Earlier today, Russian President Putin did something very decent and honorable.
In St Petersburg, he inaugurated a statue in the memorory of Anatoly Sobchak.
The widow of Sobchak as well as the daughter were among those present at the ceremony.
Anatoly Sobchak was among the earliest and the firmest of democrats of Russia as the Soviet Union started to disintegrate.
As a matter of fact, in those days it was the democrat Anatoly Sobchak in Leningrad and the democrat Borus Yeltsin in Moscow and the more uncertain Michail Gorbachov in the Kremlin.And between Yeltsin and Sobchak, it’s fair to say that Sobchak was the most Western in both style and orientation.
He might not have been a perfect human being in every respect – at closer scrutiny, very few are – but he was definitely a committed democrat.
Looking back, his most significant contribution might be when he courageously and effectively organising opposition to the coup by Commununist hardliners in August 1991. While Boris Yelstin as Russian President climbed up on the tank and rallied opposition to the coup in Moscow, Sobchak fulfilled the same crucial role in Saint Petersburg without which it might have succeeded in Russia’s second city.
He courageously confronted troops and persuaded them not to enter the city, and served as a rallying point for anti-coup demonstrators in St Petersburg.
In the critical period between August and December 1991 following the coup’s failure, the Soviet Union was in a state of flux as there was uncertainty as to whether it would continue in some devolved form or collapse completely. During this period Sobchak moved to decisively break with the Soviet era.
Acting on the results of a referendum held earlier in the year, in which Saint Petersburg’s residents had voted to officially re-adopt their city’s name, Sobchak presided over a renaming ceremony on the 74th anniversary of the Bolshevik coup, 7th of November 1991.
The guest of honour at the dedication ceremony was none other than the then imperial claimant to Russia’s throne, Vladimir Cyril Romanov, Grand Duke of Russia. Sobchak let it be known that he supported the establishment of a Russian constitutional monarchy.
At that time, Sobchak emerged as Russia’s second most important political leader due to his crucial role in opposing the coup and because of Saint Petersburg’s importance.
Unfortunately Sobchak failed to consolidate his penultimate position and to reinforce Russia’s democratic prospects. Although an avowed constitutional monarchist, Sobchak in effect wrote Russia’s 1993 republican constitution, which provides for a strong executive president.
Instead of utilising his immediate post-coup prestige to invigorate Russia’s fledging democratic movement by moving into the national political sphere, Sobchak unfortunately became ensnared in the travails of Saint Petersburg politics. Failing to stem his city’s crime rate and accused of financial impropriety, Sobchak failed to win re-election in 1996.
For reasons I’m not familiar with the young Vladimir Putin was recruited to run his international office when Anatoly Sobchak was mayor of St Petersburg. And Putin in his turn recruited a young man called Alex Miller to carry his papers around.
That was a decade and a half ago.
Since years back Anatoly Sobchak is dead. After some difficult years, he died in 2000. But Putin is President of Russia and Miller is CEO of Gazprom and the two of them continue to operate in tandem in the same way as they did in those early days in Leningrad.
This spirit is a different one today than it was then.
I vividly remember the enthusiasm of Anatoly Sobchak for the democratic and European future he saw for his country and his city. For him, the death of the Soviet Union was a cause for jubilation.
In spite of all what can be said, and the differences that there probably would have been between the two men today, it was very decent and good of President Putín to honour the memorary of the man that brought him from his shady past to the circle of aspiring democrats of Russia.
When I’m in St Petersburg next time, a visit to the statue will be the most important part of my days.
He most certainly deserves to be remembered.
In my opinion, Russia today would have needed also Anatoly Sobchak.