MOSCOW — When President Vladimir Putin threw open the gates for Russians to propose changes to the country’s constitution, the rewrite frenzy was on — particularly among nationalists, social conservatives, chauvinists and militants, who all dream of a Russia even more strident and militaristic.
Russia is revamping its liberal Boris Yeltsin-era constitution, and citizens and organizations have put forward more than 700 suggested amendments — many with a distinctly anti-liberal bent.
How about declaring Putin Russia’s “Supreme Leader?” Or maybe enshrining the country’s nuclear weapons in the constitution? Perhaps it’s time to work in wording to protect the purity of the Russian language, or elevate Russia’s “civilized identity” or preserve its “cultural patrimony?”
There are calls, backed by Putin, to rule out same sex-marriage and LGBT parental rights in the constitution.
And the Russian Orthodox Church leaped at the chance to scythe away the references to Russia as a secular nation, proposing words about God instead and highlighting Russia as “God’s storied native land.”
Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party — the ideological successor to the atheist party that governed the Soviet Union for more than 70 years — supported the church’s idea.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a historian and opposition politician, said many of the amendments were “crazy proposals” mainly from people who opposed the liberal, humanist constitution of 1993.
But it’s a road map of where Russia has moved under Putin, who ordered the constitutional redo last month as part of an apparent plan to keep his grip on power after term limits force him out of the presidency in 2024.
“Many people around Putin and many people in this country, they hate the  constitution because it’s too liberal for them. said Ryzhkov. “Now that Putin opened this Pandora’s box of changing the constitution, all these conservative, reactionary, nationalistic, xenophobic, anti-European, anti-liberal political forces feel the possibility to kill this constitution, to kill this liberal spirit.”
“That’s the reason,” he added, “so many crazy amendments are being proposed now.”
The deadline for proposals from the public is April 2. No date has been set for a national plebiscite on the changes.
Putin set up a working group of 75 doctors, politicians, musicians, actors, film directors, business people, sports figures and others to decide on amendments. One participant, former pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, admitted she had never read the constitution before joining the group — she saw no need to.
Putin is popular, but without some candy to attract voters, the turnout could be embarrassingly low, or worse: the result could be the wrong one. The bait is two amendments to index pensions and set the minimum wage above the poverty line, even though that already happens under Russian law.
“There’s nothing new. Both proposals guarantee nothing. But it’s using propaganda to increase the support of these amendments,” said Ryzhkov.
Voters will be given a yes-or-no vote on the full text of the new constitution. So if they like the state commitment to social payments, they will get every other amendment, too.
In early February, Putin denied the changes were a ploy to retain power.
“The amendments that are proposed are simply dictated by life, I believe,” he told a gathering in Cherepovets, about 300 miles north of Moscow. “It is just that over the course of my term in the office of president and prime minister, it became evident to me that certain things are not working as they should.”
Putin’s critics say this is nonsense.
After 2024, Putin could take on a powerful post-presidency role such as State Council head. Vesting new powers in that body could create a vehicle for him to steer foreign and military policy and to ensure his vision of Russia as a great world nuclear power does not unravel in some future orgy of corruption and incompetence.
There are other proposals for retiring presidents: One would guarantee him immunity from prosecution. Another would make him a lifetime senator in Russia’s upper house.
Ryzhkov and others argue the measures would fossilize Russia as authoritarian and inward-looking, and weaken checks on power.
Among these are proposals to ban Russians who ever held foreign residency from running for president or parliament. That would rule out pro-democracy figures and business executives who have fled Putin’s Russia.
The new constitution could also give Russian law supremacy over international law — which would mean that the thousands of appeals by Russians annually to the European Court for Human Rights would be in vain. At the beginning of 2020 there were 17,748 Russian appeals to the court, which has often criticized Russian authorities for rights abuses.
Other proposals would remove the term “independent” from an article on the Constitutional Court and make it easier for the president to remove judges.
Andrei Klishas, the co-chairman of the constitutional review group, said many of the 700 amendments from the public expressed simple ideas, such as the desire for good health care and education.
“Many of these proposals are the same. They repeat each other,” said Klishas, who heads the Federation Council Committee on Constitutional Legislation and State Building.
“So our task as the working group,” he said, “is to look at these proposals, discuss them with representatives of civil society and then decide which proposal will gain the most support in society and then develop texts of amendments based on these proposals.”
Around 40 are expected to make the final cut.
Oo matter what proposals come forward, Klishas insisted, Putin has ruled out any change to fundamental human rights.
“We discussed this situation with Putin several times and the president’s position on this is very firm and strong,” he said. “The basic rights and freedoms should remain untouched.”
Klishas’ Federation Council office has eight chunky white telephones, underscoring his importance, including four hotlines without dials or buttons. When one of them rang, he asked Washington Post journalists to leave the room. His walls are decked with maps, bright icons and a photograph of Putin wearing casual black speaking on the phone in a grand office, a raw portrait of power.
Klishas said Russians who survived the chaos of the early 1990s — when pensions and salaries went unpaid or were late — associated Russia’s social stability with Putin, hence the need to write provisions in the constitution guaranteeing social payments in future.
Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Center Moscow, said Putin’s recent dismissal of an unpopular government and promises of increased social benefits were designed to boost his popularity, just as his annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 saw his ratings soar, even as Russia came under international sanctions and denunciations.
“He’s trying to mobilize people,” Kolesnikov said. “But it’s really uncomfortable because Crimea was a really serious boost to this popularity, and the constitution can’t add anything to his ratings.”
An opinion poll by Levada last month showed that 47 percent of Russians believed Putin was using the referendum to expand his powers and remain in power. Still, 72 percent planned to vote in favor.
“Putin becomes the successor of himself,” Kolenikov said. “But institutionally this is a problem because the simultaneous existence of the president, who is still empowered, and the head of a State Council, could generate conflict between these two figures.
“This has only been developed for Putin. There is no practical need for any kind of chair of the State Council,” he said. “This is all about Putin himself, not about the political structure.”