Those who suspect that Vladimir Putin is trying to become a modern Tsar can hardly have been surprised by the language used at last week’s re-inauguration of the Russian Popular Front in Moscow. The Front is a political movement created by Putin and evidently intended to emancipate the President from his immensely unpopular party United Russia. When Putin entered the room, the crowd let out the pre-fabricated chant “People, Russia, Putin”. The slogan was quite obviously derived from the Tsarist motto “Autocracy, Orthodoxy and Nationality”, which outlined the system of political legitimacy back in the day.
Autocracy is now replaced with Putin, signalling who is boss. Nationality is replaced with the more exclusive and definite term Russia. This is evidence of the fact that Russia is trying to become more of a nation state for Russians and less of a multinational country. These two terms thus seem to indicate that the form of legitimacy Putin is seeking may not be fundamentally different from Tsarist times.
However, the replacement of Orthodoxy with People shows the crucial difference between Putin and the Tsars. While the old rulers could claim that they were appointed by God and had a right to rule no matter they did, Putin’s legitimacy is still based on whether he is perceived to promote the interests of the people. His approval ratings will be high only as long as things seem to be improving.
This is a huge problem for Putin. He has created a system that is very successful at maintaining vertical power structures and keeping the opposition down. But is corrupt, inefficient, and will never be able to deliver the progress Russians are demanding in the long term. Perhaps his crusade against Pussy Riot and his blasphemy laws are first attempts to use religion the way Tsars did. But unless he somehow manages to convince Russians that he is appointed by God, his rule will soon lose its legitimacy.