Speaking at the opening of the Russian State Duma on Wednesday, Vladimir Putin finished his speech by quoting Pyotr Stolypin, saying:
More than a hundred years ago, addressing the deputies of the State Duma, Pyotr Arkadyevich Stolypin said: ‘We must all unite, and coordinate our efforts to support Russia’s supreme historical right – to be strong.’ When we remember these words or formulate them anew, we must always start from the position that every people and every country has this same right – to be strong.
Moreover, we never interpret this concept of being strong in terms of being a great power. Russia’s strength is within us, our nation, our people, our traditions and our culture, in our economy, in our vast territory and natural resources, and of course in our ability to defend ourselves. But most importantly, our strength is, of course, founded on the unity of our people.
We must always remember that the strength, all the strengths of Russia about which I just spoke, are the most important, possibly the key, condition of the preservation of our statehood and independence, and even of the very existence of Russia as a united, common, native home for all the peoples which inhabit it.
What stands out in this quote is how Putin develops Stolypin’s idea that Russia must be strong. First of all, he rejects any definition related to Russia as a great power. This isn’t the first time that he has denied that Russia has great power aspirations. In December 2007, for instance, he said that Russia ‘does not pretend to the role of superpower,’ a phrase he repeated almost word for word in April this year. Cynics might argue that these are just words, that Putin’s actions tell a different story. Nevertheless, it is interesting that he chooses repeatedly to say this.
In a note written by Stolypin (probably in 1907), the then Russian Prime Minister said:
Where governments vanquished revolution (Prussia, Austria), they succeeded not by resorting exclusively to physical force but by relying on strength, by taking a lead in institutional reform. For a government to devote all its creative talents to police measures – that is an acknowledgement of impotence by the ruling authorities.
Strength here is linked to ‘institutional reform’. After quoting Stolypin, Putin defines ‘strong’ in terms of people, culture, and economy. The stress is a little different, but the implication is similar. What matters is developing the internal sources of the country’s strength, which requires reform, not repression or external displays of power.
Unfortunately for Russia, Stolypin’s efforts to reform the country largely failed. In part this was Stolypin’s own fault. As Abraham Ascher notes at the end of his biography of Stolypin, he wanted to create a law-based state but couldn’t resist the temptation to rule autocratically when his policies ran into opposition. He thereby undermined his own reforms. As I pointed out in my last post, wanting to reform and actually being able to do so are not one and the same.