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There Is a Serious Movement Among Russian Elites to Make Putin a Permanent Monarch (Wall Street Journal)

Pro-Kremlin activists want to restore Russian traditions—and hope for a longer reign for Mr. Putin

SPAS-TESHILOVO, Russia—The last time term limits forced Russian leader Vladimir Putin to step down from the presidency, he became prime minister for a few years.

This time around, a group of pro-Kremlin activists have a different idea: Proclaim him Czar Vladimir.

“We will do everything possible to make sure Putin stays in power as long as possible,” Konstantin Malofeyev, a politically active businessman, said recently to thunderous applause from hundreds of Russian Orthodox priests and members of the country’s top political parties gathered at a conference outside Moscow. They were united by one cause—to return the monarchy to Russia.

While there are no plans to crown a new Emperor and Sovereign of All the Russias, as part of the royal title once went, the idea raises the possibility Mr. Putin could stay beyond the two-term limit the constitution allows.

The Kremlin has given little sign of who may succeed Mr. Putin when his six-year term ends in 2024, leaving many to speculate, sometimes wildly, about what’s next.

Konstantin Malofeyev wants to restore Russia’s monarchy. PHOTO: PRESS OFFICE OF KONSTANTIN MALOFEYEV

Even among those who want a monarchy, however, there are splits over what kind it should be. Is an absolute monarchy better than a constitutional monarchy? Should a blood line be established or should the czar be elected? For those who favor male succession, would it be a problem that Mr. Putin reportedly only has two daughters? Some have even suggested others besides Mr. Putin should accede to the throne.

Over tea and biscuits at the conference last month, members of the Double-Headed Eagle, a group dedicated to restoring the Russian monarchy, discussed the finer points.

“Monarchy is only about blood by definition,” said Yevgeniy Nikofoforov, general director of a radio station dedicated to the Russian Orthodox Church. “No, absolutely not,” shot back Andrey Afanasiev, a presenter at Mr. Malofeyev’s internet channel Tsargrad.

A sculpture of a double-headed eagle, a national symbol of Russia. PHOTO: PETER KOVALEV/REUTERS

“What has Russia done in the last 30 years; it’s resurrected an empire and chosen an emperor,” said Mr. Afanasiev, adding that Mr. Putin’s lack of a noble birth wasn’t a problem.

Serge Kapnist was born and raised in France, but claims the title of count in Russia from his ancestors who he says fled revolutionary Russia. He said no matter how it starts, you have to make sure it continues. “Sustainability is the most important thing here,” he said.

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“You have as many different kinds of monarchies as you have monarchs,” said Mr. Malofeyev.

Russia hasn’t had a ruling czar since 1917, when Nicholas II abdicated the throne under pressure from revolutionaries.

Mr. Malofeyev says his Double-Headed Eagle group, named after a symbol on Russia’s coat of arms, is flourishing; the number of regional branches grew by almost half this year to more than 50. Started in 2016, the group says it wants to enlighten people about Russia’s pre-Soviet past and resurrect Russian traditions. It is trying to bring back czarist-era names of towns and streets, as well as the monarchy.

“We are a very paternalistic society,” said Mr. Malofeyev, adding that Russians are returning to their historical roots.

Lt. Gen. Leonid Reshetnikov, a one-time member of the Soviet Union’s foreign intelligence service who is now deputy chairman of the Double-Headed Eagle, said he had a conversation about monarchy last year with Mr. Putin.

Leonid Reshetnikov, deputy chairman of the Double-Headed Eagle group. PHOTO: ALEXEI DRUZHININ/PLANETPIX/ZUMA PRESS

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In the conversation, Mr. Putin described the idea as “beautiful,” said Mr. Reshetnikov. But he worried monarchy could lead to “zastoi,” or stagnation, a term used to describe the economic torpor of the late Soviet years and now increasingly used in reference to sluggish growth rates under Mr. Putin.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Mr. Putin doesn’t like the idea of bringing back monarchy, but didn’t comment on the exchange with Mr. Reshetnikov.

Mr. Reshetnikov said he didn’t propose the idea to Mr. Putin directly that he should become czar.

“He wasn’t talking about it in terms of practical application; our conversation was more about history,” he said, but added he would love to be around to see Mr. Putin’s coronation.

Mr. Putin’s popularity declined to 66% in October, said Moscow-based independent polling group Levada, from levels as high as 89% in 2015.

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Spain re-established its monarchy under the regime of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco, who tapped an heir to the abolished throne, Prince Juan Carlos de Borbon, to succeed him in 1969. The British restored their monarchy after its brief overthrow in the 17th century.

In Russia, the last royal family, the Romanovs, were executed in 1918, and people claiming royal ancestry haveargued over who is more legitimate to claim to be the head of the imperial house.

Anton Bakov, a businessman in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, has tried to advocate his own brand of monarchy around the resurrection of the Romanov House. Mr. Bakov, who isn’t a Romanov, said there were still about 200 members of the family left. “If we want to restore the monarchy, it’s to restore the one we know,” he said.

Some Russian political observers expect Mr. Putin to endorse a hand-selected successor who would take over for him the way he took over for Russia’s first President Boris Yeltsin on New Year’s Eve 1999. Others have floated the idea of a kind of state oversight committee that would have at least one very important member to direct the policies of the government and new president.

Many in the Double-Headed Eagle hope Mr. Putin will come around to their idea.

Yelena Sharoykina, a member of the Double-Headed Eagle and a presenter at the internet news station Tsargrad, said it may just be a matter of time.

“You never know what he’s going to think in five years,” she said. “The Putin of five years ago is different from the Putin of today, and you never know if he’ll change his mind.”

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