Reviving The Realm Of Czars And Emperors

Civilizational identity stands behind Xi and Putin’s front against a liberal world order.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping during a reception at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21. (Pavel Byrkin / SPUTNIK / AFP)

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Where a host meets his guests reveals the context in which he wants to be regarded. The background decor of the chosen setting is more than a telling detail. It is the writing on the wall. 

In the case of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the image of power they want to project is out of the historical realm of czars and emperors among whom they place themselves. The civilizational past portrayed on their walls suffuses their vision of the future. It is the common springboard of opposition to the liberal world order of the West they are united in resisting.

This was in splendid evidence at the Moscow summit this week when Putin hosted a banquet for Xi at the 15th-century Palace of Facets in the Kremlin where czars celebrated after their coronation and consecrated the top clergy of the Orthodox Church. The mural behind the two leaders in the photo above, which depicts Vladimir the Great and his sons, is meant to convey legitimacy conferred through continuity. Vladimir ruled what came to be called the Kievan Rus from 980 to 1015, when he unified disparate principalities into one state and converted the nation to Christianity.  

It is this very history that lay behind Putin’s justification of the invasion of Ukraine. Could he have been more explicit in what he was asking Xi to endorse?

The Chinese leader may have been unaware of the message the wily namesake of Vladimir I was sending through a staged photo-op. But he would have easily understood the uses of historical continuity as a touchstone to legitimate his own rule.

A Berggruen Institute 21st Century Council meeting with Xi Jinping (center) in Beijing in 2015.

When the Berggruen Institute’s 21st Century Council met with Xi in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2015, the mural soaring on the wall behind the assemblage of former heads of state from Indonesia, Chile, Mexico, Italy, Great Britain, Australia and others was a rendering of the Forbidden City, the secluded abode of emperors past and the historical center of gravity when the Middle Kingdom was at the height of its glory.

Joined by his top allies from the Politburo, the symbolism of the setting chosen by the Red Emperor for us foreign guests was clear. The ruling Communist Party increasingly casts its legitimacy in terms of civilizational continuity. This is why China’s leaders today see efforts by the West to thwart Xi’s “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation as a threat to its existential identity.

Global Civilizational Initiative

As Xi and Putin noted in the joint statement from Moscow, “China-Russia relations are not the kind of military-political alliance during the Cold War, but transcend such a model of state-to-state relations.” Indeed, they are built on a different foundation. The statement continued: “Different countries have different histories, cultures and national conditions, and they all have the right to choose their own development path. There is no such thing as a superior ‘democracy.’ The Russian side highly regards the Global Civilization Initiative proposed by the Chinese side.” 

This initiative put forward recently by Xi declares: “In the history of humanity, over thousands of years, various civilizations have come into being, developed and have in return promoted the overall development of human society. Diversity has been a prominent feature of civilizations. … People need to keep an open mind in appreciating how different civilizations perceive values, and refrain from imposing their own values or models on others, and from stoking ideological confrontation.”

The events this week in Moscow decisively mark the advent of a new era ahead in which, as we have discussed in Noema previously, the leaders of self-described civilizational states are seeking to secure their power — in part cynically and in part defensibly — by joining to challenge a global order built in the image of Western modernity.