Leni: Embers of democratic hope
They do not know that to oppose me is to encourage me, and that every difficulty they put in my way is an additional spur,” exclaimed Russia’s finest empress, Catherine the Great. Today, many remember her reign as a period of West-looking cultural renaissance, southward territorial expansion, and major liberal reforms.
Voltaire and Diderot, her decades-old interlocutors, described her as the “The Star of the North” and the “Semiramis of Russia.” Yet behind this splendid veil of imperial glory lies a remarkable journey of self-reinvention and courage. Born Sophie, a Lutheran Anhalt-Zerbst princess, she hailed from minor German aristocracy. Throughout her childhood, she was largely ignored by her ambitious mother, Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, who poured all her affections on a younger brother.
As she entered her teenage years, the future Catherine was largely a pawn in a high-stakes game led by Johanna, who desperately craved upward mobility, and Prussian King Frederick the Great, who wanted to seal an alliance with Russia. As for the childless Empress Elizabeth, the spirited daughter of Peter the Great, she was desperate for an heir.
Eventually, Catherine was sent to Russia as the wife of Peter III, a tortured, lonely, and cruel Joffrey Baratheon-like boy-king, who would brutalize her throughout the fountain of her youth. Once she gave birth, her child (Paul) was swiftly taken away by Empress Elizabeth, thus precipitating a months-long depression.
It was in this dark period of utter alienation that she discovered the greatest minds of the era, devouring the worldviews of Montesquieu and Voltaire on an “enlightened” monarchy. Little did she know that within a decade, following the violent ouster of the much-derided Peter III, she would end up as the ruler of the world’s largest kingdom, with unimaginably perilous responsibilities.
But not only did Catherine manage to overcome misogyny and xenophobia, she also overcame her outsider status as a former German Lutheran in a deeply Orthodox nation. Her eventual success, which transformed Russia, defied all expectations, perhaps even her own.
As her greatest biographer Robert Massie writes, “It was a long and remarkable journey that no one, not even she, could have imagined when, at fourteen, she set off for Russia across the snow.”
Though born and raised in a very different context, Leni Robredo’s political trajectory can be seen as just as remarkable as Catherine’s. Long confined to the shadow of more prominent men, she has quickly turned into a lightning rod of democracy in one of the darkest periods in our history.
Over the past year, Leni has more than confirmed my earlier description of her as “The Phoenix.” Throughout her first three years in office, she had to contend with not only an increasingly hostile administration, but also the scion of the former Marcos dictatorship who questioned her electoral mandate at the Supreme Court.
One of President Duterte’s underlings even dismissed her office as “spare tire.” I vividly recall criticisms of Leni as, inter alia, being “too kind,” “too timid,” “too passive,” “inexperienced,” “weak,” and “unprepared.” Even I criticized her in public, noting the desperately needed counterbalance to an overweening populist in Malacañang. And yet, throughout the past 12 months, Leni has shown her mettle of leadership, to the astonishment of even the most vociferous skeptics. The true Leni has been on thorough display, from her valiant support for and solidarity with the Gem-Ver fishermen last year (a stark contrast to the kowtowing, Beijing-friendly President), to her defiance of fake news bloggers during her Taal relief operations in January, and, ultimately, her all-out mobilization of support for frontliners and vulnerable communities amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the ongoing blitzkrieg against independent voices, Leni stands as a bridge to a more democratic future. Like Catherine, her leadership is anchored in not only personal courage and steely conviction, but also a principled willingness to take best advice and consult ordinary people. In the words of the Russian empress, “I examine the circumstances, I take advice, I consult the enlightened part of the people, and in this way I find out what sort of effect my laws will have.” And when doubt crept into her heart, her most devout supporter, Potemkin, simply said: “Your deeds are your shield.”
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