The Great Debate

from John Lloyd:

The special relationship: Putin and Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin are seen in a combination file photo.  REUTERS/File

The only other divorcee among Russian leaders before President Vladimir Putin was Czar Peter I, or Peter the Great.

Peter’s first bride, Evdokiya Lopukhina, was chosen for him by his mother -- a mistake, at least for her son. Evdokiya, a deeply religious, conservative but strong-willed woman, didn’t like her husband’s modernization drive. With her equally niggly relatives, she so roused Peter’s ire that he secured a divorce and bullied her into a convent.

He took up instead with a beautiful German, Anna Mons, whom he met on a visit to Moscow’s German colony. She remained semi-openly by his side for more than a decade but when -- apparently fearing that he had lost interest -- she flirted with and then fell for the Prussian ambassador, he imprisoned her, along with her mother and sister. Then married someone else.

No record of anything as disgraceful has happened since -- either in tsarist or Soviet times. (Catherine the Great was estranged from her husband, had him arrested and may have ordered his death: But she never divorced him.) The Tsars’ wives varied in the degrees of independence they showed. Some – for example, Alexandra, wife of the last Tsar Nicholas II and murdered with him and their five children by the Bolsheviks in May 1918 – were strongly opinionated, in her case (like Evdokia) harshly conservative and autocratic.

The sun sets on sultan Berlusconi

By John Lloyd
The opinions expressed are his own.

The sultans, as shapers of history, have gone from the world: but they leave behind the memory of a style of rule in which the division between the private life and the public one, between sexual arrangements and high politics, between the settlement of personal debts, whether of money or honor, and the state treasury barely existed. That was true of kings and princes, Russian tsars and Chinese emperors too: but because the west began (with mixed success) to separate the private from the public some centuries ago, the Sultans of Turkey – who came to the gates of Vienna at the height of their imperial reach and who fascinated and terrified Europe for centuries – are still seen here as the epitome of luxury and power combined.

In Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, the West finds the nearest thing it has to a Sultan: luxury and power combined. The idea is that of Giovanni Sartori, the Italian social scientist and commentator, who has taught for many years at Columbia University in New York and who, like all writers on the contemporary Italian scene, has had to put Berlusconi at the center of his commentary. His idea expresses the unique quality the media mogul has brought to democratic government in the modern age: a rule for, by and with himself first.

In this, he betrays the legacy of a much greater Italian, Niccolo Machiavelli, who anticipated the modern age of states by his advice to the Prince to separate his private life and family from his public duties. Berlusconi has vaulted back more than half a millennium to the period of the Medicis and the Borgias. The public is private: the state absolves his alleged crimes or future transgressions through laws passed by his governments. His main business, media, especially TV but also his newspapers and magazines, spread the balm of the good life which his governing style proclaims. His private life cannot be other than public: his latest supposed affairs are proclaimed by his estranged wife to be with minors, and are surrounded by wildly improbable stories on his part, together with the use or abuse of the law and police protocol. He seems genuinely surprised when taxed with this: for the Sultan, there is no problem: private, business and state life are all one seamless web. And if a harem is included, well, “I’m no saint!” is one of his best known remarks. Unfortunately (for him) Italy remains a democracy and the Sultan, especially when his powers fade, is harried from all sides.