Anatoly Sobchak
Russian Democrat and Constitutional Monarchist

NameSobchak, Anatoly Aleksandrovich (1937 - 2000)
Also known asAlternative spellings: Anatolii Alexandrovich
BiographyAn important reason why post-communist Russia has experienced difficulty in breaking with its totalitarian past has been the absence of politicians whose power bases that are not derived from Soviet era institutions. Although contemporary Russia has the attributes of a pluralist democracy much of the substance of the previous Soviet era has unfortunately carried over. For example, mainstream contemporary Russian political parties are really vehicles for wealthy oligarchs who used their previous senior positions within the Soviet nomenklatura to acquire monopolies and subsequently dominate the economy.
Another key legacy of the Soviet era affecting contemporary Russia is the prominence of former KGB officials within the post-Soviet elite (most notably President Vladimir Putin himself who is a former KGB agent). Consequently Russia currently lacks a strong civil society independent of the state which is conducive to democracy.
In this context an obituary of Anatoly Sobchak (1937 to 2000) is warranted because an analysis of his failed political career and the ramifications of his premature death helps to explain why post-communist Russia is experiencing difficulty in terms of breaking with its totalitarian past and why the danger has arisen of its authoritarian present being consolidated.
Anatoly Sobchak was born in Saint Petersburg in 19371 but was raised in Chita, Siberia. Sobchak earned his law degree at 'Leningrad' State University in the mid 1950s. He practiced law between 1960 and 1964 in the Stravropol region, Southern Russia, where it is rumoured that he met Mikhail Gorbachev, who was at the time an up and coming local Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) apparatchik. Gorbachev became the CPSU regional secretary of Stavropol in 1971.1 As a matter of principle this obituary does not recognise the legitimacy of the name 'Leningrad' and will only refer to it in direct quotation marks.
As a lawyer Sobchak may have gained the young Gorbachev's attention because he actually believed in the rule of law. Due to this conviction Sobchak declined to join the CPSU and his doctoral research was rejected in 1973 for ideological reasons. Gorbachev's move to Moscow in 1978 to become Soviet agricultural chief, elevation to the CPSU's Central Committee and Politburo respectively in 1979 and 1980 may have helped facilitate Sobchak's PhD being accepted in 1982 and his appointment as a professor of economic history at 'Leningrad' State University in 1983.
Certainly Gorbachev's ascension to the post of CPSU General Secretary in March 1985 augured well for Sobchak. As a lawyer by profession, Gorbachev's was taken by the invalid notion that the principle of the rule of law (Rechtsstaat - government of laws) could co-exist with and indeed complement the CPSU's continued dominance. Although Sobchak recognised the fundamental disconnect between effectively applying Rechtsstaat and continued CPSU dominance over society, he nonetheless took the opportunity that Gorbachev's reform programme afforded to advance the principle of the rule of law by serving as a member of the Soviet Union's quasi-representative legislature, the People's Congress of Deputies between 1989 and 1991.
Sobchak gained national recognition for his integrity when he headed a parliamentary inquiry that investigated the role that security forces had played in massacring twenty nationalist demonstrators in Tbilisi, Georgia in April 1989. His report's unequivocal denunciation of the military's misconduct bolstered the principle of Rechtsstaat because it demonstrated that state institutions could act independently by being critical of state agencies. He gained further renound as a parliamentarian for his incisive cross examination of Soviet premier Nikolay Ryzhkov.
Unfortunately Sobchak joined the CPSU in 1988 in the mistaken belief that he could facilitate internal reform. Nonetheless Sobchak's CPSU membership assisted him in gaining election as Chairman (i.e. mayor) of the 'Leningrad' City Soviet in 1990 (that year he also left the CPSU). Sobchak utilised his position as mayor as a platform to attack CPSU dominance and courageously supported independence for the three Baltic states.
As mayor, Sobchak made his most substantial and positive contribution to history, by courageously and effectively organising opposition to the coup by CPSU hardliners in August 1991. While Boris Yelstin, as Russian President galvanised 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. During this critical period Sobchak courageously confronted troops and persuaded them not to enter the city. He also served as a rallying point for anti-coup demonstrators in St Petersburg.
In the 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.
In the aftermath of the August 1991 coup's failure and the Soviet Union's break up at the end of that year, 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.
His election defeat nonetheless set a democratic precedent because Sobchak is the only senior Russian politician to date that has actually been voted out as an incumbent. Sobchak's political vicissitudes seemed to correlate with those of Russia's democratic movement. He departed for France in 1997 and stayed there until 1999 ostensibly for medical treatment. In reality his exile was due to accusations of abuse of power on his part.
The fact that Sobchak was able to return to Russia in 1999 may or may not have been an indication of the strength of Russian democracy. He was able to return due to his former protégé, Vladimir Putin's growing political power. Putin had been tutored by Sobchak when he was a law student and following his retirement from the KGB in 1990, Putin was appointed pro-rector of 'Leningrad' State University. Putin rose to the position of deputy mayor of 'Leningrad' in 1994 as Sobchak's right hand man.
It cannot be said that the Sobchak/Putin regime in Saint Petersburg was a success. However, Putin's refusal to ingratiate himself with Saint Petersburg's new mayor, Vladimir Yakovlev, gained Boris Yeltsin's attention because the Russian president was looking for someone on whose loyalty he could depend to protect him and his family if he were to relinquish power. Putin faithfully served Yeltsin successively between 1996 and 1998 as the deputy to the Kremlin's chief administrator and as director of the Federal Security Service, the FSB, (the successor to the KGB) and was appointed prime minister in August 1999. Yeltsin resigned as president on 1st January 2000 thereby elevating Putin to the position of acting president.
At the time of his death from a sudden heart attack in February 2000 Sobchak was campaigning for his protégé in the March 2000 presidential election. It had been widely expected that Sobchak would be appointed to a senior position within Putin's government. Sobchak's death was particularly untimely because he might have countered Putin's authoritarian tendencies. It is even possible that Sobchak's influence on Putin was a factor the wily Yeltsin took into account when he decided to elevate Putin, with the expectation that his process of breaking with the legacy of the Soviet era would continue.
At any rate the respective failures and successes of Sobchak's political career are reflected by (and may even have substantially influenced) Russia's turbulent political evolution. Had Sobchak successfully pursued his ostensible objective of ensuring that Russia repudiated its communist past he might well have helped establish a Russian constitutional monarchy. Alternatively, his failed political career as Saint Petersburg mayor and premature death may well have bequeathed an authoritarian Russian state. Such is the ambiguous legacy of Anatoly Aleksandrovich Sobchak.
Written by David Bennett.

Uploaded: 6/1/2005

  • Sobchak Page A web page dedicated to Anatoly Sobchak, including articles, photographs and hundreds of documents. Unfortunately only in Russian.
  • See AlsoGrand Duke Vladimir Cyril Romanov, Vladimir Putin, Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev.

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