Many residents of St. Petersburg and other areas say that Russian President Vladimir Putin aspires to a historical stature equal to that of Peter the Great. Putin has at least one similarity with St. Petersburg's founder: he seeks to undertake the modernization of Russia by authoritarian means. It is time to stop referring to Putin's emerging system of power as "manipulated" or "managed democracy." Putin's system is better thought of as a soft-authoritarian form of rule, established and maintained by a stealth-like violation of the fundamental principles of democracy and the rule of law.
One St. Petersburg observer noted that to attain Petrine status, "Putin, like Peter, will have to transform the entire mouth of the Neva as well as all of Russia." (1) This is only a slight overstatement of the importance that the transformation of St. Petersburg's political matrix will have on Russia's fate. Stealth authoritarianism cannot be consolidated without first being established in St. Petersburg. The Russian president could ill afford opposition in St. Petersburg--Russia's second city, and Putin's native one--to his effort to install his twenty-first century version of Peter's modernizing authoritarianism. Russia's "northern capital," with its population of five million, constitutes nearly 4 percent of Russians, and the city has been a compass for the country's political direction for centuries. In pre-communist Russia, St. Petersburg served as the country's capital. In Soviet Russia, it often competed with Muscovites for the reins of leadership in the CPSU. In 1989, under Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, the former Leningrad dealt one of the greatest blows against a regional party leadership in the USSR by voting against CPSU candidates in the first semi-free elections to the USSR's Congress of People's Deputies. Along with Moscow, St. Petersburg was one of the first cities to shift power from the party to a popularly elected mayor. In post-Soviet Russia, Petersburg was ruled by one of the country's leading democrats, Anatolii Sobchak, and developed one of the most powerful parliaments in all Russia.
Now, as Putin moves to restore order alter years of Boris Yeltsin's rather unruly democracy, St. Petersburg has become the focus of political struggle in Russia, at both the federal and regional levels. At the federal level, for the first time since the tsars, the country's leader is a Petersburg native. As such, President Putin has staffed much of his administration and government with former associates and acquaintances from the city on the Neva. Two of the three most powerful bureaucratic-oligarchic clans are composed of Petersburgers. The liberals--led by United Energy Systems chairman and the father of Russia's nomenklatura privatization process Anatolii Chubais, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, and Economics and Trade Minister German Gref--are made up of former Putin colleagues and acquaintances from the period when he was deputy mayor to Sobchak between 1991 and 1996. The so-called chekisty, or chekists, are made up of former Putin colleagues from his days in the KGB in St. Petersburg and East Germany, as well as in Moscow, where he led the post-Soviet KGB successor, the Federal Security Service (FSB) from 1998-99.
As the 2003-04 federal election cycle approached, Putin could ill-afford to leave St. Petersburg independent of the Kremlin and the stealth-authoritarian system he wanted to build. In the run-up to the 1999-2000 federal election cycle, Moscow's mayor, Yurii Luzhkov, was brought to heel by Putin for organizing regionally based opposition to the dominant bureaucratic-oligarchic clan of the Yeltsin era. Putin had come to play a supporting, but vital, role in this so-called Family, first as the Yeltsin-appointed FSB chief, then as premier, and finally as the crowned presidential successor. The victory over Luzhkov and others in that federal election cycle and over regional leaders through federative reforms established Putin's hegemony on Russia's political stage and enforced a system of limited illiberal managed democracy. …