Vladimir the Great?

By Jay Winik
Sunday, September 2, 2007

Having just grabbed a piece of the Arctic the size of Western Europe, the Russian military has announced ambitious plans to establish a permanent presence in the Mediterranean for the first time since the end of the Cold War. The guiding hand behind this Russian resurgence is undeniably Russia's enigmatic president, Vladimir Putin.

On the surface, enigmatic seems to be the word. Putin dons well-tailored suits even as he clamps down on domestic opposition and homemade democracy. He flashes a warm smile in the councils of international summitry even as he smashes dissent in Chechnya. He has charmed President Bush even as he stymies U.S. policy in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. The conventional wisdom is that Putin's background in the KGB is what ultimately drives his more notorious actions, leading foreign policy commentators to raise the specter of a renewed Cold War.

But if the West is truly going to come to grips with Putin and a resurrected Russian state, it would do well to see him not as something relatively new but as something old, drawing on historical roots stretching back to the 18th century and Catherine the Great. Indeed, it is far more likely that Putin and his allies are following not the ghosts of Stalin and Khrushchev but spiritual masters such as Empress Catherine in seeking to reestablish Russia as a great nation on the world stage.

Like Putin, Catherine II was a curiosity in her day, alternately bewitching and confusing her critics and supporters. From early on she was the liberal idol of the great Enlightenment philosophes of Europe. She corresponded with the eminent Voltaire, drew upon Montesquieu in governing Russia (nearly 20 years before the American Founders did), published Helvetius when he was being burned in effigy by Paris's public hangman, and subscribed to Diderot's famed Encyclop?die when it was banned in France. "What a time we live in," Voltaire enthused, "France persecutes the intellectuals while the Scythians protect them!"

Catherine even took the remarkable step of not only corresponding with Thomas Jefferson but helping midwife America's independence through her League of Armed Neutrality, which diplomatically isolated Britain during our Revolutionary War. King George III first approached Catherine, not the Hessians, to request her hardened Cossacks to fight George Washington and the upstart colonials; she turned him down. American-Russian ties thus go way back.

Yet, with eerie echoes for today's world, the once-heralded liberal empress became, within a few years, a reactionary. Though John Adams thought Russia and the United States would be natural allies, Catherine did not even deign to meet with the envoy of fledgling America, Francis Dana, who lamented that he knew "less of the empresses comings and goings" than did her groomsman. And when the French Revolution broke out, Catherine turned her back on decades of Enlightenment and unleashed modern authoritarianism.

She ruthlessly repressed intellectuals in Russia and, short of committing her armies, did everything she could to destroy the "democratic" Jacobin menace emanating from France. "What do cobblers know about ruling?" she barked, having decided that representative government was ill-suited to such a large nation as Russia. Then, in still one more about-face, she openly derided George Washington and condemned the American Revolution she had once professed to admire.

The current carnage in Iraq, along with Russia's latest overtures to Syria and its rising belligerence toward the old Soviet territory of Georgia, bring to mind how deftly Catherine took advantage of the French-led chaos that swept Europe in 1795. She acted to wipe the ancient Kingdom of Poland off the map and carve up its lands. (Ironically, the Polish insurrection against her was bravely spearheaded by Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a hero of America's Revolutionary War.)

Another hallmark of Catherine's Russia with striking portents for today was domestic opinion on the West. To be sure, she took great strides to Europeanize the Russian colossus: She built the Hermitage, amassed a world-class art collection, improved schools and hospitals, and sent French-speaking Russians abroad in droves. But Catherine did little to change the attitude of the average Russian toward what was often disdainfully referred to as "the peninsula of Europe."

Putin, despite smiling Group of Eight photo ops, is in much the same mold. He likens U.S. policies to those of the Third Reich and darkly refers to the foreign enemies who seek to undermine Russia. Even many younger Russians, who analysts once predicted would be America's greatest friends in the post-Cold War era, openly profess their profound hostility to the United States.

Catherine was charming, brilliant, vital and complex. She frequently dominated the global arena over three decades. "If she were corresponding with God," Prussia's Frederick the Great once said, "she would claim at least equal rank." And with haunting lessons for the 21st century, Catherine was a master of presenting two faces to the world -- one to enlightened intellectuals everywhere and one to her own people. Whatever her flirtations with Washington, Franklin, Voltaire, Montesquieu, America or constitutionalism, in the end she cherished the glory of imperial Russia more.

At the age of 67, Catherine was determined that her legacy would live on. She handpicked her successor -- her grandson Alexander -- only to be foiled by her own unexpected death. Within 4 1/2 short years, however, Alexander came to power in a coup, sanctioning the murder of his father and eventually becoming the arbiter of Europe, defeating no less than Napoleon. Similarly, Putin appears to have his own dynastic designs, albeit wrapped in a thinly democratic guise. He is expected to handpick his presidential successor for 2008, while even hinting that he might run again in 2012.

So what should we conclude? It would be a great mistake to see Russia's actions as inevitably heralding a new Cold War. But it would be an equal mistake to ignore the fact that Vladimir Putin has learned well how to play Catherine's impostor game. Just as Catherine became a master of playing the budding democrat abroad while being a despot at home and of professing pacifism while beating the drum of bellicosity across the globe, so too has Putin. He should be viewed accordingly.

Jay Winik's new book, "The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800," will be published next month. He is the author of "April 1865."

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