Putin has avoided the issue of Russia’s future by making vague references to a mythical past. He summons an imaginary millennium of Russian Christianity, defining himself as the heir of a 10th-century ruler of Kiev whom Russians call Vladimir. Putin had a monument built in Moscow to this ancient Vladimir, although his namesake never visited the city, which did not exist in his time. Best-selling author and religious leader Tikhon Shevkunov, who serves as one of Putin’s ideologists, associates the two rulers as favorites of God by saying that “he who really loves Russia and wishes it well can only pray for Vladimir, placed at the head of Russia by God’s will.”
The history of the ancient ruler, a pagan Scandinavian slave trader named Valdemar, teaches a different lesson: Charismatic men can establish states, but only principles of succession can sustain them. As ruler of the city of Novgorod, Valdemar (according to Arab sources) converted to Islam, the better to trade with his Muslim neighbors. Before Valdemar moved on Kiev, he sought armed assistance in Scandinavia from his relatives. Having taken the city, he oversaw the sacrifice of Christians to the pagan thunder god. Valdemar later converted to Christianity, which gave Kiev access to written language and traditions of law. What had been a Viking trading post became a European capital (as it is today: of Ukraine).
Valdemar, known in Kiev by the Slavic name Volodymyr, felt threatened by his own family. He imprisoned his son Sviatopulk and was marching against his son Yaroslav when he died. The war of succession that ensued brought in everyone from the Poles to the Pechenegs. Only after two decades and the death of 10 of his brothers did Yaroslav establish himself as his father’s heir. Known as “the Wise,” Yaroslav codified law but identified no principle of succession for his realm. The lands of his Kievan domain were divided among the clans of his descendants, who were easily defeated by the Mongols in the 13th century.
The German sociologist Max Weber identified two ways charismatic leaders can institutionalize their power in durable states: through custom (as in a monarchy) and through law (as in a modern democracy). The Mongols had a customary succession principle, which meant that the death of a leader required the presence of the family to ensure continuity. It is thanks only to an accident in the Mongol succession that there is European history — and for that matter American history. No European army at the time could have withstood the force of Asia, but the Mongols’ commander, Batu Khan, was summoned back to the Mongol capital at a critical moment to negotiate the succession among his relatives. Customary succession always involves uncertainties of this kind, which can slow or halt the progress of empire. Mongol power never returned to Europe.
Contemporary China appeared to be on the brink of finding a reliable succession principle, one that would have assured its durability and therefore its power. But it seems that President Xi Jinping and the Chinese parliament forgot the lesson of Asia’s greatest conquerors when they enabled permanent rule by undoing China’s succession principle this month. Now the Chinese, like the Russians, have to think in terms of the death of a person rather than the functioning of a system.
For a time, it seemed that the great states of Eurasia might be moving in the direction of modern, democratic succession. Now it appears that the legacy of communism, whose weakness was precisely the absence of a succession principle, is reasserting itself. In the 20th century, communist revolutionaries in Russia and China dodged the issue of state continuity by saying they were not leaders of a state, but the avant garde of a world revolution still to come and a social transformation to be achieved at home. Lenin, Stalin and Mao took power by claiming to see the future and held it by eliminating rivals whose views they defined as unorthodox. Once revolutionary energy in the Soviet Union dissipated and revolutionary prospects dimmed, Leonid Brezhnev held on to power by promising comrades not to kill them and trying himself not to die. This brought the Soviet Union to the era that Russians remember as “stagnation,” the time of Putin’s youth, and to its eventual collapse. Communist China seemed to have squared the circle by introducing term limits for its supreme leader, an experiment that looked successful — until now.
As he approaches his third decade in power, Putin proposes that the solution to Russia’s current stagnation is to spread the swamp around the world. His notion is that Europeans should be more like Russians, trading the benefits of the rule of law for empty self-praise and specious claims of eternal victimhood at the hands of outsiders. If Russians are to believe that there is no alternative to faked democracy, then real democracy has to seem impossible in principle, and everywhere. Russian foreign policy is anti-democratic, using televised propaganda, cyberwar and other tools to spread both cynicism and reasons for cynicism, taking advantage of open societies elsewhere to promote aspiring authoritarians. Russia’s support of the anti-democratic far right in Europe and the United States is a direct result of its failure to establish democracy at home.
Democracy is a procedure, under assault in America and elsewhere, that allows citizens a sense of confidence about the stability of their country. Without a succession principle, the flaws of individual rulers are magnified by the anxiety of everyone else. In democracy, our inescapable errors can be blamed on our elected officials, whom we can criticize and then replace. When the president of the United States admires both Putin and Xi, and muses about being leader for life, as President Trump did this month, the practical virtues of democracy have never been clearer.