DURING the twilight of the Romanov dynasty, with the Russian empire in economic collapse following its entry into World War I, the people sought scapegoats.
Though ultimately responsible for policy, Czar Nicholas II didn't bear the brunt of the criticism. Instead, those around the czar were blamed, with the main villain being Grigory Rasputin, a debauched monk with considerable political influence. Assassinated in 1916, Rasputin's name is virtually synonymous with the downfall of the Romanovs in 1917.
Until the end, what protected Nicholas II from public wrath was the people's belief that he was a "good czar," surrounded by unscrupulous advisers.
The Communist era did not break this mindset and President Boris Yeltsin now finds himself playing the good czar. As Russia convulses once more in economic chaos - this time prompted by the collapse of the Soviet Union - opponents of Mr. Yeltsin's economic course are reluctant to blame him directly for problems. Instead they attack his aides, with some even portraying the president's men as a "Collective Rasputin."
A key to the future success of Yeltsin's reforms will be his ability to keep his team together by dispelling the Russian political stereotype of the well-intentioned leader led astray by evil advisers. Conversely, the opposition reinforces the stereotype in the minds of Russians, hoping to divide the government and force a shift in reforms.
Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, now a bitter Yeltsin rival, has led the effort against the Collective Rasputin. In a televised speech in parliament last month, Mr. Rutskoi alleged corruption was rife in the top levels of government. He conjured up images of intrigues and conspiracies, thundering that Russia was being ruled by a "shadow government."
"These people are interested in maintaining the course of reform that pads their pockets and the pockets of black marketeers," Rutskoi said of reformers. "I am sure criminal acts are being committed behind the president's back."
Collective Rasputin members include both present and former advisers and Cabinet members - including former State Secretary Gennady Burbulis, former Acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, and Privatization Minister Anatoly Chubais. They are all accused of foisting upon Russia a Westernized approach to reform that is ruining the national economy because it runs counter to the country's communal traditions.
"It demonstrates a rather peculiar interpretation of Russian history," Mr. Gaidar told the Monitor recently, commenting on the Collective. Mr. Burbulis called the concept "an idiotic joke."
Still Yeltsin was compelled by such attacks to move both men out of their official posts, though both also remain close advisers to the president. Now, after his victory in the recent April 25 referendum, Yeltsin needs a cohesive administration to achieve his reform goals in the face of mounting opposition, especially the promulgation of a new constitution.
Yet while Yeltsin may not be aware of it, he perpetuates the good czar image, playing into his opponents' hands.
SERGEI MITROKHIN, a political scientist at Moscow's Research Institute for Humanities and Politics, defines the good czar as a strong, but benevolent autocrat popularly perceived as a "hero-liberator from the corrupt and oppressive bureaucracy." Historically, the good czar was not responsible when things went wrong, as people blamed advisers for supposedly manipulating the autocrat.
"It's natural for a country that isn't a civil society and has never had strong democratic structures," Andrei Vasilievsky, vice president of the Panorama Information Center, says of Russia's good czar concept. The first good czar, Mr. Mitrokhin adds, was Ivan the Terrible, who in the 16th century cultivated this image to mobilize public support for the crushing of his rivals - the boyars, upper nobility who were popularly perceived as rapacious.
In 1987, Yeltsin began assuming the role of good czar, Mitrokhin says. That year, he was ousted from the Communist Party's ruling Politburo for criticizing the extravagant privileges of the party's upper crust. That won Yeltsin broad popular support.
The good czar image was critical to Yeltsin's political comeback in 1989. It gave him a power base, the Democratic Russia movement, that he used as to win the presidency in 1991. As president, Yeltsin portrayed himself as a man above parties, the only elected representative of the people. He preferred to bring reform by decree rather than through the unruly parliament.
But now the image is losing its luster. Yeltsin's rating has fallen significantly since 1991, as the reforms he endorsed have coincided with economic decline. Yeltsin is coming under attack by opponents, who portray him as a despot wanting to reestablish authoritarian rule.
"In the future the stereotype of the good czar can hardly play a useful role, and maybe it can even become destructive," Mitrokhin says. "Too often his action was dictated by emotion," he adds, echoing a common criticism of Yeltsin's impulsive, autocratic style of governing.
The immediate danger for Yeltsin is that a continued good-czar course could end in the ouster of progressive aides. So far, Yeltsin has acted to defend the young reformers in his Cabinet, moving instead against Rutskoi, ousting him as chairman of the commission investigating government corruption.
But at the same time, Yeltsin has fueled worries about his commitment to radical reform. In particular, the president has appointed new ministers with old-style views - namely First Deputy Prime Ministers Oleg Lobov and Oleg Soskovets - and has given them higher rank that will make it difficult for the progressives to act on reforms.
Rather than placating his opponents, such moves seem only to fuel their drive against the Collective Rasputin.