The comparison of Putin to a tsar is a heuristic aimed at social mobilization, but this comparison is simple and politically charged enough to be misconstrued. 

How and why does Navalny use the term “tsar”? 

With its long-standing history of authoritarian government, a comparison of a political leader to a tsar is never too far from reach in contemporary Russia. President Putin, with his authoritarian governance and long time in office, is often referred to as a tsar by opposition-minded people who use the term with a negative connotation. 

Alexei Navalny, as a prominent figure in the opposition movement, taps into this analogy as well. Navalny’s political career started more than 25 years ago, but he rose to true popularity in 2017, when his team released the “Don’t call him ‘Dimon’” video uncovering the “corrupt empire” of then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. It had 40 million views, and triggered (directly or indirectly) several waves of anti-corruption protests. 

A selection of section headings in the text version of Navalny’s most recent investigation.

Since the early days of his YouTube channel, Navalny decorated his videos with thumbnails of Putin in regalia and referred to him as a tsar for his regular power abuses. But the last investigation on Putin’s holiday “Palace” (which gained 110 million views in total) culminated in showing the lavish, extravagant side of Putin’s tsardom. In the video, Navalny disguised Putin as a French rococo monarch visually; ridiculing him. This marked a transition from statements of power abuses, which appealed to the rational mind, towards a more emotional locus, reaching a far wider audience with a more profound, mobilizing societal impact. The mass protests, largest in recent history, serve as proof.

Protesters in St. Petersburg on January 31st 2021 captured by Anton Vaganov

In what other ways is the image of a tsar invoked, domestically? 

On the other hand, less (obviously) oppositional-minded people, especially the rural population, conceive of Putin-tsar as a benevolent representative of the folk surrounded by malicious officials who get everything wrong. Putin as a  leader, then, is understood to transcend the inefficient and indifferent bureaucracy layers to get things done. This belief has been around for a while and researchers call it “naive monarchism.” Putin frequently engages in staged visits to rural regions to soothe their grievances. People often criticize the system’s inefficiency along the following lines: “Nothing is done before the Tsar intervenes.”

What does it mean for foreign audiences? 

To foreign audiences, the term “tsar” brings about another set of associations: those of darkness, lawlessness, and abuse. This is not to say that these are not somewhat accurate associations; the January 23rd and 30th protests only confirm that this is a politically charged term. Nonetheless, for readers unfamiliar with initiatives in Russian civil society, the image of a despotic tsar is a hopeless and disempowered one; ultimately they do not see a way out for the country. David von Drehle, convinced by his Putin-tsar analogy in a Washington Post op-ed, concludes: “[Russian people] are content to survive, to endure, when the breadth and richness of their beautiful land offers so much more.” Aside from some brilliant and hilarious titles (A Tsar is Born), the area of English-language comparisons of Putin to tsar offers nothing more than a grim outlook.  

What does academia think? 

Two US political scientists, Sean Cannady and Paul Kubicek, carried out perhaps the most thorough historical comparison in this area. Their 2012 paper outlines the parallels in Russian nationalist rhetoric and their alignment with authoritarian politics in the rule of Vladimir Putin and Tsar Nicholas I.

Both Nicholas I and Putin were forced to respond to the Western ideas of liberalization, and both found ways to ultimately twist the meaning of “nation” and “democracy” to fit their authoritarian ideas, putting themselves and the state in the center stage of the Russian society. Cannady and Kubicek write: “The Russian state has been able to distract its citizens from the undemocratic nature of Russian society by equating Russianness with love, respect, and the need for authority.” This insight helps to provide a  deeper understanding of Putin’s policies that would otherwise have been hard to see as contemporaries. But we are still left with the question: what do we do now, in the wake of social upheaval and increasing desire for social change in Russia? 

How do we move on from here? 

Thus we can see that the analogy of Putin as a tsar, while useful for large-scale societal mobilization in the case of Navalny’s protests, minimizes the agency and power that belongs to both the working class domestic population and foreign readers. Instead, I would like to suggest that we, as a global community, collectively envision specific improvements that would make Russia a better place. Rather than focusing on what is – after all, it is clear to everyone at this point how corrupt and brutal Putin’s regime is – we may focus on what will come, drawing inspiration from moments of profound change: the democratizing revolutions of 1825 and 1905, and of course the national revolution of 1917. As for Putin, we should see him less as a figurehead, and more as one of the (key) players in people’s struggle for their country.

Historian Michael Temkin writes: “Thinking historically is not about finding discrete past events that might resemble things happening today, but rather trying to understand how the world came to be what it is – and how it could be different.” In this vein, let us learn from the past, embrace our responsibility – as a global community of students – and contribute to a better world through targeted policies, spreading of accurate information, and envisioning specific development vectors once a moment of a great historical contingency arrives once again. 

About the author: 

Margo Levitova studies cultural anthropology and philosophy of art at Minerva University. Having spent the last 10 years between Berlin, San Francisco, and Buenos Aires, she still has a soft spot (and a decent amount of passion) for Russian politics.