Putin as Peter: Russia's Reemergence as a Great Power
Bo Petersson, professor of political science and deputy head, Centre for European Studies, Lund University, Sweden
In the late 1990s, Bo Petersson, Professor of Political Science and Deputy Head, Center for European Studies, Lund University, Sweden, conducted a series of interviews with prominent Russian members of parliament across the Federation in which most expressed uncertainty about "where the country was headed, what goals for national development were set, and what common values held the nation together." Petersson interpreted these concerns as symptomatic of the deep, ongoing, identity crisis troubling Russia.
How is it that the Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin was able to emerge from a "period of national humiliation," as some called the 1990s, to perceiving itself as a great power? This was the topic that Petersson explored in his presentation at the Kennan Institute on February 17, 2009.
First, Petersson argued, by renewing war efforts in Chechnya which led to military success, Putin managed to undercut threats to national unity that the region epitomized in Russian popular opinion: the impending disintegration of the Russian state, the perceived threat of Islamic extremism, and organized crime and corruption. Thus, in "successfully" dealing with Chechnya, Putin's leadership became synonymous with Russia's "march to reemergence as great power," according to Petersson.
Petersson discussed how the construction of new national heroes—through binary opposition, or the setting up of dichotomous relationships—also cultivated positive perceptions of Russia's new path and status. Putin was presented as a strong, resolute, young, rational thinker, in contrast to his perceivably weak, diffident, and erratic predecessor Boris Yeltsin. In this way, Petersson posited, Putin became "a source of national pride in Russian myth-making."
The popularity of Putin, who ruled with a strong hand, is understandable in view of what Petersson called the Russian "great power mantra," the belief that Russia is, has always been, and will always be a great state. As such, according to Putin, Russia should fulfill its global mission by playing the roles of energy super power, "big brother" for states in the Russian near abroad, and counterweight to the United States.
Hence, according to Petersson, the historical references of Putin's presidency to the past glory of the Romanovs, who reinstated the greatness of the Russian Empire after the Times of Troubles are not coincidental. For instance, during Putin's administration, the Day of the October Revolution was transferred from November 7 to November 4, the day the first Romanov, Mikhail, ascended to the throne. Additionally, just as Peter the Great brought Russia from defeat to victory over the Swedes in a matter of years, securing his country's strong international status, so is Putin seen as defending the independence of Russia. By coining the concept of "sovereign democracy" during his time in the office, Putin delineated Russia's right to define and pursue its own model of democracy, and not to be critiqued by outsiders or foreigners. Furthermore, just as Peter the Great is perceived as a reformer and modernizer who opened a "window on the West" and brought about the Golden Age of the Empire, so is Putin perceived to have ushered in a new golden age by facilitating rapid economic growth in the country. Finally, Putin himself refers to Peter the Great as his source of personal inspiration, Petersson pointed out.
"In contemporary Russian identity myth-making," Petersson concluded, "the years of Putin's presidency could be construed as another Golden Age of Russian history, when Russia again climbed to its greatness." But whether Putin's leadership will have a lasting effect on Russia similar to that of the Romanovs stands out as one of the big questions for present-day Russia.
Written by Lidiya Zubytska
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more