Charismatic legitimacy

In pre-revolutionary China, the Emperor’s legitimacy was said to derive from the ‘mandate of heaven’. On the one hand, proof that an Emperor had such a mandate came from his success. On the other hand, if the Emperor was unsuccessful, that was evidence that he did not have a mandate from heaven, in which case rebellion against him was justifiable.

In an article commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the February (March, new style) revolution, Russian conservative thinker Boris Mezhuev has developed a somewhat similar theory regarding the legitimacy of Russian government. Mezhuev notes that the revolution of February/March 1917 went beyond overthrowing Tsar Nicholas II and resulted in the complete destruction of the monarchy. Theoretically speaking, this didn’t have to happen, he says. It should have been possible to replace Nicholas with somebody else. Indeed, that was most people originally had in mind – some sort of revolution or coup d’etat which would result either in a change of government under the same Tsar, or in a substitution of one Tsar for another, while at the same time possibly producing a new more democratic form of constitutional monarchy. Why then, Mezhuev asks, did the revolution instead result in the creation of a republic?

The answer, he says, lay in Russians’ shallow understanding of monarchy and political legitimacy. Mezhuev calls this a ‘weakness of institutional thinking’. Russian government, he claims, was based upon a form of legitimacy which he terms ‘charismatic legitimacy’. This was focused on the personality of the ruler and perceptions of his success. A successful Tsar was legitimate. An unsuccessful one wasn’t.

Nicholas II’s fateful mistake, according to Mezhuev, was taking personal command of the army in August 1915. Although the Russian army ceased to retreat soon afterwards, and did win a major victory in 1916 in the form of the Brusilov Offensive, overall it failed to make significant progress with the Tsar as Supreme Commander. Nicholas thus came to be seen as illegitimate, in essence as lacking the ‘mandate of heaven.’ More than this, though, the monarchy as a whole lost its legitimacy. Failure in war ensured its downfall.

The same pattern repeated itself in Soviet times. The legitimacy of the Soviet system came to be associated with the head of the Communist Party. When the Party was led by someone who was clearly failing – Mikhail Gorbachev – not just Gorbachev, but communist rule as a whole lost its legitimacy. ‘People will look at the existing ruler’, Mezhuev writes, ‘and at the regime they lead, and ask: if you are like that, Mikhail Sergeevich, then we don’t need the USSR, and if you are like that, Nicholas II, then down with the monarchy’.

‘The problem’, continues Mezhuev, ‘is the idea that victory beats everything, that the victor should receive all. This idea destroys all institutions in a country, both democratic and monarchical. … Charismatic legitimacy is a recognition of the supremacy of the truth of revolution over the truth of historical legality’. A system founded on charismatic legitimacy carries the seeds of revolution within itself. Mezhuev concludes:

I am convinced that a republic can arise in Russia only as a result of a restoration, or more precisely, some sort of restoration or renewal of traditional monarchical legitimacy. Whether a monarch is restored or not isn’t important. What’s important is that people recognize that the power of tradition is more important than the power of force.

There is, I think, something to this. Basing the legitimacy of an entire system upon perceptions of a given ruler’s success is extremely risky. Furthermore, other sources of legitimacy such as elections can only go so far. Factors such as history, tradition, culture, and religion (which I imagine would fit within Mezhuev’s definition of ‘traditional monarchical legitimacy’) are extremely important.

Unfortunately for modern Russia, charismatic legitimacy remains an extremely important foundation of the political system. Indeed, the system almost guarantees this by concentrating so much power in the hands of the president. So far, Vladimir Putin’s enormous popularity has ensured that the political order established by Boris Yeltsin can survive. But what would happen if Russia had a president who not only lacked Putin’s charisma but was also an obvious failure? At that point, there is a danger that the whole system might come tumbling down.

If Mezhuev is right, therefore, the lesson of the Russian revolution may be that Russia’s long-term stability depends on how successful its rulers are in creating sources of legitimacy other than themselves. Given the catastrophic results of the revolutions of 1917, we must hope that they succeed.

A tale of two cities

‘Putin projects Russian might. A decaying town tells a different story’. So says Maria Antonova in an article in Sunday’s New York Times. Antonova comes from the town of Donskoi in Tula province, a few hours south of Moscow, and her grandfather was mayor in Soviet times. After the USSR collapsed, Donskoi’s industry collapsed too. Now, says Antonova, the town is ‘in a state of ruin’. Despite having a population of 30,000 ‘there is not a single café.’

With the help of Google, I decided to take a look. True enough, Donskoi appears to have just one restaurant (named ‘Plazma’), a very small shopping centre which on Google Street View seems to have a faux MacDonald’s burger bar named Mru, and the Viktoria café-bar on Ulitsa Lenina which portrays itself more as a bar than a café. So yes, eating and drinking choices in Donskoi are pretty meagre. Moreover, if you drive around the streets on Google Street View, it doesn’t look like a very prosperous place.

But Antonova doesn’t leave it at that. She goes on: ‘The problems here are common in provincial towns: potholed roads, ancient uitilities, and underfunded healthcare’. In this way, she portrays Donskoi as an example of all that is wrong in what is often called ‘Putin’s Russia’ – a land of decaying towns whose resources have been sucked away by Moscow to pay the war in Syria and for frivolities like the Sochi Olympics.

But is Donskoi typical?

Just three kilometres from Donskoi is another town – Novomoskovsk, the local administrative centre. With the help of Google, I was able to discover that: Novomoskovsk has several shopping malls including a swanky new 18,000 square metre shopping centre (the ‘First Shopping Centre’) on Trudovye Reservy Street. It has a 3-D cinema; a real MacDonald’s; multiple restaurants; and no shortage of cafés: the Sinyor Pomidor; the Pomegranate Seed; Lyuks; Robin Sdobin; and so on.

Pervyi shopping centre, Novomoskovsk

In short, while Donskoi does indeed appear to be a bit of a dump, Novomoskovsk (which is within walking distance of Donskoi) seems to be doing fairly well. Drawing sweeping conclusions about the state of modern Russia from the sole example of Donskoi is, therefore, rather misleading.

To draw a parallel, it’s a bit like when Donald Trump visits some particularly depressed rust-belt town in the USA and uses it to suggest that America as a whole is in terminal decline. The New York Times really dislikes that tactic, and spends a lot of its time denouncing it. It’s rather ironic that it should think that the same ploy is valid when it comes to Russia.

Radio interview

I was interviewed this morning on CBC Radio on the subject of the Russia-related scandal engulfing America. You can listen to it at the link here. I first appear at the 12.27 minute point, then there’s someone else, then me again.

—- If you have problems with the link I have given, go to

then click on where it says ‘listen to full episode’.


Book review: Holy Rus’

The Russian Orthodox Church is generally portrayed in the West as corrupt, deeply reactionary, and totally subordinate to the state. Yet while there is an anti-clerical element in Russia which shares this point of view, in general Russians regard their Church very favourably. Meanwhile, over the past 25 years the number of Russians self-identifying as Orthodox has increased from 31 percent to 72 percent of the population. How can we explain why Russians have turned in such large numbers towards an institution which is supposedly so rotten?

The obvious explanation is that the Russian Orthodox Church isn’t as bad as it is made out to be. This, in essence, is the argument of John Burgess’s new book Holy Rus’. Burgess, an American Calvinist theologian, has spent several years examining the Orthodox Church close up and seeing what it is that is actually doing. From this, he concludes that:

When we examine the Russian Orthodox Church only in terms of its compromises with and subservience to the state, we miss the extraordinary religious renaissance that is taking place on the ground far away from official meetings between the president and the patriarch. Major initiatives in education, social ministry, historical commemoration, and parish life are helping the Church reach deeply into Russian society. Whatever the Church’s faults and failures – and they are real – I have seen how Russia is the better for the Church’s efforts to bring its values into society.


Continue reading Book review: Holy Rus’


From a report in The Globe and Mail, 26 February 2017:

… in Sartana … Three residents who spoke to The Globe and Mail, including two whose homes were damaged by separatist rockets, said they heard sustained artillery and tank fire from the Ukrainian side before the separatists returned fire. … There have been similar reports from Avdiivka … several media reports suggested it was the Ukrainian side that first moved troops into the no-man’s land between the two front lines, drawing the ferocious response from the separatists.

Editorial in The Globe and Mail, 28 February 2017:

Less than a week after a supposedly friendly phone call between the two [Putin and Trump] at the end of January, the pro-Russian forces in the southeast of Ukraine – the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic – tripled their warfare against Ukrainian government forces. … the pro-Russian rebels of the Donbass region – or their masters in Moscow – seem to have calculated well. The rebels have now increased their pressure on a Ukrainian port, Mariupol, on the Black Sea, which is vitally important to Ukraine. … Mr Trump needs to respond in a sensible and forceful manner.

Explain that if you can.

Russia, the West, and the world

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