The Amnesties of Tsar Vladimir

It seems obvious that President Vladimir Putin has chosen to issue the recent amnesties of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Maria Alokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and probably the Greenpeace 30 as a way to generate good will on the eve of his great personal project, the Sochi Olympics, into which he has invested enormous amounts of money and effort. With the amnesties (and his successful intervention in the Syrian civil war on 9/11 of this year), Mr. Putin is almost certainly hoping to create good will to offset the harsh criticism and threats of boycott he has received in conjunction with the Olympics. Yet this amnesty has a long history in Imperial Russia, one well worth examining.

The choice to issue an amnesty becomes especially interesting when we look at it from the point of view of the Romanov tsars from the 17th through the 19th centuries who issued amnesties on important events to show their mercy and justice in the land. In this connection we can notice first that Putin did not issue the amnesties on political grounds, but rather on humanitarian ones: Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released so he could be with his ailing mother; the two Pussy Riot defendants were released in conjunction with the fact that they have small children. In addition to giving the amnesties on the eve of the Sochi games, the timing is also significant in coming a few days before the New Year’s and Christmas seasons, a traditional time for the Russian tsars to issue amnesties for criminals and political opponents, in order to show their Christian and kingly compassion.

An amnesty by the Russian tsars was typically accompanied by a “vsemilostiveishii manifest” (an all-compassionate manifesto), which showed the tsar’s mercy and justice. Typical tsars offered such amnesties at the time of their coronation or a military victory (e.g., Nystadt in 1721) or their eldest son’s wedding (e.g., in the case of the future Alexander II in 1841 (see the Brokhaus and Efron Encyclopedia). The goal was always to show the tsar’s mercy, not to provide a genuine corrective to political and social injustice.

Above all, the amnesty demonstrated the power of the tsar. He alone had the power to issue such an amnesty. He could provide a so-called “named” amnesty of particular individuals or an amnesty of all people in a particular category. Either way, however, the point was to show his magnificence, his beneficence, without casting any doubts on either his justice or his judgement.

In this case too, by following Tsarist historical precedents, Vladimir Putin may be seeking to show his magnificence. But to a modern reader with an interest in a transparent legal, economic and political systems, the amnesty looks dangerously close to another showy act designed to reconcile people to the appearance of one-man rule.

Manifesto of God's Mercy of Nicholas II

About Elizabeth Wood

Elizabeth Wood is Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
This entry was posted in Current events in the Putin Era, Historiography, Imperial Russia, Post-Soviet Russia, Teaching Russian History, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Amnesties of Tsar Vladimir

  1. Richard Wortman says:

    Elizabeth Wood reflects on the historical antecedents of Vladimir Putin’s pre-Olympics amnesty, articulating similarities and differences between the two. I certainly agree with her conclusion that Putin’s amnesty was inspired less by tsarist tradition than a desire to display his unlimited and unpredictable exercise of power in “another showy act designed to reconcile people to the appearance of one-man rule.” Putin has proved adept at defying expectations denied to ordinary mortals, such as flying in a glider with birds, cavorting with tigers, and displaying his torso in the media, and while Russian emperors also could disregard constraints when so inclined, they usually tried to remain within the limits of their representational strategies, the scenarios of their reigns. Putin on the other hand can pluck historical antecedents from the past at will: the assertive policies of the last effective tsarist statesmen, Peter Stolypin, an inauguration with elements of imperial coronations, participation in important ceremonies of the Russian Orthodox Church.

    An amnesty may also associate Putin with the Romanov dynasty. But his certainly had little in common with his predecessors’. The occasion was the twentieth anniversary of the Russian constitution, and his bill was passed, or was rubber-stamped, by the Duma, giving it a seal of formal legality. Tsarist amnesties in the nineteenth century were acts of rulers framed as Vsemilostiveishie Manifesty, manifestos as gestures of mercy and compassion directly from the throne. It is indicative that the last great manifesto, depicted in the illustration, was not a Vsemilostiveishii Manifest: Nicholas II intentionally avoided that designation and issued it as a decree to the Senate. The liberal opposition, particularly the Constitutional Democrats, had clamored for an amnesty, which was not a prerogative of the Duma, and Nicholas was not about to yield to their entreaties. Even a partial amnesty, he had declared in 1906, “would increase the ranks of revolutionaries.” By 1913, the revolution had ebbed, but the differences between Nicholas and the opposition had become if anything more intense and divisive. The amnesty on the occasion of the tercentenary of the dynasty was grudging and fell far short of the expectations of even moderate opinion. Putin’s amnesty, issued in part for a foreign audience, will enjoy little more approval among critically minded Russians. But his gesture is a flourish of a ruler proud of his unencumbered power and not threatened by the challenges of a hostile Duma or the broad political opposition that faced the last Romanov tsar.

  2. Wilson Bell says:

    Worth noting that the amnesties also have something in common with Stalin-era amnesties that freed from the Gulag mothers with “light” sentences and young children. So, we may consider Soviet antecedents, too.

  3. Alexandre Strokanov says:

    I think that parallels that Elizabeth Wood is trying to make between amnesties made by Russian emperors, and Nicholas II in particular, with the most recent amnesty in Russia can’t be taken seriously by professional historians or even by good students with some knowledge in Soviet/Russian legal history. Professor Wood fails to mention that amnesties were not only in Imperial Russia but there were much more such events in the Soviet period. To be more specific, there were 18 amnesties in the Soviet time and, as a rule, they were associated with different anniversaries (October Revolution of 1917 or Victory in Great Patriotic war). This tradition was also continued after 1991, and 16 amnesties did occur in the post-Soviet period, including 8 at the time of Putin’s presidency. The most recent amnesty was announced on occasion of 20th anniversary of the Russian Constitution of 1993. So, it is not more than just a tradition of Russian government to announce an amnesty on occasion of some anniversaries.

  4. Alexandre Strokanov says:

    Alexandre Strokanov says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    January 17, 2014 at 4:30 pm
    I think that parallels that Elizabeth Wood is trying to make between amnesties made by Russian emperors, and Nicholas II in particular, with the most recent amnesty in Russia can’t be taken seriously by professional historians or even by good students with some knowledge in Soviet/Russian legal history. Professor Wood fails to mention that amnesties were not only in Imperial Russia but there were much more such events in the Soviet period. To be more specific, there were 18 amnesties in the Soviet time and, as a rule, they were associated with different anniversaries (October Revolution of 1917 or Victory in Great Patriotic war). This tradition was also continued after 1991, and 16 amnesties did occur in the post-Soviet period, including 8 at the time of Putin’s presidency. The most recent amnesty was announced on occasion of 20th anniversary of the Russian Constitution of 1993. So, it is not more than just a tradition of Russian government to announce an amnesty on occasion of some anniversaries.
    Finally, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released from his prison term not because of the recent amnesty but in the result of his personal appeal to Putin that was supported by some members of German political and business elite (former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, in particular).

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