After four months of tryouts to mixed reviews, the Putin Era opened Sunday in Moscow with high symbolism and medium pomp. Despite the surface polish, the production is still very much a work in progress.
The pageantry of the inauguration linked Vladimir Putin’s Russia to the Soviet and imperial past. Guests at the oath of office included Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union; Vladimir Kryuchkov, the last head of the Soviet KGB and a conspirator in the failed August 1991, coup against Gorbachev; and Boris Yeltsin, the elected president of Russia who named Putin prime minister less than a year ago.
After the swearing-in, Putin reviewed the Kremlin honor guard and attended services at the Cathedral of the Assumption, where Russia’s tsars were crowned. “We have to know our history as it was and learn lessons from it,” said Putin in his formal remarks. “We are always to remember those who created the Russian state, worked for its dignity and made it a powerful and mighty one. We shall preserve this memory and the continuity of times. We shall hand over to our descendants all the best from our history.” Putin later told World War II veterans that their triumph “unites and reconciles everyone in Russia. All ideological and generational differences are subdued by its magnitude.”
Some critics might say Putin carried the theme of inclusion too far. Prominently in attendance at the Kremlin were Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich, oligarchs of vast wealth and power whose influence on the country’s economic and political life is almost universally considered malign. As acting president, Putin promised to curb their power through a “dictatorship of the law” that would create “one rule for all.” But so far, he has allowed Berezovsky and Abramovich to acquire control of most of the country’s aluminum production, and he has protected Berezovsky from a Swiss investigation into his affairs.
Russian democrats and Westerners see Putin’s KGB background, his political alliance with the Communists and his brutality toward the Chechens as possible indicators of a secretive, opportunistic and autocratic style of government. If such a government were to take hold, and to accept men like Berezovsky and Abramovich as partners, Russia’s political and economic development could be stunted for decades. Putin’s handling of the oligarchs will be an early and frequent test of his character, abilities and intentions.