Columns, Opinion

Worldview: The whimsical formation of the new Russian empire

When Russia occupied Crimea in the winter of 2014, skeptics argued this step was just the first (or second if you ask the Georgians) in Putin’s campaign to restore Russia to supremacy in Eastern Europe. The hysteria caused by Russia’s annexation of the peninsula led many western journalists to call Putin the next Tsar. Book titles such as “Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire” by Agnia Grigas and “The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin” by Steven Lee Myers tapped into this paranoia that the Russian Empire, which fell in 1917, was returning with Putin at its head.

However, perhaps these critics were actually behind the times, as the Russian Empire had actually already been restored, long before the Crimea annexation. In 2011, the Imperial Throne was restored, and in 2014, the title of Tsar was granted to Prince Karl Emich of Leiningen who took the name Nicholas III. Just this past week, the Empire announced that its vast territories had expanded once more after it annexed several islands… in The Gambia.

The Empire has not quite reached the same status of its predecessor, but it has at least obtained the designation of a micronation. All jokes aside, the Romanov Empire is a legitimate entity. It was founded in 2011 by Russian businessman and politician Anton Bakov. Bakov is the chair of the Russian Monarchist Party, the only monarchist party in Russia since 1917.

For the majority of its existence, the Empire has actually been landless, and Bakov’s main ambition was to acquire territory and recognition from other nations. In 2011, a Russian newspaper reported that Bakov had succesfull acquired the island of Suwarrow from the Cook Islands for “tens of millions of dollars.” This story turned out to be a hoax, as the chief executive of the prime minister of the Cook Islands responded, saying “This is clearly inaccurate. I don’t think it is necessary to respond to something that is clearly a con of some nature and not worth worrying about.”

Far from discouraged by the Cook Islands’ response, Bakov proceeded with his efforts to find territory for the Empire. In 2014, Bakov successfully purchased a plot of land in Niksic, Montenegro to build an imperial palace for Nicholas III. The Tsar himself even wrote to Putin, requesting land in Yekaterinburg (the location of the execution of Nicholas II and his family). This request was, shockingly, denied.

More recently, the Empire has been hard at work trying to work out agreements to acquire land from the Pacific island nation of Kiribati and the West African nation of The Gambia. In February of this year, Bakov’s request to construct his capital in Kiribati was rejected. Bakov was planning to invest $350 million in a series of uninhabited islands called the Line Group. Bakov was evidently frustrated by Kiribati’s decision, as he proceeded to attack their supposedly inferior culture, claiming that They never argue with you, never uphold their point of view, they have no culture of negotiations or discussions. If a question causes disagreements, they just hide.”

Bakov had better luck in The Gambia, where he reached an agreement with the government to purchase a series of islands with an area of no more than 10 square kilometers, for the price of $60 million. Here, the Empire’s capital will finally be constructed. Upon completion, the new city, which is supposed to become the first smart city of Africa, will take the name Saint Nicholas, in homage to Nicholas II. This agreement is a major success for the Empire, as with this deal the Romanov Empire will no longer be a micronation and instead become a partially-recognized state with The Gambia’s support.  

While the shenanigans of Anton Bakov and his “Empire” are certainly amusing, his activities are admittedly humorous evidence of a factionalism in Russia that is often overlooked by Western journalists proclaiming Putin the new Tsar of Russia. While Putin does command significant support among the Russian population, support for his rule is far from unanimous, and domestic resistance limit the extent of Putin’s powers.

Bakov’s actions are in part motivated by a resistance to Putin’s government, and he hopes that others with similar sentiments may rally behind his cause. When plans to build Saint Nicholas still revolved around Kiribati, Bakov told Radio New Zealand that “This is the desire not only of the heir of the Russian throne  but also a great number of Russian patriots who are not happy with Putin’s regime and would like to have their revival of Romanov’s empire visible — as an alternative Russia.”

If Bakov is willing to spend millions of dollars on this pipe dream project to form an “alternative Russia,” it raises the question: How strong is Putin’s grip on the country really?

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