Faced with the possibility of losing his American colonies, King George III of England petitioned Catherine the Great of Russia for 20,000 of her crack troops to help squelch the rebellion. At the end of the 18th century, the Russian army under the command of the undefeated General en Chef Suvorov was unquestionably the best ground fighting force in the world. Catherine politely declined; had she chosen to do otherwise, the world today could be a very different place.
Catherine was no stranger to coups and revolutions; in fact, it was a palace coup in which she conspired with her husband’s Emperor Paul the First’s own lifeguards to have him killed that put her on the throne of all the Russias. Catherine was also an acute student of political theory and her correspondence with Voltaire on the subject is legendary. Her exposure to the ideas of the Enlightenment while still Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, a tiny principality in Northern Germany, plunged into the icy waters of Russian absolute monarchy when she first set foot in Russia as the Tsarevich’s 16-year-old bride. Her political philosophy thus continued to vacillate between liberalism and absolutism, always tempered with large portions of German pragmatism. Through this prism, she saw the American revolution as a sensible and well-thought out act of political courage against a weak and feckless sovereign. She appreciated the well thought-out, well planned, and well-executed aspects of the Founding Fathers’ opus magnum as Voltairean ideals realized through Anglo-Saxon hard work and persistence. In the second, closer to home revolution that came during her reign, this time in France, she saw as an ill-advised and regicidal endeavor by a bloodthirsty mob that was destined for failure. History has come to judge her kindly – she was right on both counts.
Catherine was a student of human nature and understood that the twin pillars of a government that would be accepted by the governed were legitimacy and competency. In her mind, her husband, while a legitimate ruler, was also a highly incompetent one, thus relinquishing his claim to the throne. In her own coup, which was meticulously prepared over many years and then flawlessly executed, she took great pains to appear and in fact become the legitimate ruler of Russia. She became fluent in Russian (a notoriously difficult language to master) and was a true convert to the Russian Orthodox Church. And then to top it off she ruled so competently that over two decades after her death Pushkin eulogized her by saying that after her “total darkness” had descended upon Russia. In this assessment, Pushkin proved to be both historically correct and prescient; Russia has had precious few if any legitimate and competent rulers after Catherine. Of the simultaneously illegitimate and incompetent kind she had, alas, way too many.
Finally, perhaps for the first time since Catherine’s passing in 1796, exactly 220 years ago, there is an emerging sense in Russia of competent leadership in the person of Vladimir Putin. Perhaps it is because of this fact that there is a concerted push underway in Russia to put a checkmark in the legitimacy bracket next to the competency bracket. This effort primarily takes the form of rapid rapprochement between the secular and the religious authorities in Russia since legitimacy of the ruler has traditionally flown from the Church and all Russian monarchs were considered divinely sanctioned. Additionally, serious forces, though yet not part of the mainstream, are calling for a constitutional assembly and a “land” assembly such as the one that crowned the first Romanov Tsar Mikhail after the time of troubles in 1613. The idea behind these conventions is to legitimate the rule of the current Russian government by tying it directly to the last legitimate ruler, Tsar Nicholas II. In effect, this would label the short-lived transitional government of Aleksandr Kerensky and the following Soviet and post-Soviet governments as a kind of “times of trouble”, similar in nature to the period in late 16th and early 17th centuries in Russian history when Russia was ruled by incompetent, illegitimate, and often foreign (Polish) impostors.
It is in view of this quest for legitimacy in their own government, that one may view with dismay the almost unanimous embrace that Russian political and intellectual circles are now granting to the spectacularly incompetent and illegitimate recently deceased Cuban tyrant Fidel Castro. Castro embodied the worst characteristics of the reckless Bolshevik usurpers, whose tactics he sought to imitate and whose 70-year rule over Russia is now being delegitimized by the same people who offer Castro glowing eulogies. Castro used brute force to overthrow the (no less illegitimate and incompetent) government of Fulgencio Bautista and proceeded to serve as a vicious attack dog for hire for the Soviets. The ill-gotten gains from this service he invested primarily in personal enrichment and the enrichment of his immediate followers and sycophants. His achievements of increased literacy and universal basic healthcare can only be seen in positive light when compared to other failed states in the hemisphere such as Haiti or Venezuela.
If Russian intellectuals and politicians wish their efforts to establish competent and legitimate government in Russia to be taken seriously, they need to renounce revolutionary adventurism not only on their own soil, but everywhere it has ever existed and yet exists today.