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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's New Imperial Idea Divides the People

During the recent discussions on the no-confidence motion in the government, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov compared President Boris Yeltsin to the 18th-century empress Anna Ivanovna. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin responded to Zyuganov's charge simple-heartedly, saying had he known the subject of the talks were Anna, he would have come prepared. But the Communist leader betrayed gaps in his education when he said even Anna, unlike Yeltsin, listened to the Supreme Soviet. He undoubtedly had in mind the supreme privy council that brought her to power and which she later dismissed.

Looking back on imperial history has become popular in Russia -- particularly for Yeltsin. He has often referred to himself as Boris I. In a town along the Volga, he did not hesitate to try on a replica of an imperial crown before television cameras. Even the restaurant he chose for French President Jacques Chirac's recent visit was called Tsarskaya Okhota, the Tsar's Hunt.

The public perceives the president's imperial manners as benign mischief and innocent joking. And it wouldn't be worth bringing up these episodes if it weren't for a truly extraordinary event. On Oct. 2, Chernomyrdin gave a speech before the Dutch parliament marking the 300-year anniversary of Peter the Great's trips to Europe, which launched the process of cutting the famous window on Europe.

His speech clearly showed that the Kremlin's search for a national idea is over. Yeltsin had decreed that a new national idea should be formulated and this has turned out to be an imperial one.

It was probably not easy for Chernomyrdin to take such a step. The Russian opposition is seized by anti-Western hysteria. Analysts are predicting that the next presidential elections will be only a contest of who can show the most patriotism. And so the political situation is not conducive to panegyrics toward the Europeanizing tsar. Anyone who intends to succeed Yeltsin should be especially careful when speaking on such a theme. Besides, Peter's reforms were accompanied by excesses of force against the masses. The price of reform is a very sensitive question for Russian citizens today.

What made Peter's actions significant, for Chernomyrdin, is that this was "practically the first single-minded attempt to overcome autarky," which allowed Russia to "establish its geopolitical priorities from the Baltics to the Black Sea, and be an active and equal participant in all European affairs."

Chernomyrdin did not shy away from speaking about the gloomy side of reform. "What has Russia become as a result of Peter's 'genius for engineering' -- an organic part of the contemporary world or a stepdaughter eternally catching up with civilization?" he asked in rhetorical fashion. The answer was obvious to him. Weighing the good with the bad on the "scale of history," he came to the conclusion that the "great deeds of the great reformer decisively surpass any cruelty that was provoked by his intolerance for, and unrestrained desire to tear the country from, the stagnant swamp of sluggishness and indifference toward progress."

Furthermore, Chernomyrdin views Peter as embodying the "state political will" that has been lacking at various "crossroads in history." He assured his audience that the president and Russian government have such will.

The real gem in his speech was when he said the current Cabinet was learning from Peter to "create favorable conditions for Western businessmen." He said: "Of course, both 300 years ago and today foreign enterprises that come to the Russian market require more daring, courage and business skills than on other, possibly, more peaceful parts of the world market." This daring, in his view, should be shown by the "descendants of the brave Dutch merchants who traversed the entire globe."

That Peter was chosen as a model to be imitated should come as no surprise; it is typical of Russian political consciousness. Even Yegor Gaidar's Russia's Democratic Choice party put on its emblem a monument to Peter -- the famous Bronze Horseman depicting how the tsar, in Pushkin's words, "reared Russia." Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who is always criticizing the "young reformers," was not satisfied only with the opening of Zurab Tsereteli's monument of the tsar-naval commander on the Moscow River; for a few days during the city's 850th anniversary celebrations, he had a copy of the Petersburg tsar-horseman placed right in front of the Pushkin monument, which gave the thoughtful pose of the poet new meaning.

But the figure of Peter is hardly capable of consolidating Russian society.

Russian industry was created by barbarous methods under him not unlike those used only by the Egyptian pharaohs and Stalin. There wasn't even the semblance of a free market in Petrine Russia. Foreign merchants were not allowed on the domestic Russian market and had the right to trade only in port cities. Peter was unable to send Russian traders through his window on Europe. He could not make them unite into companies on the European model. Russia completely lacked a banking system, which meant that foreign merchants brought sacks of silver coins into Russia. The business activities of high government officials expanded because the tsar had extended unprecedented privileges to his favorites. Certain foreigners could also receive privileges despite orders forbidding this. It is no wonder then that corruption and embezzlement of state funds were rampant. Peter's grandiose projects for artificial waterways (connecting, for example, the White Sea with the Caspian) are comparable to Stalin's constructions, the only difference being that the Petrine projects, with rare exceptions, were not carried out to the end.

As for Peter's equal participation in European affairs, Chernomyrdin was somewhat rushing history. Russia become a great European power during the reign of Alexander I. And Peter's imperial title was recognized by the great European powers only at the end of his reign. But the main indelible consequence of Petrine Europeanization is the deep schism it caused the country. Peter Europeanized only a narrow stratum of the nobility, while the people, oppressed by hopeless penury and lack of rights, remained hostile to his changes.

Peter fundamentally changed the Russian way of life by his outrageous treatment of the Orthodox Church, abolishing the patriarchy, subordinating the church to the state and making priests violate their secrecy oaths if the ruling regime felt threatened.

Such was the emperor who has now become a symbol of government and, as we have heard, political will toward reform. Perhaps our scales are not as precise as those used by Chernomyrdin. He sees more clearly from the government heights. The government should know, however, that its view is not the only one.

Vladimir Abarinov is a staff writer for Russky Telegraf. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.