organised this show with the aim of advancing Michael of Kent, or indeed any of the other candidates for the Russian throne.  The gift was intended as a low-key promotion of absolute power, which does not depend on the people, but is at the same time legitimate. The idea, in fact, which President Putin has been trying to force feed Russians throughout his time in power. But after that the Kremlin suddenly lost interest in the monarchist theme. Sensing this, the Russian media stopped following the diplomatic movements of claimants to the throne.

Why?

Any answer to this question needs to take two factors into consideration.  Firstly, how politically compatible are the monarchist project and the presidential vertical of power in Russia? Secondly, when and why does the Kremlin need the ‘restoration of the monarchy’ games?

'For the Russian state today the idea of the monarchy is of itself potentially dangerous. ‘Either Tsar or President!’, there can’t be two heads of state.'

It should immediately be recognized that for the Russian state today the idea of the monarchy is of itself potentially dangerous – first and foremost for people who deny the power of the president. ‘Either Tsar or President!’, there can’t be two heads of state. Or rather there can, but this will bring Troubles, as it did at the beginning of the 17th century, when there were tsars in Moscow, Tushino and then in Pskov and Astrakhan too, and at the end of the 20th century, when Presidents Yeltsin and Gorbachev were battling it out.

If the monarchy were to be restored, then the presidency would have to go. But today Russia’s entire political and financial-distributory system is predicated on the power, or rather the personality, of President Putin. Can the Kremlin permit such a dangerous experiment: to replace the all-powerful President Putin with a Tsar, who has appeared from nowhere, is not in control and can’t sort things out? Who will in all probability also be a constitutional i.e. powerless monarch? It is, of course, a rhetorical question because if Putin goes, then with him will disappear the current stability based on his authority and there will be a political revolution.  Not, clearly, a Kremlin goal.

A cunning plan

There might be a clever way for Russia to restore the monarchy and the incumbent Russian president to preserve all his power.

Georgii Mikhailovich Romanov (b. 1981) is the son of Maria Vladimirovna Romanova, who calls herself Grand Duchess and Head of the Russian Royal Family. She in her turn is the granddaughter of a cousin of Nicholas II, Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, who (in 1924) declared himself the rightful heir to the Russian throne. In the mid-90s, when President Yeltsin was starting to slide, the Kremlin gave serious consideration to a plan for him to act as ‘regent’ for Georgii Mikhailovich, who at that time was still a minor. In other words, Georgii would have become Tsar, but all power would have remained with the ‘regent’, who could have used this constitutional reform to duck the constant barrage of criticism and take refuge in the shadow of the monarchy and all its trappings.

'Rumour has it that the fantastically costly refurbishment of the Grand Kremlin Hall was undertaken with the future ‘coronation’ in mind'

Rumour has it that the fantastically costly refurbishment of the Grand Kremlin Hall was undertaken with the future ‘coronation’ in mind; accessories for the upcoming ceremonies had even been prepared, including napkins with a monogrammed ‘G’.  The 1998 ceremonial reburial in the Peter and Paul Fortress of the remains of the last Russian emperor and his family was organised with the same intention of bolstering the authority of Boris Yeltsin by appealing to the monarchical roots of Russian statehood.

However, it fairly quickly became clear that the regency idea was a complete shot in the dark and, were it to be put into effect, would have been more likely to give rise to yet one more massive political scandal leading to a national crisis than a consensus along the lines of the Moncloa Pacts. It emerged that neither Georgii Mikhailovich, nor any of the other descendants of the tsars, could in truth be considered legitimate claimants to the Russian throne, so a choice of any one of them would have automatically set in motion dynastic and, eventually, political in-fighting.

Then on top of everything else there was the 1998 Russian default and Yeltsin lost the last shreds of his authority, so the regency idea became an irrelevance and the frenetic search began for a real, rather than sham, candidate for the post of head of state.  The star of Georgii Mikhailovich set without really ever having risen.

Another idea

There is, however, another, more radical, possible way of restoring the Russian monarchy and allowing the current ruler of the country to retain the full weight of his unlimited power: the coronation of an incumbent president, or, more precisely, President Vladimir Putin.

When he first came to power Putin, while not actually dismissing the idea of restoring the monarchy, preferred to dodge the issue and keep his distance. In 2002 he, like the Delphi Oracle, gave an ambivalent answer to a question about the possibility of restoration.  ‘Russia cannot be deflected from the path of democratic transformation’, he said, explaining that the restoration of absolute monarchy in the country would be undesirable. Though he did also say that the restoration of a constitutional monarchy, which has been so successful in European democratic countries, would not in his opinion conflict with democratic principles. In a sceptical one-liner, Putin said that he thought it would be unlikely in Russia.

In subsequent years, however, the monarchist debate became more active. This happened when the Kremlin was faced with a force majeure extension of Vladimir Putin’s term of office as sole ruler. His second term was coming to an end in 2008 and it was not clear how the Kremlin would choose to square the circle i.e. keep Putin in power without flouting the Constitution, which does not allow a president to be in power for more than two terms consecutively.

Ideological sources close to the Kremlin actively promoted the idea of a monarch. Firstly, they maintained, Vladimir Putin is already de facto Tsar and any decision he might take is therefore law. Secondly, for this reason a formal transformation of Russia into a monarchy, if it were to happen, would not actually change anything. Thirdly, only the rule of an absolute monarch can do any good for Russia. Right-wing political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky said that ‘the restoration of the monarchy, whether formally or informally, will be Russia’s only solution, because it is the only way of restoring the sanctity of central government.’  Alexander Dugin continued the theme: ‘Orthodox monarchy is not just a historical and political tradition, but an expression of the historic mission of both the Russian people and the state.  We should not deceive ourselves: there has always been a monarchy in Russia in one form or another, there still is and it will continue to be so.  Nothing else is possible.’ Head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky: ‘the Russian state could only develop and acquire its all-powerfulness within the framework of the monarchy.  Not that we don’t want democracy, but our territory, environs, climate can only function efficiently within a monarchic, authoritarian regime.’

Tsar Vladimir…?

'The courtly games with Prince Michael fitted very neatly into Putin’s diplomatic plans.  At that time he was trying to establish trust as ‘our very own son of a bitch’  with the neo-conservative governments of leading European countries.'

Then the ‘corps de ballet’ was brought in.  It was at about this time that Prince Michael of Kent embarked on his charitable activities in Russia, receiving evident signs of attention and approval from the Russian leadership in the shape of medals, audiences and honours.  The Kirilloviches i.e. Georgii Mikhailovich and Maria Vladimirovna were left in the shadows: in all probability they were too closely connected with memories of the 90s for Putin, whose rhetoric is entirely based on its opposition to the figure of Yeltsin. The courtly games with Prince Michael fitted very neatly into Vladimir Putin’s diplomatic plans.  At that time he was trying to establish relationships of trust with the neo-conservative governments of leading European countries based on his role as ‘our very own son of a bitch’.

Talk of restoring the monarchy in Russia started up once more just before 2012, when there was another major uncertainty as to how the ‘tandem problem’ would be resolved. In 2011, when the Kremlin had already embarked on its ideological switch from ‘respectable Conservatism’ to ‘bigoted Eurasianism’, the Moscow Eurasian Club held a special session entitled ‘Prospects for monarchies in Russia and the world.’ The refrain of this get-together was the slogan ‘Russia will see its monarchy restored in 2015.’

This was probably an attempt to prepare Russia for Putin granting himself the right in 2012 to decide the fate of the presidential throne by ‘swopping’ places with Medvedev. The reaction of populace to the events of 2011-12 was, however, extremely jittery and  Putin was accused of behaving like an ‘uncrowned autocrat’ rather than the president.

It was not the whole of society that criticised Putin, only the most active, if not numerous, part of it. For this reason Putin, instead of meeting the opposition halfway, decided to make even more decisive moves towards restoring the traditional trappings of anti-Western, Orthodox-autocratic (‘Eurasian’) politics.

These conditions make talk of crowning Putin tsar seem extremely apt, and sympathy for the monarchist idea has grown noticeably in society over recent years. In 2006 25% of Russia’s citizens were ‘not against living with a monarchy’ and in a similar March 2013 survey that figure was already 39% (11% in favour and 28% had nothing against).

Or perhaps not…

However, having solemnly celebrated 400 years of the Romanov dynasty and reminded society that the strong hand of an authoritarian ruler is the only way of avoiding The Troubles, the Kremlin has essentially gone quiet on the monarchy. There have been no attempts to sound out public opinion as to how acceptable to the Orthodox people the idea of Tsar Vladimir Putin would be.  Why is this?

I think it is probably because inside the Kremlin it is understood that the idea of the monarchy increasing in popularity at a time when presidential authority is on the slide will work against Putin, rather than for him.  In other words, those who are seriously dreaming of Russia becoming a monarchy (constitutional or absolute) are hoping in this way not to extend Putin’s reign for ever, but on the contrary to exchange him for another, more worthy and ‘legal’ ruler.

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A crown or a jester's cap? The emblem of the Monarchist Party of Russia, which is in favour of parliamentarism and thus one more source of potential threat to Putin's power. Photo: (cc) Wikimedia Commons

The ‘new monarchists’ have thrown down the ideological gauntlet to Putin personally and to his entire vertical of power.  In essence Russia’s Monarchist Party is actually in favour of parliamentarianism. Anton Bakov, former Duma deputy and head of the party, says: ‘It is, of course, both impossible and unnecessary to recreate autocracy as it was under the Romanovs.  Today we could only have a constitutional monarchy.  On the one hand will be the monarch with no real power, on the other a responsible government, accountable to society, and parliament. This is how we can protect ourselves from a dictatorship.’

'The recent revival of monarchist ideas in Russia is just one of the forms of the anti-authoritarian protest movements aimed, first and foremost, at Vladimir Putin.'

So the recent revival of monarchist ideas in Russia is just one of the forms of the anti-authoritarian protest movements aimed, first and foremost, at Vladimir Putin.

Why part of the opposition-minded electorate has suddenly decided to sympathise with monarchist ideas is also clear. In the decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, economic instability, total corruption and social injustice seriously compromised the democratic ideals which had been the banner for the anti-communist revolution in 1991. Then, starting in 2000, Vladimir Putin mounted a methodical, targeted attack on the ideology of liberal democracy, simultaneously promoting energetically the idea of ‘effective personal rule.’ As a result, part of society lost its democratic ideals and faith in the sense of the Russian electorate and began orienting itself towards a romanticised idea of ‘enlightened personal rule’ or a ‘correct monarchy’. But correct monarchy for these new Russian monarchists has little or nothing to do with Tsar Putin.  It’s rather more like a ‘decent’ European constitutional monarchy.

This is probably why, literally one month after the February celebrations of 400 years of the Romanov dynasty (when Prince Michael tried on the Monomakh cap), one of the most active spokesmen of the age of ‘Putin’s second coming’, head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Public Relations Dept, the ultra-conservative archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, hastened to clarify the situation. In essence he made it clear that games with idea of monarchy have been closed down for an indefinite period. The reason given is the danger of a ‘Westernising monarchist drift’: ‘Monarchy is, of course, a form of government more rooted in religion than a republic. But I would caution against installing a monarchy artificially, without having prepared society accordingly, and this preparation would be mainly spiritual…Moreover, I know of some political strategy scenarios, developed by forces outside Russia, which advocate the establishment of a monarchy under tight foreign control, as one way of controlling Russia. I fear that this kind of “renaissance” would be unacceptable to our Russian people and would be unlikely to be of any benefit to our country…’

‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’ (William Shakespeare, Henry IV Part II) might have sighed Boris Godunov in the play of the same name by Alexander Pushkin (in which Boris Godunov actually says ‘heavy is the cap of Monomakh’). Indeed. It would appear that for Vladimir Putin even a replica of the cap is too heavy, when a ‘foreign prince’ suddenly starts trying it on.

The real Russian crown would not only be too heavy for Putin, but fatally dangerous – for a golden crown on the head of a monarch who has lost the love of his people can very quickly become a crown of thorns.

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