Vladimir Putin: Not the Jefferson of Russia
by Nikolas K. Gvosdev on May 18, 2000
When Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated as America's third president
in 1801, he noted that the American experiment in democracy had passed a
crucial test. Power had been transferred peacefully from one president to
the next after a bitter electoral campaign. "This being now decided by the
voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution,
all will … unite in common efforts for the common good," he proclaimed.
Two centuries later, another newly-elected president, Vladimir
Putin, echoing Jefferson, paid homage to the democratic process. The
"transfer of power is always a test of the constitutional system, a test of
its strength," he said. For the first time in Russian history, "supreme
power is being transferred in the most democratic and simple way." In the
presence of Mikhail Gorbachev–the last Soviet president, who started the
process of democratization–and Boris Yeltsin–Russia's first elected
president–the new leader promised to "safeguard what has been achieved"
and to "ensure that the authorities elected by the people work in their
Despite the apparent connection between an 18th-century Virginia
farmer and a 20th-century ex-KGB operative, Putin is not likely to draw on
the Sage of Monticello for inspiration. Jefferson called for a "wise and
frugal government" that would "restrain men from injuring one another" but
"leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and
Putin is more spiritually akin to another statesman who also tried
to lead Russia on the path toward economic prosperity and reform and
political liberalization: Peter Stolypin, prime minister (1906-1912) under
Nicholas II. Stolypin's battle-cry against revolutionaries, "You want great
upheavals, but we want a Great Russia!" finds an echo in Putin's
declaration that he seeks to restore "the guiding and regulating role of
the state to a degree which is necessary, proceeding from the traditions
and present state of the country … Russia needs a strong state power and
must have it."
Indeed, Putin's actions so far are more Stolypinesque than
Jeffersonian. Both Stolypin and Putin rose to prominence as "law-and-order"
men, Stolypin with his suppression of peasant unrest and revolutionary
terrorism (the noose sarcastically referred to as a Stolypin necktie),
Putin with his campaign in Chechnya.
Both manipulated the electoral systemto tailor pro-government
majorities in the legislature (Stolypin by changing electoral laws, Putin
through the creation of the "Unity" movement). Both invoked the power of
the state to push through fundamental change.
During his tenure as prime minister, Stolypin unleashed a series of
reforms designed to turn millions of Russian peasants into property owners
with a stake in civil peace and economic development. Putin wants the state
to become "an efficient coordinator of the country's economic
and social forces" in order to "ensure a stable growth of prosperity on the
basis of the growth of real disposable incomes of the people."
Stolypin's model is attractive to Putin because, in the short run,
it was successful. The economy grew at a rapid pace; the Russian military
was modernized, and plans were drafted for a dramatic expansion of
educational and health-care services to the general populace. Stolypin's
reforms paralleled the revival of Russian culture, the "Silver Age"
reflected in the paintings of Malevich or the compositions of Stravinsky.
Stolypin's policies led Vladimir Lenin to conclude that his
generation might not even see the "approaching battles of the revolution."
Unfortunately, time was not on Stolypin's side; his assassination and
Russia's entry into the World War I wrecked his work, and the Russian
As if haunted by Stolypin's ghost, Putin pointed out in his
inaugural that the reform process is "still far from completion." In an
earlier speech, he warned, "We are running out of time." To see this
process through, Putin is likely to adopt some very un-Jeffersonian
policies and procedures.
Benjamin Franklin expressed his optimism at the close of the
Constitutional Convention in 1787 that the sun painted on the back of
George Washington's chair was, in his view, rising and not setting. It is
too early to say whether the sunburst on the canopy over the dais where
Putin took his oath of office represents the dawn — or the sunset — of
the nascent Russian democracy.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a senior fellow for strategic studies at The Nixon Center in Washington and a writer for the History News Service.