Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 90

Vladimir Putin was inaugurated as Russian president yesterday in a Kremlin ceremony attended by the leading representatives of the current Russian political elite, former top Soviet officials and foreign ambassadors. The guests ranged from top Russian tycoons and power brokers such as Roman Abramovich, head of the Sibneft oil company, and Boris Berezovsky, founder of the LogoVAZ automotive empire and a leading media mogul, to Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and last Soviet president, and Vladimir Kryuchkov, the last head of the Soviet KGB and a co-conspirator in the August 1991 abortive hardline putsch.

The eclectic nature of the guest list mirrored one underlying theme of Putin’s swearing-in and other events yesterday linked to the inauguration–the need for unity and stability and, correspondingly, the need to reconcile the political contradictions in Russia’s history. Thus Putin, on the one hand, stressed in his inauguration speech that his swearing-in marked the first time that “supreme authority” in Russia had been transferred “according to the will of the people, lawfully and peacefully”–a point underscored by the participation of Boris Yeltsin, his predecessor, in the ceremony. This demonstrated that Russia is becoming “a truly modern democratic state,” Putin said. On the other hand, he also declared: “We have to know our history as it was and learn lessons from it, we are to always remember those who created the Russian state, worked for its dignity, 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” (Russian agencies, May 7). This emphasis on historical continuity was also underscored when Putin left the swearing-in ceremony to greet the Kremlin honor guard on the Kremlin grounds. As one observer noted, this scene–recorded, along with the other events, exclusively by Russian state television–was strongly reminiscent of a scene in “The Barber of Siberia,” the recent film by the director and monarchist Nikita Mikhalkov, which depicts Aleksandr III greeting the Kremlin honor guard (Agence France Presse, May 7).

Indeed, while yesterday’s ceremony was less pompous and coronation-like than Yeltsin’s 1996 inauguration, it nonetheless contained elements of the earlier presidency’s blend of democratic populism with Tsar-like paternalism. Thus, for example, while Putin in his inaugural speech thanked Russians for entrusting him with the “supreme state post in the country,” and promised to govern “openly and honestly,” he also said that he understood the immense responsibility he had taken on, given that the head of state in Russia always has been and always will be “the man who is responsible for everything that happens in the country” (Russian agencies, May 7). This comment would not be encouraging for those who hope for an eventual constitutional reform which would delegate some of the head of state’s immense powers to other branches of government.

And while the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Aleksy II, did not participate in yesterday’s ceremony, as some democratic activists had feared (see the Monitor, May 1), Putin later in the day participated in a religious ceremony at the Kremlin’s Annunciation Cathedral presided over by the Orthodox Patriarch. Aleksy asked “to remember about the great responsibility of a governor to the people, the history and the Lord, and to take permanent material and spiritual care for the prosperity of the people” (Russian agencies, May 7).

During a Kremlin reception last night, Putin said that his administration would not promise a “miracle” in the near future, but was ready to “get down to business professionally and quickly” and work for “the dignity of the country and the well-being of its citizens.” He also praised Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, both of whom were in attendance, for their service (Russian agencies, May 7).

Putin also spoke to World War II veterans who attended a concert last night at the Kremlin. The victor over Nazi Germany, he said, “unites and reconciles everyone in Russia, all ideological and age differences are subdued by its magnitude” (Russian agencies, May 7), Today Putin visited the scene of a historic World War II tank battle in the Kursk region, where he presided over a wreath-laying ceremony at the statue of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who presided over the Nazi surrender in Berlin on May 9, 1945 (Russian agencies, May 8). The country will celebrate “Victory Day” tomorrow.