Peter the Third by Catherine the Great
was strangled, though they claimed he died
of piles, while her son Paul the First had his pate
by an inkwell both shattered and drastically dyed.
The Bolsheviks shot all the Romanovs, and
went on to kill many rogue Bolsheviks too,
after show-trials that Koestler helped us understand,
in a darkness at noon, an état with no coup.
This is the system endemic to in Russia
autocracy tempered by killing the ruler,
succession befalling, like houses of Usher,
where violent acts are believed to be cooler
than transfer of power that’s peaceful. Be grateful
that they now have given up stranglin’ and shootin’,
using methods more secret, but surely as hateful,
like poison that’s ordered by Vladimir Putin.
Simon Sebag Montefiore (“In russia, Power Has no Heirs,” NYT, January 12, 2009) explains Russia’s inability to develop a system of peaceful succession like the one that prevails in western democracies:
SUCCESSION — the handover of power from one leader to another — is the moment of truth for a political system. The American presidential election, for all its magnificent hucksterism, was once again a confirmation of the messy but noble dynamism of democracy — America does its handover of power with dignity (barring a few dubious presidential pardons). Yet in the 21st century there are three Great Powers, and two — Russia and China — boast authoritarian systems ruled by tiny cabals that decide the succession of political power through mysterious, invisible and almost magical rites. The succession in China is shamelessly undemocratic and secretive — but firm and orderly. Moscow is different, if only because the absence of working mechanisms for succession are a real threat to the international order… Catherine, a German with no claim to the throne, in 1762 overthrew her own husband, Peter III, who was subsequently strangled by two courtiers, Aleksei Orlov and his brother Grigory (who was also Catherine’s lover) in a drunken frenzy. The official announcement was that he had died of piles — prompting the French philosopher d’Alembert to joke, when invited by Catherine to visit, that he couldn’t go since he suffered from hemorrhoids, potentially fatal in Russia. Catherine’s heir, Paul I, so hated his mother that he created his law of strict male succession. He was a despotic, half-mad emperor with a fixation on military parades, and in 1801 was strangled and brained with an inkwell by his own courtiers. Yet his decision to codify the turnover of power ushered in an era of stable successions that lasted until 1917…Russia has had a functioning system for handing over power for only 121 years in its entire history: during the later years of the Romanov autocracy. Before Emperor Paul I established a legal structure in 1797, there was no law of succession: Czars simply chose their heirs. Both Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible undermined their own achievements by killing their sons and chosen heirs. After Peter’s death in 1725, the succession was decided through 70 years of palace coups and regicide, a system oft described by the witty phrase “autocracy tempered by assassination.” Strong, intelligent empresses like Elizabeth and Catherine the Great seized power, creating an age of omnipotent petticoats…. Having reached the old term limit last year, Mr. Putin chose and installed a trusted protégé, Mr. Medvedev, as successor. Now many expect the president to return the favor by resigning and permitting Mr. Putin’s return to office. In contortion worthy of medieval Byzantium, Mr. Putin, having handed over power but actually not handed it over at all, may imminently be officially restored to it. Vladimir Putin personifies the successes and flaws of today’s Russia. However superficial the nation’s “sovereign democracy” may be, his popularity is enormous and real. Any politician would envy his association with stability, prosperity, security, restored imperial power and vigorous state authority. It was always presumptuous to expect Russia, an ancient nation-state and proud empire of distinct culture with a tradition of autocracy, to become an Anglo-American democracy overnight — just as it is naïve to expect it in other parts of the world. The unspoken contract between ruler and subject is that in return for safety, prosperity and prestige, the Russians entrust power and cede democratic freedoms to their leaders.
© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/12/09