Through the Lens of Stolypin: Understanding Vladimir Putin’s Personal Politics through his Historical Idol

Few pictures hang on the walls of President Putin’s office, but the portrait of the third Prime Minister of Russia, Pyotr Stolypin is more prominent than the rest. Putin has publicly praised Stolypin on multiple occasions and he has become commonly known as the President’s idol. 

The President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, in 2019. (Credit: the President of Russia’s website)

Following recent constitutional reform to keep Putin in power until 2036, and growing crises caused by COVID-19 and mass protests, the historical example of Stolypin may offer a way to understand Putin’s current conception of power and corresponding strategies of control for the near future. 

2012 marked the 150th Anniversary of Pyotr Stolypin’s birth. The same year, Putin ordered his own cabinet ministers to donate a month’s wages to build a statue of his historic mentor. In following speeches, Putin referred to Stolypin as ‘a real patriot and a wise politician’ who ‘displayed personal courage and a willingness to load himself with the entire burden of responsibility for the state and country’. Further expressed was that the guidance of Stolypin had put ‘Russia on a healthy path’, with his assassination in 1911 marking a first step to Revolution and chaos. 

Stolypin’s zenith certainly alludes to why Putin upholds his legacy. Both leaders’ political climates and foundations of power appear similar. Following Revolution in 1905, Stolypin fundamentally quashed dissent and partially ignored democratic process to will reform in whichever direction he saw fit. Throughout the Third Duma, Article 87 was introduced to constitutionally change fundamental laws, and bypass the Duma itself. Subsequently, Stolypin could personally control mass agrarian reform whilst commanding immense power to suppress opposition. At the pinnacle of the Stolypin years, the hangman’s noose became colloquially known as ‘Stolypin’s Necktie’. 

As readers may already be noticing, Stolypin’s doctrine of reform and repression bears similarities with the political climate of the past decade in Putin’s Russia. Much like his idol, Putin has faced what his government deems as liberal dissent. The base of Putin’s power rests upon the centralised image of a man who can reform Russia to bring it back to an assertion of glory. To secure that position Putin has personally driven overhauls in economic, political, and foreign policy. But as much as he follows Stolypin’s approach of individually guided change, Putin understands the necessity of repression to maintain his position. Harassment of journalists, a secret police, and state sponsored assassinations are just as much a part of Putin’s Russia as they were Stolypin’s. 

Due to recent events, we are likely to see the guidance of Stolypin once again rear its head in Putin’s mind. The President is now facing a climate of crisis unparalleled in his political career so far. Failures in navigating the COVID-19 crisis are currently undermining his personal image. Unprecedented mass protests in Khabarovsk in the Far East mark a new era of anti-Kremlin dissidence, with tens of thousands on the streets and no great response from Putin. Upon this, regional dislike for the Kremlin is growing and local government increasingly becoming favoured. 

Already, Stolypin-esque responses can be seen in the aforementioned constitutional change that was pushed through in July. Through the extension of his term, Putin is already bolstering his personal power and looks set to take a hand in new conservative reforms to channel loyalty. Respectively, it is not far fetched to suppose that once he has gained a grip on the pandemic, Putin’s gaze shall turn to suppressing growing anti-government fervour. 

Much like his icon, Putin believes in his personal ability to guide Russia upon ‘a healthy path’. To do so he follows Stolypin’s appreciation of the need to repress and reform in order to captain the Russian behemoth, through the storm posed by the unpredictable political climate that varies abruptly across each region of the nation. Putin faces growing damage to his reputation. The guidance and example of his historical mentor may be key to understanding Putin’s next step to recuperate his popularity and reputation. 

Henry Kilding

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