by Daria Blinova, PhD student, Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Delaware

What do autocrats truly want? The theory of autocratic survival suggests that autocratic leaders aim to concentrate the power in their hands to maintain control over the society they govern. Indeed, autocrats capitalize on the notion of power legitimization to justify dictatorial tendencies and structure the system in a way to gain support from winning coalitions by satisfying their needs. However, while the autocratic goal is to “survive”, the question of what they survive for remains open. In other words, while remaining in office, is the goal of autocrats only to oppress people for the sake of saving power? And is power per se the goal worth pursuing when domestic audiences and global leaders condemn the detrimental effect of a suppressive regime?

From a realist perspective, the pursuit of power for its own sake may seem logical since it is inherited into human nature. Yet, given the domestic (e.g. the dynamic of social unrest) and international (e.g. severe sanctions damaging the state) consequences of unconstrained obsession with power maximization, there should be something else that could justify excessive preoccupation with survival. In modern autocracies, this “something” relates to higher goals in addition to material capabilities, which I call “historical immortality”.

Historical immortality in the context of autocracies refers to the autocrats’ ambitions to perpetuate a lasting and indelible mark on history and to be “remembered” as pivotal constructors of national history for generations to come. In this case, autocrats strive to maximize their power and impose ubiquitous control in order to prolong their time in office which can be used for perpetuation of their personality (i) through the building legacy of military conquest, or/and (ii) through construction of symbolic projects unifying and distinguishing country’s national identity. In the former case, legacy building always coincides with the military buildup and either direct military interventions or the threat of such interventions to other countries. In the latter, symbolic projects may relate to material or ideological developments triggering a sense of unity and pride and compensating for domestic brutality.

Two world’s largest powers – Russia and China – exemplify the point. Russia’s turn to the undemocratic path after the USSR collapse has been conditioned by Putin’s admiration of earlier Russian eminences and preoccupation with the restoration of Russia’s greatness lost aftermath of the failed communist project. It should be noted that Putin’s imperial ambitions did not start with the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 but took place since the beginning of his presidency which undergirded his actions and leaned to the extremes over time. Being inspired by a selective historical narrative relating to the unique civilizational place of the Russian state, Putin has long believed in his messianic role aiming to unite the population of the post-Soviet space under what is known as the Russian World idea. In addition, driven by the grievance about the misfortunes of the Soviet legacy, Putin’s key impetus has been to become a “guard” against the ideas of the so-called ruthless Western enemies encroaching on the Russian state. This philosophical vision denying pacifist consciousness has predetermined Putin’s belief in the exceptional appropriateness of his personality for allegedly protecting Russian civilians and Russian-speaking compatriots abroad and as a result, led to the revanchist actions leading to international interventions. In this regard, chasing the greatness of his leadership through the blend of promotion ideas of Russian exceptionalism, domestic brutality, and disastrous military invasions leading to mass killings, Putin has seemed to potentially achieve the goal of historical immortality. Yet, in the opposite sense, leading to being remembered not as an architect of the prosperous Russian state but as another eternal dictatorial leader.

Putin is not alone in developing this kind of ambition for historical immortality. Similar forms of rhetoric are being developed in Xi Jinping’s China (and also in Narendra Modi’s India, and Kim Jong Un’s North Korea). What unites Putin and Xi is their specific vision of history. Chinese leader, similar to Putin, strives to restore China’s power through the narrative attached to a “century of humiliation” by foreign powers and equates his personality as a great leader similar to Mao and Deng. However, in comparison to Putin, Xi capitalizes not only on civilizational factors but also combines ideology and strategic priorities (such as the economy), making two factors of the historical immortality notion – militarism and material/ideological symbolism – work even more sound. Under Xi, China has certainly strengthened its status in East and Central Asia. Yet, its policy in the South and East China Sea threatens the security of others in the region, making China’s greatness conditional on the safety of its neighbors. Besides, Xi’s preoccupation with tightening political control and strengthening public domestic compliance with the regime at the expense of human rights makes the “Chinese Dream” an expensive enterprise demanding disciplined obedience to autocratic demands.

It could be argued that the concept of preserving one’s personality in history is outdated. However, certain modern autocrats, such as those in Russia and China, are still motivated by the desire to be remembered as great. While striving for historical immortality can sometimes lead to positive actions and motivate leaders to focus on the public good, in the context of autocratic regimes, this ambition often poses a threat to people’s freedom and international security, making it a dangerous pursuit.


About the Author

Daria Blinova
PhD student
Department of Political Science and International Relations
University of Delaware

Daria Blinova is a Ph.D. student, research assistant in the Department of Political Science & International Relations, and departmental senator for Graduate Student Government​ at the University of Delaware. She also coordinates first-year students in the Department as a PSGSA member and is mentoring international students through the UD iBuddy program.

She graduated from Kuban State University (the Russian Federation) with two Bachelor’s Degrees with honors: in Law and in International Relations. Daria continued her academic career in the United States at Western Michigan University where she worked as a teaching and research assistant, published articles, participated​​ in conferences, and earned a Master’s Degree in International Development Administration.​

Research Interests

​Daria has wide research interests that are ranging from studies about development and SDGs, politics of post-Soviet countries, and political economy to international security and demo​cratic transition. She is currently working on projects relating to US Sanctions and foreign lobbying; international sanctions against Russia; access to information laws in Hong Kong; representation under the UNFCCC regime; and others.​