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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Independence Not a Capital Idea

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When President Vladimir Putin told journalists at the recent Group of Eight summit in Germany that his wife had never wanted him to be president, everyone understood he had no plans to stick around for a third term. It would be difficult for any man to stand up to his wife's objections for four years without at least having the Constitution to back him up.

How will Putin be remembered by history? For his high popularity ratings? Not likely, as these will be forgotten only a few months after he leaves office. For his pacification of Chechnya? It is still too early to say how that will turn out. For his attempts to force the government to fulfill its responsibilities to the people? Well that's just what a president is supposed to do, and his efforts have to be judged as only moderately successful.

So what will his legacy be?

Clues can be found in two recent events: The June 12 Russia Day and the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum over the weekend.

The media consistently refer to June 12 as Independence Day, although the official name is different. But has Russia really become independent?

This holiday always reminds me of a statement made by a separatist from southern Russia who was a member of both the new breed of businessmen and, I believe, the Communist Party. "We will flood Moscow," he said, "but not before walling it in so that not a single Muscovite will survive." This statement came in 1990 in Rostov-on-Don at about the same time as the Declaration of the Sovereignty of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (after which the holiday was named) was adopted in Moscow.

I frequently visited the North Caucuses back then, and vividly remember the horror with which people there viewed the events unfolding in the capital. What Moscow and much of the rest of the world considered invigorating winds of change, people in the provinces saw as an unending nightmare. The battle between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, then president of the Soviet Socialist Republic, in which each had the sole goal of politically maiming the other, succeeded in ruining the economy. Democratization became a synonym for interethnic conflicts, and for the flow of refugees into the densely populated territories of southern Russia.

The game of sovereignty inspired by the democrats in Moscow opened a Pandora's box of conflicts in the mountainous North Caucuses -- conflicts stemming from centuries-old ethnic tensions, as well as others created by Stalin. Ultimately, this is what happened. The self-regulating system of business and ethnic relations that had been developed over generations came under threat as a result. While the system had been pragmatic rather than communist or democratic, it was the most effective option for this multinational, multifaith and multicultural region.

Separatist tendencies were strong in 1991 no just among the Soviet Union's other constituent republics , but even within the Russian republic, in areas like the Volga region, the Urals, Siberia and parts of the Far East. The driving motive behind these tendencies was not so much to gain distance from the Soviet Union, but from the chaos in Moscow.

Having managed to break free from Moscow's orbit, before Russia, the other republics essentially left their Russian brethren at the mercy of the Kremlin. What's more, Moscow's enormous ambition was now bottled up within the confines of the much smaller Russian Federation, thereby leading to the disasters of Yeltsin's presidency.

It is almost impossible to explain to a foreigner what Moscow is for Russia. People say that Washington is not representative of the rest of the United States because it is home to a disproportionate number of bureaucrats and politicians. New York, meanwhile, has too many bankers, journalists and Bohemians. The rest of the United States doesn't care much for either of these cities. That is what Moscow is for Russia -- Washington and. New York combined, but with even more political leaders, wealth and journalists. Add to this Russians' unhealthy passion for complaining about their lives to foreigners, and the high concentration of embassies, foundations and other foreign organizations and businesses provides endless opportunities for Muscovites to indulge themselves.

A unique way and almost feverish tempo of life have developed in the capital. If you see someone in Manhattan managing to pass through all of the rest of the foot traffic, there is a good bet he is a Muscovite.

Most of the rest of Russia seems provincial in comparison. This gives rise to a number of conflicting emotions. On one hand, people from the provinces take pleasure in repeating that Moscow is not Russia, and that the problems experienced by those living and working inside the Garden Ring and the games played in Moscow are of no concern to them. On the other hand, they envy the wealth and cosmopolitan aspect of the capital.

Moscow is a kind of Mecca for the most ambitious people from other regions. Once they reach the capital, they try to out-Muscovite the Muscovites in every sense. They even express their love for foreigners more actively than the locals, who have become satiated by years of attention from the West. The result is a bubbling brew of passions that most Russians consider abstract and difficult to understand, but that keeps the whole country in a state of tension.

So what does this have to do with Putin's place in history? The point is that Putin is from St. Petersburg, the only other Russian city so thoroughly permeated with a capital-city psychology. It is hard for a Muscovite not to marvel at the slower pace of life in St. Petersburg -- I would go so far as to say the laziness and stagnation. When people move from St. Petersburg to Moscow, individually or in small packs, they display all the same traits as those coming from other parts of the country, turning into Muscovites almost instantly. Take, for example, one of the most reviled figures in Russia, Anatoly Chubais -- the father of privatization. He would never have found a suitable outlet for his seething energy in the northern capital.

It is another matter when the president of the country hails from St. Petersburg and fills a great many high-ranking political and economic positions with former colleagues from his hometown. There is no need to convince Muscovites that these people are not provincial bumpkins, as the capital mentality is in their blood.

When the St. Petersburg habit of taking things slowly is mixed with Muscovite hyperactivity, you end up with something similar to the general pace of life in Russia as a whole. And as a result, the whole country calms down.

And Putin also wants to move the constitutional court to St. Petersburg. The day Moscow finally cedes at least some of its imperious power to at least one other city in the country will be the day we can truly say that Russia has gained its independence. I think that Putin will go down in history as the president who got the ball rolling. He has begun the process of freeing Russia from Moscow's yoke, without flooding it and without destroying the country in the process.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Strategii i Praktika Izdatelskogo Biznesa, a magazine for publishing business professionals.