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One Man's Rights Council. Nikolai Svanidze on how Putin is repeating the mistakes of Nicholas II

Last week, Vladimir Putin expelled journalist Nikolai Svanidze, human rights activist Igor Kalyapin and director of the Sova Information and Analytic Center Alexander Verkhovsky from the Human Rights Council. Nikolai Svanidze believes that even though the Human Rights Council was originally just a sham democratic institution, much like the State Duma in pre-revolutionary Russia, its final “purge” is yet another confirmation that Putin, like Nicholas II, leaves no space for political life other than his bureaucratic system, thus making revolution all but inevitable.

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Had the sultan decided to establish a Human Rights Council in the 17th century Sublime Porte, it would have been clear whose human rights he had in mind. The Council would have consisted of Janissaries. The times and mores were simple and straightforward, without hypocrisy.

Since then, a lot of time has passed, and regimes similar to the Sultan's now need to put up fake scenery. Councils today are no longer staffed by janissaries, but by civilians, or at least by people who are dressed in civilian clothes and leave their swords at home.

The Human Rights Council is itself an exotic piece of work. Whenever there are real institutions - parliaments, courts, the press, elections - human rights are protected without a special council controlled by the supreme leader. If these institutions do not function, such a council is of little use.

On the other hand, when institutions are dysfunctional, the country lives by the rules handed down by the leader. With direct access to this person, it’s sometimes possible to help people. It’s very tempting. But this largely illusory possibility also disappears with the strengthening of autocracy. The regime gets simpler, its style becoming more straightforward, and every organization takes on a blatantly bureaucratic appearance. Or military-bureaucratic during wartime.

In Russian history, everything associated with bureaucracy usually has a negative connotation.

On June 2, 1915, the factory owner, financier, and millionaire Alexei Ivanovich Putilov had a conversation with the French ambassador Maurice Paléologue. After smoking a cigar, Putilov said:

“The days of the tsarist power are numbered. It has perished irrevocably. Revolution is inevitable. The anything can cause it - a workers’ strike, a famine, a revolt in Moscow, or a palace scandal. The greatest crime of Tzarism is that it was unwilling to allow any space for political life other than in its bureaucracy. The day the officials give it up, the Russian state itself will disintegrate.”

Indeed, it’s a lamentable sight when a vast country works in such an unpretentious manner.

However, to be fair it should be said that the Russian Tsarism made an incredible effort and allowed the creation of a parliament, the State Duma. Although not until the tsar had to overcome his personal horror at Russia's first revolution, so strong he considered stepping down from the throne. Rasputin persuaded Nicholas not to give up the throne, and Prime Minister Witte actually forced him to sign the Manifesto on Civil and Political Freedoms.

Nicholas himself honestly did not understand the usefulness of the State Duma, and he was even less aware of the insurance it could provide him in the event of a political crisis. He thought: if they want the Duma, let it be a cardboard toy.

Nicholas himself honestly did not understand the usefulness of the State Duma

Nicholas understood there was no such thing in the old Russia – a multitude of political parties, inter-party alliances, alliances with businessmen, the talk of a government of public trust. And it was simply the end of the world when factory owners drew their workers into public activity.

Russia had a large business community in the second decade of the twentieth century, but Nicholas did not see it as a potential ally either. It was probably the master's disdain for his former serfs who had risen to wealth. But at the beginning of the twentieth century, this view was clearly inadequate for the head of state, where big private business provided record economic growth and inevitably sought political clout, for which they needed a parliament with real powers.

What the Russian bourgeoisie wanted more than anything was straightforward and common rules of doing business.

Seemingly a minor issue, but a revolutionary one in fact. In the long run, its successful resolution could lead to a natural limitation of autocracy. But at that moment it was not about the tsar. The most active, in today's terms, creative forces of Russian society had a far more serious opponent than the tsar. Namely the bureaucracy, which in the Russian Empire was stronger than the autocrat. And people across Russia rose up.

The bureaucracy of the early 20th century had its own economic interests, especially in St. Petersburg. High officials and courtiers, including the great Romanov family, had long been on the boards of major business entities, owned shares and securities, and gambled on the stock exchange. Corruption was rampant. Most importantly, by virtue of their proximity to the throne, the high-ranking bureaucracy had access to government loans, the money that the Moscow tycoons like Ryabushinsky and Vtorov fought over to develop their businesses.

The high-ranking bureaucracy served on the boards of business entities, owned shares and traded on stock exchange

Because of the St. Petersburg bureaucracy their businesses were suffering losses. That’s why Moscow businessmen (St. Petersburg businesses had more connections with the bureaucracy) first of all sought political influence through the State Duma. They wanted the ability to expand their powers, appoint ministers, control the budget, and so on down the list. And even in 1915, after the ward had started, attempts in that direction continued.

Putilov, a witness to that unsuccessful struggle, meant what he said speaking to the French ambassador about the St. Petersburg bureaucracy: it would easily give up the sovereign at the first sign of his weakening, there would simply be no practical need for him. And the sovereign would have no other support. Besides, he was involved in a world war.

The Petersburg bureaucracy would easily give up the sovereign at the first sign of his weakening

First of all, because of euphoria. Due to the country's economic and demographic boom, the state’s instinct for self-preservation weakened; it coveted military victory. The military supported this desire in every way and demanded money directly from the Tsar.

Prime Minister Kokovtsov, the last of the glorious trio of strong Russian prime ministers after Witte and Stolypin, was categorically against it. Back in the day Witte had expressed a seditious thought:

“It is not in the interests of Russia to try playing a leading role; it is advisable to retreat to the second rank of world powers, organizing the country in the meantime, restoring domestic peace.”

Kokovtsov shared this view and was dismissed by Nicholas. Upon learning of his dismissal, Nicholas's mother, the Empress Dowager, said:

“We are on a sure path to a disaster.”

Kokovtsov had foreseen another unfortunate circumstance. The arms race, the demonstration of its achievements would instill in the mass consciousness the idea that the war was inevitable and would be successful. Nervous excitement would rise so high that it would overwhelm even the most convinced opponents of the war. Prime Minister Kokovtsov was right. The patriotic enthusiasm of the masses at the beginning of the war would intoxicate everyone, but the hangover would be terrible. Nicholas did not think about it.

He wanted to overcome the disillusionment of defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. In addition, he wanted to act as a big brother and help the Serbs. And, most importantly, he had a dream of the White Tsar ascending to the throne in the sacred city of Constantinople, the birthplace of Orthodoxy, and ruling over the coveted straits of the Mediterranean Sea, opening and closing them at his own discretion, not at that of the Turks.

The end of all those dreams is known: October 1917.

After the Soviet period, nothing was left of the old Russia. But the main principle stayed the same: the bureaucracy, with its ability to combine power and ownership, is the ruling class that does not really need any real institutions.

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