Suspilne Culture is launching a project on how Russia affected the development of Ukraine. Russia's attempts to destroy Ukrainian identity have been going on for quite some time. Top historians are here to explain just how Russians have been trying to destroy all things Ukrainian for several centuries.
We will publish both English and Ukrainian translations of these texts. Russia's informational aggression has been a part of the daily discourse for a long time, but especially acute after 2014's Maidan. Now we need to spread awareness abroad to show just how much of a bad influence Russia has always been.
Journalist and YouTuber Oleh Kryshtopa (History for Adults) takes a look through the prism of history to understand if Russia could exist without an authoritarian ruler.
Ukrainian version available here.
Scientific editing by Mykhailo Nazarenko.
Translated from Ukrainian by Ivan Korniienko.
There's a popular saying in Russia – "got no tzar in your head". While generally it's used to describe a not-too-smart person, it obviously speaks volumes about Russian mentality. Tzar is something they must have not only on the outside, above their head, but also inside. Almost all of the history of Muscovy, Russian Empire, USSR, or RF is pockmarked with tyranny and wars of aggression. Short periods "without a tzar in their head" plunged everything into chaos. The first time that came about was the 16th century after an insane tyrant Ivan IV (nicknamed Terrible) died. By the way, he was the first to declare himself the Tzar. Born and raised in an atmosphere of conspiracies and murders, he turned into a paranoid killer himself – his victim count is in the thousands. One of his victims was his son Ivan (killed by the Tzar's own hands). After the rest of his children died, Muscovy delved deep into the Time of Troubles, a period of civil wars and utter chaos, brought to an end only when The House of Romanov came to power. And if a tzar was killed, a new one was quick to take his place.
In the 18th century, a German princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst married the future emperor Peter III, converted to orthodoxy, and changed her name to Catherine. Right after Peter took the throne, she conspired with her assistants and lover to first remove Peter from power and had him killedWe're not sure he was killed on her orders, but Alexey Orlov, a brother of her favorite was probably the killer – Editor’s Note later, thus amassing the absolute powerIn fact, it was somewhat limited, because she was well afraid to fall prey to a conspiration herself – Editor’s Note.
Paul, her son, became her successor, only to be killed in a palace coup. The weirdest part is that conspirators made sure to tell all about it to Paul's son, Alexander, who immediately became the new tzar. Soon, after his death, a crisis called Interregnum shook the empire. He left no children, his younger brother Constantine didn't want to take the reign and some of the elites didn't trust the Nikolai whom they considered to be too young.
The enthronement coincided with the so-called Decembrists revolt. It failed and tzar personally dealt with the insurgents, ordering to hang five of them. He also made sure to expand his absolute powerSame as with Catherine. The power is seemingly absolute but any attempts to cancel serfdom – and there were some! – were met with ferocious resistance from the bureaucrats and nobility – Editor’s Note. He created the secret police, introduced total censorship, and those who violated it were declared insaneI.e. Peter Chaadaev, whose text went through the censors but caused outrage among the power circles after being published, and the author was declared insane afterward – Editor’s Note and either sent to Siberia or jailed for life. In a word, nothing new.
If Nicolai took a liking to a woman, she became a victim of sexual abuse. Both she and her husband were forced to consider this a "special honor". Nikolai hades revolutions and hated foreign countries so much that he started a war against "the west" which he lost and suddenly died. His successor and son Alexander III became known as the "liberator" and "reformer"Because he introduced a number of important reforms, from canceling serfdom to installing a court of jurors. It's hard to call him a democrat though, just think of how he suppressed the Polish uprising and the Ems Ukaz – Editor’s Note but was eventually killed by revolutionary terrorists.
His short reign was marked only by tightening absolutism. His son's, Nicholas`s II ascension to power started with a bloody tragedy. To celebrate his coronation, a giveaway of presents was set up in a field nearby Moscow: sausages, sweets, and drinks. Tens of thousands of people formed a stampede which resulted in 1500 death. Despite this, tzar ordered the celebrations to go on, and he himself went on to visit a ball.
Nine years later he ordered to shoot down a peaceful demonstration heading to his palace with pleas about civil rights, which deserved him a nickname "Bloody". Lastly, after the February revolution, he abdicated, and Russia left without a tzar in its head, plunged into chaos. Bolsheviks came to power soon and afterward executed tzar and all of his family. The massive civil war started. Communists were able to put an end to it only by reinforcing the central government. Now all power belonged to the "leader", the head of the communist party. Then Joseph Stalin took to basically rebuilding the Russian Empire under the mottos of "dictature of the proletariat". By the end of the 80s, when tyranny weakened, USSR fell apart. Russian Federation emerged amidst the wreck and was plunged into chaos again. A small civil war took place in Moscow in 1993 when president Yeltsin ordered the troops to shoot up the Parliament building. Russia also went to war with Chechnya twice during the 90s, after the latter decided to proclaim independence.
Everything changed when Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, trying on the role of a strong and personalistic leader. Systemic destruction of democratic institutions and opposition made Russia monolithic again. With a tzar in their head, but without God in their hearts.
So the question – is Russia even possible without a tzar (authoritarian ruler) – looks rather rhetorical.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Suspilne Culture.