Vladimir Putin clearly began his invasion of Ukraine as a way to weaken the influence of what might be called the American system. In virtually every way, the political organizations in the United States and the Russian Federation are polar opposites.
The writers of the Constitution at that famous convention in Philadelphia in 1787 were already functioning elites in what were thirteen small independent republics. The delegates at that convention had no choice but to construct a document that would cause those republics to voluntarily agree to accept a new uniting central government.
Having struggled through a bloody revolution against autocrat George III, the wealthy and well educated delegates at that convention were terrified that, after all the struggle and bloodshed, they would end up with some form of one man rule. That was hardly surprising, with almost no exceptions, that was the way governments were led in 1787.
The leadership in those small republics would certainly not have signed on unless it was clear that they would not give up their independence only to end up being dominated by an authoritarian central government. The danger of some future American king was always hovering in the background.
Part of the convention delegates’ answer was to create a government with separated functions. The real decision making would be done by a small House and Senate. The President, ceremonially and symbolically important, would see that the decisions made by the House and the Senate were “faithfully executed”. He could offer advice but was really an administrator.
Two hundred and thirty five years later, the President’s role has become much enlarged. Experience has taught that many decisions are more effectively made by one elected executive at the top. Still, in modern times there has not been any justified fear that the government would abandon voter-elected democratic leaders. The assumption was that democratic government here was simply built in.
That assumption has been befogged for the moment by the confusion created by Donald Trump’s refusal to accept that he lost. Still, the belief in citizen chosen government is deeply held. The Trumpian blunder into the tall grass may not last long. One advantage of democratically elected governments is that they do make it possible to self-correct rather quickly.
Not so in Russia: One man rule came to be cemented in partly because of the deadly Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible). He was born in Kolomenskoye (a kind of royal compound near Moscow) in 1530. He was officially named Grand Prince of Moscow at the age of three. At sixteen he dispatched his advisors and pronounced himself Tsar (Caesar in Russian). He died in 1584 two hundred years before the delegates met in Philadelphia to create their new government
Ivan dedicated his life to brutally removing all opposition to his one man rule. He argued that God gave absolute power to the Tsars who represented God on earth. His abundant use of torture was often designed to replicate the supposed punishments of Hell. With Ivan the Orthodox Church came to be completely controlled by the Tsar.
In 1833 (when Andrew Jackson was president here), in Russia, Tsarist rule was going through one of many difficult periods. The uprising of the Decembrists had occurred only a few years earlier in 1825 when officers, who had participated in defeating Napoleon, publicly demonstrated for a constitutional monarchy. Their revolt had been brutally put down but it did draw attention in Russia to the modernizing being achieved in other European monarchies.
In 1833, the educational minister for Tsar Nicholas I, Sergei Uvarov tried to justify Tsarist rule with what became known of the Uvarov Doctrine. The Uvarov Doctrine was designed to provide a rectifying trinity (Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality) to justify the role of the tsarist autocracy.
Uvarov argued that Russia was simply different and separate from the monarchical governments of Western Europe. Moscow was home to the Russian Orthodox Church, The Third Rome. The Church’s role was to assist the Tsar and to support his absolute God given authority. With the help of the Church, the Tsar then presided with the support of the Russian people the narod, (overwhelmingly uneducated peasants), who the Tsars professed to love.
Most people who are interested in the Tsars principally know about Nicholas II (of Nicolas and Alexandra fame), the last of the Russian Tsars. He was executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Nicholas, in theory, still ruled Russia absolutely. He claimed to love and to believe that he was loved by the peasants. If he did it was love at a great distance. He certainly did not believe that they had any role in governing.
In an odd way the Bolsheviks (Communists) in 1917 and after, continued one man rule while denouncing religion. They too believed in absolute rule from the top. They too claimed to love the people (workers this time) but thought it too dangerous to give those people any real power. They did talk about real equality in the distant future. That could have helped explain why Vladimir Lenin could have himself driven around Petrograd in a white chauffeured Rolls-Royce.
The Communist experiment ended in 1991. Then, after nine years under the overwhelmed Boris Yeltsin, the torch was passed to the newly appointed Prime Minister and former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin. The small (5’6’), quiet, efficient Putin seemed to be the democracy-loving successor that the alcoholic Yeltsin was looking for. Vladimir Putin’s democratic phase was remarkably brief.
Suddenly, with Yeltin gone, the old world was reborn. There was a great deal of talk about a modernized Uvarov Doctrine. The Church was back (the current head of the Russian Orthodox Church is one of Putin’s closest advisors). One man rule is certainly back although it was renamed “sovereign democracy”. Putin’s distance from his officials with those huge tables is more than symbolic. Putin’s political party, United Russia, dominates things but Putin isn’t even a member. He is above all that.
Sergei Uvarov lives! Orthodox churches, often put to other uses or destroyed during the Communist era, have been refurbished or rebuilt. Putin constantly makes reference to his newfound faith in the Church. The huge three hundred and thirty eight foot tall Cathedral of Christ the Savior (which had been destroyed in 1931 under Stalin to create a swimming pool) has been rebuilt at great expense.
Tsar Nicholas II, under great political pressure, in 1905,(the Russian Pacific fleet had been sunk by the Japanese) allowed the creation of a kind of elected parliament, the Duma and an upper house, the Imperial State Council. They many have looked democratic but they were only advisory! The Tsar still really decided! Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, dominates the current Duma and Federation Council. They are still only advisory. The man at the top decides.
So, the circumstances under which the American government was formed in 1787 virtually demanded that we had to be a democratic republic. More than two hundred years before that, the deadly Ivan IV created an autocratic system that Russians, often modern in many ways, have been unable to escape. Think of the Russian system as a kind of surviving dinosaur. It’s outdated. It’s ineffective. But, unlike elected democracies which constantly adjust, the dinosaur lives on to threaten and to destroy!