The image of authority: a steel mace and a watch on the right wrist


This August’s papers are delighting us with their tendency to do some serious resarch into the most surprising topics.

Kommersant-Vlast magazine has published a detailed article about the much-publicized gift received by President Vladimir Putin: an exact copy of the sword of Ilya Muromets, blessed over a relic of St. Ilya by Patriarch Aleksii II and handed over to Auditing Chamber Chairman Sergei Stepashin for delivery to the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces.

First of all, says Kommersant-Vlast, it should be acknowledged that medieval Russian epics, our main source of information about the life of Ilya Muromets, provide a very contradictory picture of the hero.

For example, Ilya Muromets can hardly be called an exemplary defender of the Orthodox faith: when he quarreled with Prince Vladimir of Kiev, the hero drew his bow and started shooting the crosses and golden domes off the churches of Kiev. He then sold the gold and drank away the proceeds.

Ilya Muromets also disobeyed the instructions of his father, Ivan Timofeevich. When Ilya set out for Kiev, his father told him to fight neither Tatar nor Christian. But the epics relate that Ilya’s opponents included Tatars, Turks, and Kalmyks. So the hero had some trouble with political correctness as well.

Finally, in its close reading of the epics, Kommersant-Vlast discovered that Ilya Muromets never had a sword at all. He is described as using the following weapons: bow and arrows, a spear, a saber, a steel mace (as shown in Viktor Vasnetsov’s famous painting), and even a wooden crutch, when nothing else was available. But none of the epics mention him using a sword.

Moving from folklore sources to academic research, says Kommersant-Vlast, we find that Ilya died as a monk at the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev, circa 1188, aged around 55. In other words, his feats in battle happened sometime in the middle of the 12th century.

That period, according to Kommersant-Vlast, didn’t offer the hero “all that many opportunities to defend the honor and independence of great Orthodox Rus,” since Rus faced virtually no external threats at the time. It was two centuries after the battles against “the Jewish land” (presumably the Khazar Empire, which practised Judaism), and several decades before the Tatar invasion. The only enemies of Rus at the time were the Polovtsy, and they were defeated by the princes of Rus in the early 12th century. The princes then compensated for the lack of external aggressors by fighting each other – and the real Ilya Muromets probably participated in those battles. Such are the discouraging academic conclusions about the historical background of the epics.

All the same, says Kommersant-Vlast, the sword of Ilya Muromets could well become “a worthy decoration for any arsenal, comparable to D’Artagnan’s rapier” – though its significance as a state-patriotic symbol, despite the efforts of Patriarch Aleksii and Putin’s loyal ally Sergei Stepashin, seems somewhat problematic.

Then again, every era has its own symbols.

The Novye Izvestia newspaper reports on an unexpected proposal from Adam Imadayev, a member of the Primorye (Maritime territory) regional legislature, who has become well-known for his persistent efforts to secure a third term in office for President Putin.

The Primorye legislature supported his proposal, says Novye Izvestia; the agenda for its autumn session now includes voting on an appeal to the Duma, calling for a revision of Article 81 of the Constitution. Prior to that, the tireless Imadayev visited his home region, Chechnya, and requested permission to address the parliament of Chechnya. He spoke for two hours, trying to persuade Chechen lawmakers that Putin must be given the opportunity to seek a third term.

In conclusion, the fiery orator proposed that everyone who’s prepared to close ranks around the incumbent president should start wearing their watches “Putin-style,” on the right wrist, to identify themselves.

Novye Izvestia quotes Imadayev as saying: “This might look funny at first sight, but it would be a visible sign – we’d be able to see who is on our side.”

But the Chechen parliament didn’t find anything funny in Imadayev’s words. What’s more, it has been the first regional parliament to give legal status to a third term proposal.

The lawmakers of Chechnya interrupted their summer vacation for a special meeting held to vote on the third term proposal. Their counterparts in Primorye seem prepared to follow their example – although not without some debate. “But wouldn’t our decision turn Vladimir Putin into a dictator?” said Nikolai Markovtsev at a meeting of the Primorye legislature’s law and regional policy committee. “Wouldn’t the international community see him as another Lukashenko or Turkmenbashi?”

But the ubiquitous Imadayev reassured him: “There’s nothing to fear – Nazarbayev has been the president of Kazakhstan for 15 years, and there’s nothing wrong with that – the people elected him and trust him, and the international community accepts that.”

In general, according to Imadayev, it should be noted that “being a modest person, Putin won’t insist on running for president in 2008 – and no one will request him to do so. We should be aware of this, and do no more than allow him this opportunity. If he doesn’t want to take it up, he doesn’t have to.”

Indeed, Putin won’t want to seek a third term, though people will keep begging him to do so for almost two years to come. That is the opinion of Ilya Milshtein, observer for Novoe Vremya magazine.

Milshtein says: “The law-making carnival we’re witnessing now prompts an unexpected conclusion: Putin really will step down, regardless of all his supporters’ efforts to amend the Constitution or fervent calls for concord and stability. That’s the paradox.”

The essence of this paradox, according to Milshtein, is that now, two years before his departure, “Putin is mastering the role of lame duck.” He is “thinking about the mark he will leave in Russian history – cautiously peering into the future, trying to guess how future generations will speak of him.”

What’s more, Chechnya and Beslan are the darkest stains on Putin’s political record: “The war in Chechnya, which brought Putin to power, and one of the most horrific acts of terror in human history: they are sure to be investigated someday, in Russia and abroad, whether straight after Putin leaves office or many decades hence. People will study these events, seeking out evidence.” And, according to Milshtein, “Putin has reason to believe that future generations will use some strong epithets when mentioning his name.”

And that’s when the initiatives from Caucasus politicians could be very useful: “They’re not just nominating him for a third term as president, trampling over the Constitution in their joy. They’re giving him an indulgence – on behalf of and at the behest of their peoples.”

Indeed, how can Putin be reproached for events in Chechnya, when “the consolidated voice of Chechen society, as expressed in the Chechen parliament’s resolution, will make it clear to the future that Putin was respected and loved” in Chechnya – so much, in fact, that the Chechens insisted on a third term for him in 2008.

The Beslan situation is similar. North Ossetia – prompted by Valery Gizoyev, leader of the Concord and Stability movement – has initiated moves to hold a referendum on whether Putin should run for a third term.

And it doesn’t matter how the Chechen parliament was elected, or to what extent Concord and Stability expresses the general opinion of North Ossetian residents. “Only one thing matters: after the war, and after Beslan, the Chechens and Ossetians spoke out in support of Putin. It’s as if the Kosovar Albanians has voted for Slobodan Milosevic after the war. Would any Haague Tribunal have dared to make him stand trial then?”

The Chechen government’s ultra-loyalty is already having some fairly significant consequences.

“Vladimir Putin is leaving Chechnya to Ramzan Kadyrov,” says the Kommersant newspaper. It reports that Putin has issued a decree ordering Defense Ministry and Interior Ministry forces which are stationed in Chechnya on a temporary basis to be withdrawn by the end of 2008. Once this decree is implemented, all security and law enforcement agencies remaining in Chechnya will be loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov: the Chechen Interior Ministry and the South and North battalions.

A “source from the federal special services in Chechnya” informed the Vedomosti newspaper that Kadyrov has long been trying to get “superfluous troops” withdrawn, so the new presidential decree is a political victory for him.

Kommersant notes that Kadyrov will gain control over yet another form of power. In order to become the complete master of Chechnya, all he has to do now is persuade Moscow to give the Chechen government control of Chechnya’s oil industry. Kadyrov has long since established control over politics in Chechnya, and few observers doubt that once he turns 30 on October 5, making him eligible for the presidency, he will become the president of Chechnya.

Franz Klintsevich, deputy chairman of the United Russia faction in the Duma and former leader of United Russia’s Chechnya branch, told Kommersant: “Regardless of all the criticism directed at Ramzan, Chechens say that a great deal is changing for the better thanks to him. And the withdrawal of the federal police will reinforce a sense of stability among the people of Chechnya.”

Lecha Saligov, deputy prime minister of Chechnya in 1993-97, maintains that Ramzan Kadyrov has all he could possibly want – “except a guarantee that Putin will remain president for life.”

Mikhail Babich, former prime minister of Chechnya, takes a less optimistic view of the situation: “The people don’t want the federal troops to leave. On the contrary, they’re shuddering at this move and they’re horrified by the idea of all power being concentrated in one person’s hands.” Babich even mentioned the years when the first war in Chechnya began: “Look where this sort of thing led when Dudayev was in power. I don’t rule out the possibility of such events being repeated.”

Meanwhile, the people – that is, the electorate – in all regions of Russia, including Chechnya, have long since moved beyond confusion, to categorical disbelief in any good intentions on the part of the authorities and rejection of all their decisions.

Even the most innocent and noble initiatives aren’t accepted – for example, the proposal from community groups, journalists, and the Russian Orthodox Church in the city of Ivanovo to restore the city’s historical name: Ivanovo-Voznesensk.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta informs its readers that Mikhail Men, the Ivanovo region’s progressive governor, has already discussed this idea with senior clerics, who reminded him that Ivanovo-Voznesensk was the name of the city that arose from two “nameless remote villages” and turned into “a powerful center of industry.” Archbishop Ambrosius wrote to Men: “As new leaders come into the region, our city has great prospects. And the extent to which they are realized is largely connected with the name of the region’s capital.”

Mikhail Men says that he’s generally in favor of the idea, but also concerned about the opinion of Ivanovo residents, as well as the costs of a name-change. However, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, these two concerns of Men’s are intersecting.

According to estimates, the costs associated with changing the city’s name would be around 20 million rubles. The municipal budget doesn’t have that much money to spare, so some officials are proposing to reduce the costs by omitting a regional referendum: that is, the people of Ivanovo won’t be asked what they think of the idea.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that a special commission is supposed to suggest some ways for Ivanovo residents to express their opinion in the absence of a referendum.

Meanwhile, “preliminary studies of public opinion” organized by the mayor’s office indicate that 64% of respondents don’t want their city to be renamed Ivanovo-Voznesensk, 22% don’t care either way, and only 13% share Governor Men’s opinion.

Examples of this nature are convincing illustrations of contemporary Russia’s characteristic gulf between the political elite and the people in approaches to any and all issues – and the language used to express those approaches. This argument is presented in Rossiiskaya Gazeta by Valery Fedorov, general director of the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM).

Fedorov maintains that the word “reforms,” for example, is used in a positive sense by the political elite – but it’s been completely discredited among the people.

Russian citizens, according to Fedorov, have a deep-seated conviction that no reforms “make things better.” In their view, the best that can happen after reforms is that things won’t get worse, and people will be able to adapt to the changes somehow. Meanwhile, the authorities keep using the word “reforms” all the time – pension reforms, health-care reforms, housing and utilities reforms, and so on.

And that’s only one example of mutual incomprehension between politicians and the electorate.

In Fedorov’s view, the solution to the Year 2008 Problem will be greatly influenced by this factor.

Putin’s proposed successor should be “part of today’s political reality, because the people don’t want any radical changes – on the contrary, they see threats and dangers rather than prizes and benefits in even the most insignificant changes.”

On the other hand, the successor should also “speak in a language the people can understand, and be able to make them like him.”

Fedorov says that the political casting process, which has already begun, will be based on these two criteria.

What’s more, this is also how the political process will develop this autumn on the field of party politics, “where the opposition has gone, but no one has moved in to replace it. This situation cannot last long.”

Another VTsIOM executive, research manager Leontii Byzov, adds in an article for Vedomosti that Russia, “weary of turmoil and upheavals, is now experiencing a clearly-expressed ‘conservative-protective’ phase. Our society doesn’t want anyone to disturb its tranquility, no matter what kind of ideas they advocate – democratic or nationalist.”

And that is why, says Byzov, citizens aren’t inclined to share the opposition’s concerns about its lack of media access.

What’s more, according to Byzov, there are objective factors behind the public’s disillusionment with the opposition: “Although the authorities do fight the opposition, and media techniques are among their methods, the main reason why the opposition is being rapidly marginalized is that it’s lost the ground under its feet.” In other words, it isn’t proposing any new ideas that would be acceptable to the public, and doesn’t have any influence.

These circumstances, says Byzov in Vedomosti, are what encourages voters to vote for United Russia – simply because it’s “the lesser evil.”

A Vedomosti editorial comments that it’s surprising that citizens are familiar with the word “opposition” at all. A study started in March by the Center for Extreme Journalism shows that the opposition does not have access to television airtime. Over 90% of the time in political news broadcasts is devoted to the president, the government, and the United Russia party. There is more pluralism in newspapers and the Internet, of course, but only a limited number of people get their news from those sources.

Not surprisingly, Russia ranked 158th out of 194 countries in Freedom House’s media freedom survey this year.

Vedomosti concludes that the only source of information for most citizens about possible restrictions on the opposition, or the quality of the opposition itself, are television broadcasts that don’t mention the opposition at all. “It’s like asking non-smokers whether they like the taste of particular brands of cigarettes.”

The Gazeta newspaper looks at the results of a Levada Center opinion poll which indicate that citizens are much more concerned about the economic and social components of Russia’s development, not the political component.

For example, 70% of respondents say they are concerned about inflation; 51% are concerned about the people becoming impoverished as a result of inflation, “contrary to the goals and objectives identified as priorities by the ruling elite.”

Besides, over 70% of respondents named low incomes as their biggest personal problem; 15% say they always feel tired; and 12% say they can’t see any future for themselves.

This grim picture also includes the fact that 34% of respondents are dissatisfied with the state’s current strategy, and another 34% simply don’t understand it.

Levada Center staff told Gazeta that such uncertainty is due to “the hidden disillusionment effect”: when great expectations at the start of a journey run up against differences between reality and stated objectives at the journey’s end.

After all these summer polls, only one question remains unanswered: how many of these citizens will agree to wear their watches on their right wrists by 2008, as the creative Adam Imadayev suggests?