Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

‘God Save the Tsar!’

Far from Putin's power machinations in Moscow, a Romanov-inspired ball shows how little has changed.

It isn’t everyday that one gets to attend a ball, much less one in which “God Save the Tsar” is played by a full Russian orchestra in the heart of Washington, D.C.

Stranger things have happened, but it was without a trace of irony that the muscular anthem of the Russian Empire, first performed in 1833, rang out in Washington Saturday night, just days after Vladimir Putin announced that he, after a fashion, is the Tsar resurrected.

Not that anyone here at the 50th Russian Ball was much focused on it. A glittering event that seems to be reaching for the surreal atmospherics of the Romanovs’ famous last ball at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in 1903 (and so stunningly invoked in 2002’s Russian Ark), all of its proceeds go to St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Washington. Along with the titled  Russian guests, including Prince Nicholas Obolensky, Princesses Heidi and Isis Obolensky, and Count and Countess Vladimir Tolstoy, there were as many or more non-Russians on hand, nobility and otherwise (was that really former AG Rod Rosenstein?), dressed in finery spanning decades of fashion, and donning masks.

President Putin let his own mask down a bit last Wednesday when he announced a series of proposed constitutional changes that many inside and outside the country believe were designed to keep him in power, perhaps indefinitely. To put a finer point on it, his cabinet simultaneously resigned, leaving everyone confused as to whether they quit in protest, or it was part of some larger plan. He then sent his proposals to parliament on Monday, arguing that they aimed to bolster the role of parliament, and democracy. 

What they will do is weaken the power of the presidency (Putin’s final term ends in 2024), strengthen the role of the prime minister, and create a new power center at the State Council, which now serves as an advisory body that consists of regional governors and top federal officials. Critics say Putin could be aiming to roost there. 

As this waltz continues, a glint from an officer’s golden braid here, a swish of a satin gown there, history seems to replay like an endless fugue, albeit with different paternalistic orders, from the monarchial Romanovs to Soviet Stalinism, and post-Communist Putin today. Putin shows little of the self-destructive elitism of his royal forebears or the cruel iron fist of Uncle Joe. But he is clever and wily enough to pull the threads of greatness (mostly a fierce pride in Russian identity) from each to don the vestments of power for his own time. His popularity is still strong—though it has fallen to 68 percent in recent years—so if he plays his cards right, shepherding his proposals rather than ramming them through, he could end up being in power longer than Stalin’s 29 years, and he won’t have to kill millions of people to do it.

It is no surprise there was little love for the newest “Tsar” at Saturday’s ball. “A megalomaniac” said one attendee. Another predicted that young people will leave Russia in droves rather than suffer the grim economy and even grimmer future prospects under an endless Putin rule. Others compared last week’s announcement to Xi Jinping’s transformation to ruler for life in China two years ago. 

Ball Chairman Paul du Quenoy, who has been hosting the event for several years, began attending as a young Washingtonian who fell in with old society matrons, one of them an heir to the Romanovs. He says it is this wonder and grace that animates the ball, not so much an active wistfulness for the pre-Revolution empire. But maybe there is a little of that too. Whatever the case, there seems to be a resignation that history, at least in Russia, is on one massive feedback loop. Today, “God Save the Tsar” evokes national pride and nostalgia, but it will be a long time—maybe another generation—before we know how Putin’s self-indulgent reign will leave its mark on Russia.




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