(Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday questioned a Russian teacher at length about an 18th century rebellion which shook Empress Catherine the Great’s Russia, offering his own view on the lesson from history: the state must be strong.
Putin, Russia’s paramount leader since 1999, is facing the most serious challenge of his rule as his forces lose ground in their seven-month war in Ukraine while Russia confronts the West in the most dangerous standoff since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
In a long televised video conference with a group of award-winning teachers, Putin unexpectedly began grilling one of them about the 1773-1775 Pugachev Rebellion.
“What was it, this Pugachev Rebellion? Why did it happen? What is your view?” Putin asked the startled teacher, who gave several reasons for the most serious domestic challenge of Catherine’s 34-year reign.
Putin quipped that the teacher’s answer was like that of a diplomat from the Russian foreign ministry, and asked again for a clear view about the causes and result of the rebellion led by Cossack Yemelyan Pugachev, who pretended to be Tsar Peter III.
“He imagined himself the tsar,” Putin said of Pugachev who, buoyed by rumours of dynastic intrigue at court, fanned a major insurgency in 1773 before he was finally defeated by Catherine’s forces more than a year and a half later.
“Basically it was an element of the weakness of central authority in the country,” Putin said.
Putin has repeatedly tried to strengthen the Russian state after the chaos of the 1990s, though critics such as jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny say the Kremlin chief has made a brittle system of personal rule that is reliant on sycophancy.
The Kremlin chief has warned repeatedly against what he casts as U.S. attempts to foment revolution across the former Soviet Union.
Pugachev was executed in public in January 1775 on Moscow’s Red Square. But the revolt had a lasting influence on Catherine and was used as the canvas for Alexander Pushkin’s historical novel “The Captain’s Daughter”.
Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Mark Trevelyan