The current issue of Time Magazine features a Rodney Dangerfield-esque Vladimir Putin on the cover, with an insouciant smirk on his face and a tiny imperial crown perched upon his head. The headline reads: “Rising Tsar.”
That represents a pretty typical Western commentary on the Kremlin leader’s huge reelection victory last month. Mr. Putin has labored long and hard to project himself as a normal, modern president who wins elections and abides by constitutional rules. But that Time cover and others like it signify that few in the West are inclined to see him that way.
But Russians, too, seem to increasingly view their long-time leader as something much more than a standard politician, though the image some are reaching for is not that of a czar. The word that keeps cropping up is vozhd, an ancient term imbued with mythic connotations that signifies a chieftain who stands above history, one who embodies the enduring will of the entire nation.
In the not-too-distant past, the term was embraced by Joseph Stalin as the core of his adulatory “personality cult,” but was eschewed by his successors.
The term’s reemergence in Russian discourse appears to be due to the sense of ongoing crisis brought about by the confrontation with the West, which began in earnest four years ago with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and has escalated ever since. Even as Putin was being reelected last month with his biggest margin ever, a war of words was raging between Moscow and London over the attempted murder of former double agent Sergei Skripal with allegedly Russian-made nerve gas.
“Before, he was simply our president, and it was possible to change him,” tweeted Margarita Simonyan, head of the English-language RT television network, following the election. “Now he is our vozhd. And we will not let that be changed.”
A similar thought was earlier voiced by the Kremlin’s then-deputy chief of staff, Vyacheslav Volodin, as the current East-West crisis was heating up. “Today there is no Russia if there is no Putin,” he told an assembly of Western scholars and journalists in late 2014. “Any attack on Putin is an attack on Russia.” There is even a current popular song by the rock group Rabfak entitled “Putin is Our Vozhd.”
A loaded label
As Putin looks to place Russia on a stable long-term basis when his fourth and likely final presidential term ends – perhaps by changing the constitution to reinvent his own political role – the fact that some of his strongest supporters are adopting the vozhd label must be an irritating distraction – or, just maybe, a temptation.
Vozhd can have benign usages, signifying a preeminent leader in almost any field, such as a vozhd of science or literature. But in the modern political sense it is inextricably linked with the all-encompassing mass “personality cult” of Stalin in the 20th century, and its echoes bring back all the tortured and still very controversial memories of those times. The Stalinist notion of vozhd implied an infallible leader, one who navigates the shoals of history on behalf of his people, and who is to be trusted and obeyed implicitly.
Though Russians understandably bristle at the comparison, the word is similar in its meaning, usage, and historical baggage to the German “Führer,” and its return to political discourse sets off obvious alarm bells. That seems all the more true since recent opinion polls show that, for the first time in many decades, Stalin is viewed positively by a majority of Russians.
“Putin has two dimensions for Russians,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “In one, he is living flesh. He is a politician who manages the executive branch, sets policy, interacts with institutions, holds televised meetings with the public, and so on.
“But the second dimension is as a national symbol. He is the portrait on the wall that can never be removed. He is an instrument of self-identification for all Russians. Since this is essentially an authoritarian regime, the tendency will always be to view the first person as vozhd,” he says.
'Putin restored our identity'
Putin won his first presidential election in 2000, after being made acting president by a retiring Boris Yeltsin, winning just 53 percent of the vote. Four years later, as the incumbent in firm control of the electoral machinery, he took 71 percent. He ceded the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev for four years, but then staged a comeback in 2012. That time he got 64 percent, amid a great deal of public disgruntlement over his insistence on returning.
His substantial basic popularity had been established by the success of his first two terms in restoring political stability in a Russia still reeling from the catastrophic 1990s, making Russians feel part of a unified society again, and overseeing a wave of economic growth that significantly raised living standards for most people.
“Putin restored our identity. After the Soviet collapse all our social values turned to dust. We ceased to understand who we were, and our national psychology was dominated by our inferiority complexes,” says Olga Kryshtanovskya, a sociologist who specializes in studying Russia’s shifting elites. “It was Putin who started us on the road to national recovery, made people feel pride in being Russian again.”
But his popularity only began to spike to stratospheric levels after Crimea and the long, unfolding standoff with the West.
Despite economic recession and falling living standards over recent years, Putin achieved reelection to his new term with 77 percent of the votes.
“Why was he reelected, with such huge support, even in big cities?” says Leonid Gozman, former co-chair of the opposition Pravoye Delo party. “It's not something concrete. It's a new attitude to the world that has taken hold. He managed to convince many people that they are surrounded by evil gods, and that he is the only one who can protect them.”
Dmitry Babich, a commentator with the official Sputnik news agency, argues that “it wasn't Putin who made himself a hero to us, it was the West. It was the intense pressure on our country that caused Russians to rally behind him.”
Not a good word
But few believe that Putin would willingly embrace the title of vozhd, with its unpleasant historical baggage and Pharaonic overtones.
“Putin would regard vozhd as a word that's closely associated with Stalin, and all the ugly memories of that harsh, authoritarian system, and he would reject it,” says Sergei Markov, director of the independent Institute of Political Studies and a former Putin adviser. “It is true that Russians view him differently, now that he is the military leader of a country that’s under attack. But that special aura about him now is more like what Americans call a ‘war president’ than an old fashioned vozhd.”
Russian society has evolved since the 20th century and, the enthusiasm of some young people such as Ms. Simonyan notwithstanding, most Russian are unlikely to respond favorably to the old vozhd word, says Mikhail Chernysh, deputy director of the official Center of Theoretical and Applied Sociology in Moscow.
“Vozhd is not a good word, people associate it with ancient tribal politics. In the 20th century it was connected with ideological regimes; Stalin and Hitler were called vozhd [Führer], and no one today thinks well about that,” he says. “Putin has no ideology. He presents himself as an efficient manager, a good leader, but never a vozhd.”