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Ian Garner: As Putin marks nearly 25 years in power, the Russian ruler has just been crowned a living god

Commentary

In May 1896, Nicholas II was crowned the last emperor of Russia in Moscow. An elaborately choreographed and opulent display hosted in a Kremlin cathedral affirmed that he was divinely ordained with absolute, autocratic power. Part man and part god. From that moment on, Nicholas was considered all but omnipotent. 

Yet the celebration around the tsar was simultaneously marked by tragedy and superstition. During the post-coronation festivities, almost 1,300 people were killed in a crowd crush just a few kilometres from the Kremlin in Khodynka. Contemporary observers interpreted the tragedy as a dangerous omen for Nicholas II. The new tsar’s reign, it was claimed, would be cursed. Twenty-two years later, the tsar and his family were murdered by Bolshevik revolutionaries: the godlike leader was brought back down to earth. Then buried in it.

A century on, Vladimir Putin’s recent inauguration for his fifth term as president last week took place with all the pomp and circumstance of Nicholas’ coronation. The president-elect strode through the now familiar Rococo halls, flanked by guards in elaborate dress uniforms, as his elites looked on approvingly. Putin took the same presidential oath and affirmed again that he would lead Russia for yet another term of office. All seemed to be just as it ever was under Russia’s leader, who has now been in continuous positions of power leading the country for nearly 25 years.

Yet in a worrying new turn, the language and ritual around the president’s latest—and inevitable—coronation suggest that Putin is now positioning himself as a ruler imbued with the same omnipotence afforded to his tsarist predecessors. However, there is as yet no indication that the public is willing to overthrow the 21st-century tsar as they did to his 20th-century forebear. 

After taking the presidential oath, Putin put the “special military operation”—as he still calls the war against Ukraine—front and centre in his inauguration speech. Praising veterans and victims of the war, he explained that a “difficult pivotal period” today—presumably indicating the economic travails and large death toll of the present—would lead to the accomplishment of “everything we have planned for the long term.” Under his guardianship, the newly crowned president claimed, 21st-century Russia would reach the “glorious” and “insurmountable heights” of its “thousand-year-long history.”

Putin then retired to the Kremlin’s Annunciation Cathedral, just yards from the site of the last tsar’s coronation, for a thanksgiving service led by the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Kirill. At the last presidential inauguration in 2018, Kirill was far more restrained, describing Putin merely as “a person devoted to the Fatherland” and to spiritual leadership. This time, Putin was bestowed with extraordinary and, in the history of the post-Soviet state, unparalleled blessings. Kirill, Russia’s most important religious figure, expressed a wish that the leader would reign until “the end of the century.” The Russian word vek—century—is imbued with religious connotations, suggesting equally an entire epoch or historical era as it does one hundred years. Putin, Kirill seemed to suggest, would no longer be bound by earthly constraints. Kirill then hoped aloud that Putin would become a new Alexander Nevsky, the mythologized and beatified Muscovite ruler who defeated a force of Catholic invaders—purportedly saving the nation—in the 13th century. In recent years, Putin has increasingly likened himself to such mythical military leaders. In 2022, the president compared himself to Peter the Great, lauded by Russians as their greatest military leader and the founder of the modern state. Just like Peter, Putin contended, he was claiming Russia’s “historical lands” through war. 

Both Kirill and Putin choose their public comments very carefully. The comparisons to Nevsky and Peter, and the suggestion that Putin might reign for an entire religious-historical epoch, are not an accident. Rather, they signal a new era in Putin’s public image: one in which he is to become a sort of demi-God, leading his flock and his country into an era of unparalleled greatness. One in which the distinctions between the sacred and the secular have all but evaporated. 

Putin, of course, came to power at the turn of the century promising a new era of national strength after the humiliating economic and social collapse of the 1990s, when Russia defaulted on its national debt and lawless mafia gangs ran riot. 

Yet, despite claims to the contrary, back then Putin was never at the centre of a cult of personality. He was certainly elevated to the status of extraordinary, over-achieving everyman: a teetotaler where Russian men drowned in alcoholism; a muscular judoka and hockey player who could beat the pros; a talented horse rider and submarine archeologist par excellence. The eroticized object of fawning pop and rap songs, Putin was turned into a consumer product: somebody—something—to be desired and imitated. But, this younger Putin was closer to a retail politician—a man who took the tough decisions to advocate for Russia—than a god. Any Russian man could aspire to be like Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia attend a prayer service following an inauguration ceremony at the Kremlin’s Annunciation Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, May 7, 2024. Alexey Maishev/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

But over the last half-decade, that consumerist Putin has gradually receded from view. At first, as he visibly aged, it seemed that the leader was striving to emulate another post-Soviet leader, the Kazakh autocrat Nursultan Nazarbayev, in painting himself as an avuncular grandfather of the nation. Some even saw it as a possible prelude to him stepping back from the forefront of public view. The all-action, macho Putin of the 2000s transformed into a sedate figure who kept his appearances to the Kremlin, in the presidential office, and to key rituals like the annual Victory Day parade. This second era of Putinism seemed to cast the leader as a steady figure—the only figure—with the wisdom to guide the ship of the nation through turbulent times. A sage leader, perhaps, but not a saint. 

But as religious and mythical nationalist descriptions of Putin have increasingly emanated from the Kremlin and Orthodox Church, increasing subsections of Russia’s patriotic public have embraced the president as a living god. Today, in social media groups that give news updates on Ukraine, ordinary users today regularly interject with commentary that sanctifies the leader. “God is with us,” they might claim to hundreds of thousands of members, or “Putin is sent by God.” The latter-day tsar is, if the likes of the most extreme thinkers such as Alexander Dugin are to be believed, leading a religious, apocalyptic crusade. When these Russians hear Patriarch Kirill’s comments, they do not react with mockery or disbelief. They are the prime targets for a state-led campaign to sanctify Putin. 

While the tragedy of Khodynka marred Nicholas II’s reign from the start, the enormous Russian death toll—50,000 confirmed dead, and likely many more—sustained by Putin’s army at the Ukrainian front is instead seen as necessary suffering in order to win a much greater, historic victory.

Russia, its leader, and its public are now at a dangerous inflection point. Putin has never so concertedly attempted to deify himself. When previous dictators have tried to do so, mass hysteria, ideology triumphant over reason, and terrible crimes justified in the name of state religion have followed. Many Russians may remain skeptical of the absurdities of Putinist rhetoric, but there is every chance a core of zealous peers could yet drive Putin—and their country—onto as-yet-unimagined atrocities in Ukraine and beyond.

Michael Geist: Jewish students have the right to feel safe on campus

Commentary

This is a post I never thought I would need to write in 2024. I have been a law professor at the University of Ottawa for nearly 26 years, and the principle that all students, regardless of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation have the right to be safe and feel safe on campus and in classrooms has been inviolable and accepted as central to our academic mission. Indeed, over the years I have seen and supported colleagues’ efforts to ensure that we practice what we preach on inclusivity and ensuring a community free from harassment and discrimination. I believe the same to be true at academic institutions across the country. Yet since October 7th, something has changed.

Last week, Jewish students from multiple universities appeared at a national press conference and before the House of Commons Justice Committee. They provided deeply troubling accounts of why many Jewish students are no longer safe—or do not feel safe—on campus and in some classrooms. The students spoke of physical violence, threats, and harassment simply for being Jewish. When asked, each said they did not feel safe on campus and warned of “the normalization of antisemitic rhetoric through inaction by university administrators, who fail to use even their own policies and their own code of conduct to act against antisemitism on their own campuses.”

The response to these accounts has frankly shocked me. If this was any other group, I believe the testimony would spark urgent calls to address the concerns alongside strong commitments from politicians and university leaders pledging to ensure that all feel safe. Yet in the days since the hearing, some have argued that while there is a right to be safe, there is no right to feel safe. I’ve seen professors criticize students from their own faculty, even as those students provided evidence of exclusion or discrimination from classes or public spaces on campus. Others argue that the lack of safety is deserved since those students’ views or affiliations make them a legitimate target or that feeling safe creates an unworkable standard.

To be absolutely clear, Jewish students have the right to be safe and feel safe just like any other student. There is no shortage of stories and studies focused on incidents involving LGBTQ students feeling unsafewomen feeling unsafeBlack students feeling unsafe, and Muslim students feeling unsafe. I can never recall anyone responding to those issues by arguing that those students have no right to feel safe or by dismissing their concerns on the grounds that somehow their fears are unwarranted or are being used as a weapon against others.

That only Jewish students seemingly elicit this response is antisemitism. Indeed, open antisemitism, Jewish exclusion or hate, denial of the right to hold legitimate views on the right of Israel to exist, and to express one’s political beliefs or religion are under active threat right now. It matters little that some Jewish students claim to still feel safe since there is ample evidence that many do not in communities in which policy dictates that everyone has the right to feel safe.

There is good reason for policies that emphasize the need for students to feel safe. Studies unsurprisingly find that there is a correlation between safety and academic performance as students cannot be expected to perform at their best if they feel unsafe. Further, safety is directly linked to mental health, which has become an increasing focus of concern for universities. Students’ freedom of expression and freedom of association rights are also directly implicated as safety fears often lead to the uncomfortable decision to hide one’s identity, restrict participation in campus activities, or refrain from speaking out. You cannot argue in favour of expression—as I see some doing in the context of some encampments on campus that have violated university policies—and then simply ignore or dismiss the expression and association rights of Jewish students.

I write this post having just concluded teaching an annual joint course on global technology law with students and faculty from the University of Ottawa, University of Haifa, and Bocconi University. The course brings together an incredible array of participants with different backgrounds, perspectives, and religions. It once again affirmed the importance of academic exchange and why calls for boycotts are so wrongheaded. But I mention the course not because of those values, but to note that this was the first time in ten years that I was forced to remove publicly available classroom information due to safety concerns. In fact, it was also the first time that campus security was alerted to the existence and location of the class.

Safety was a real issue, and the experience reinforced in a personal way that some students and faculty do not feel safe on campus right now. Universities are failing to uphold their own policies, and, in doing so, failing to live up to their own ideals as inclusive institutions in which all feel welcome and safe.

This column originally appeared at michaelgeist.ca.