Vladimir Putin: Not the Jefferson of Russia

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 interests."

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 improvement."

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 system to 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 Revolution followed.

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.