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The Law of Succession

Why Putin picked Medvedev.

11:00 PM, Dec 12, 2007 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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IT ALL SEEMS so familiar. Whenever the West expresses optimism about the advent of a Europeanized Russian "liberal" as the head of state, there's a good chance reference will be made to Peter the Great, the man credited with dragging Russia out of the dark ages and founding the pre-Soviet empire. An entire history of social and political thought used to rest upon this czar who whose very name was a synecdoche for Russian glory (Stalin's famous worship of Ivan the Terrible notwithstanding).

Peter founded the city that bears his name as a "window into Europe," created the country's first standing army and navy for purposes of warring with Sweden, and converted the pedigreed nobility, or mestnichestvo, into a bureaucratic military class with an open enrollment policy. For this, he became an icon of promise and reform to the 19th century intelligentsia, which tended to downplay his more dubious accomplishments, like merging slavery and serfdom in order to expand the Russian tax base, establishing the internal passport system, one of Lenin's main grievances with the ancien regime (before the Soviet one restored it), consolidating a hyper-loyalist cadre of czarist nomenklatura known as "Peter's Fledglings," nationalizing the incipient state industry, bringing the Orthodox Church under his all-commanding sway, overseeing a 25 percent drop in the population during his 44 year reign, and, most perilously of all, enacting the Law of Succession. This abolished primogeniture in the dynasty and gave the sitting czar complete freedom to choose his heir. Court intrigue and assassinations were the result of this disastrous policy, which not a few historians have seen as the first domino to fall before the revolution 200 years later.

As for Peter's enlightened opinion of his subjects, he was given to statements like these: "Our people are like children, who would never of their own accord decide to learn, who would never take up the alphabet without being compelled to do so by their teacher, who would at first feel despondent. But later, when they have finished their studies, they are grateful for having been made to go through them. This is evident today: has not everything been achieved under constraint?"

Understanding this duality in the Russian tradition, the fusion of the forward-looking technocrat with the hidebound authoritarian, is crucial in assessing today's Russia, particularly in light of the fact that the new law of succession is really more of a law of suspended animation. On Monday came the news the next president will be Dmitry Medvedev. A 42 year-old lawyer and academic from St. Petersburg, Medvedev, now a deputy prime minister, is conspicuous in the Kremlin for being one of the only advisors to Vladimir Putin not moored to the vast KGB-FSB security apparatus. His appointment--which is what Putin's endorsement of Medvedev amounts to--comes as a relief to foreign investors who deem his pro-market orientation as a sign that "state capitalism" is on the wane, never mind that Medvedev is also the current chairman of Gazprom, Russia's state-owned gas company responsible for 20 percent of the world's natural gas supply.

Andreas Umland, a foreign affairs analyst, writes in the Washington Post that Medvedev, who repudiated Communism and backed perestroika, represents a "serious chance to embark anew on a course of political liberalization and democratization." The Times of London praises his reputation as a "consensus-builder" and takes at face value that his self-proclaimed disposition on international relations is "European" (always a byword, in Russian terms, for a milquetoast). And the Guardian, which just weeks ago compared Putin to Stalin, strikes the common chord that Medvedev is viewed as a "liberal" and--here the contrastive standard is almost amusingly low--"less of a hawk" than Sergei Ivanov, another deputy prime minister and former defense minister who, up until yesterday, was Medvedev's main rival for the presidency.

Such optimism, however, is not borne out by Medvedev's unimpressive and toadying history. (His only distinguishing characteristic is a fondness for heavy metal; he's a collector of original Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath records.) Though not a silovik, he is in many ways more of a harbinger of strengthening Russian autocracy given his status as a behind-the-scenes policy wonk who owes his political rise exclusively to his boss. It's always the quiet ones you have to look out for