Where is Augustus?

Written in January 2000 this article is a desperate call for real leadership and reform in Russia. I was unconvinced then by Vladimir Putin, and we now know that his "reforms" have been centralising and authoritarian. Russia still awaits a hero of Augustan proportions.

If Boris Yeltsin is Mark Antony, where is Augustus?

Where is Augustus?

By Quentin Langley

Dateline 03 January 2000

Just occasionally history throws forth a hero of epic proportions, who rises to the task at hand, and changes the world. But of all such heroes none, not Elizabeth I, not Abraham Lincoln, not Winston Churchill, can stand as high as the kneecap of the Emperor Augustus. He took a failing republic and turned it into a functioning empire. For more than a century his family ruled the known world. For four hundred years his successors took his name as a title. And at the dawn of the twentieth century the Emperor of Germany and the Emperor of Russia still used local corruptions of his name as their titles.

So which country is it today that most needs a leader of Augustine proportions? The answer can be found in Shakespeare\'s play, Julius Caesar. When the conspirators decided to kill Caesar they discussed the possibility of killing Mark Anthony too. Nobody even considered killing Octavius, the teenager who was to become Augustus. They decided against killing Anthony - and it was a fatal mistake.

I like to imagine that 2,000 years later a group of conspirators had a similar discussion about whether they should arrest and silence Boris Yeltsin as well as Mikhail Gorbachev. Whether they formally considered it or not, their failure to do so cost them their coup.

So if Gorbachev is Julius Caesar - the man who tried, and failed, to remake the world - and Boris Yeltsin is Mark Anthony - the charismatic playboy who could not stop partying long enough to carry forward his revolution - where is Augustus?

That is the biggest question which faces the world today. Will Russia create the legal structures of capitalism and achieve the growth rate of China or South Korea? Or will it remain a cross between the Fabian induced poverty of India and a nightmare vision of a giant Sicily?

Is Putin the modern Augustus? We can only hope so. None of the liberal
reformers - Gaidar, Nemtsov, Kirienko or even Yavlinsky - has the charisma to succed Yeltsin. Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky need to be defeated. The best hope for the 2000 election was always that one of the populists would top the poll and make a deal with the reformers to defeat Zyuganov in the second ballot. At one stage it looked as though that populist would be Lebed. And then perhaps Luzhkov. Now it seems certain to be Putin. Perhaps this is for the best. He certainly seems to have more confidence from the committed liberals than either of the others.
We should take this as a sign that he will combine nationalism with a commitment to economic liberalism. Not a bad combination: it worked for Thatcher and Reagan. If the framework of free market capitalism can be built - for the first time - in Russia, even against the background of internal repression, then like Chile and South Korea, Russia will eventually become a decent place to live. If Putin can achieve that, then maybe he has something of Augustus in him.

Farewell, Boris Nicolaievich. Your downfall was in a bottle, not an Egyptian bedchamber, but like Anthony you lacked the focus to remake the world. Yet, like Anthony you acted well when your time arose. Three times you defeated Communism, when no other Russian had ever done so, and, perhaps, none other could have done so in your stead. But perhaps your greatest service to your country will turn out to be the manner and timing of your departure.

Copyright Quentin Langley 03 January 2000

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