Dr. Carolyn Harris teaches history at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. She writes about royalty at www.royalhistorian.com.
Reports that the Prince of Wales compared Russian President Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler in a private conversation with a Haligonian woman made headlines around the world on Wednesday, contributing to the popular view that Charles will have to keep his political opinions in check to become a successful constitutional monarch. The Prince’s own spokesman stressed that Charles “would not seek to make a public political statement during a private conversation.”
It is certainly true that throughout the Queen’s 62-year reign, she has taken her role as an impartial constitutional monarch seriously. For the majority of people in Britain, Canada and the Commonwealth, her approach to these duties is the only one in living memory, and Charles’s outspokenness seems to be incompatible with a future king.
The Queen’s predecessors, however, often made clear that their personal views differed from the positions of their governments. And successive monarchs expressed critical personal attitudes toward Russia, in particular, that conflicted with the goals of their prime ministers. Nevertheless, these monarchs still fulfilled their duties as constitutional sovereigns, giving royal assent to the will of the people.
Anglo-Russian diplomatic relations began when Queen Elizabeth I began a correspondence with Czar Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. The letters reveal that the two rulers had very different goals: Elizabeth was interested in a trade agreement while Ivan favoured a defensive alliance and made clear that he would be interested in marrying the Queen or one of her cousins. Peter the Great also sought a defensive alliance in 1698, when he became the first Russian ruler to visit England. As an autocrat, Peter found it difficult to understand the constraints King William III faced as a constitutional monarch. Peter was frustrated that the two monarchs could not come to an agreement without consulting Parliament.
Queen Victoria’s negative perception of Russia was shaped by Anglo-Russian hostilities during the Crimean War and the threat an expanding Russian Empire posed to British interests in India. When her granddaughter Alexandra became engaged to Russia’s last Czar, Nicholas II, in 1894, the Queen wrote to Alexandra’s sister, “The state of Russia is so bad, so rotten that any moment something dreadful might happen.” Her remarks were prescient. Nicholas II, Alexandra, their children and servants were murdered by Bolsheviks in 1918.
The massacre of Russia’s last imperial family has continued to inform royal attitudes toward Russia. When Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald proposed normalizing British diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, King George V made clear that he would not shake hands with “the murderers of his relatives.” When the new Soviet ambassador arrived at Buckingham Palace to present his credentials in 1929, the King pleaded illness.
In 1967, the Queen’s consort, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was asked if he would like to visit the Soviet Union. Philip replied, “I would like to go to Russia very much, although the bastards murdered half my family.”
And although the Queen is the best-travelled monarch in history, she significantly did not visit Russia until after the fall of the Soviet Union, when she made a state visit as a guest of president Boris Yeltsin in 1994.
Charles’s comments on Mr. Putin are controversial, especially compared to the Queen’s public image of political impartiality. The Queen’s predecessors, however, managed to express their critical political views on Russia while still fulfilling their duties as constitutional monarchs.