The dark shadows of the past fall across the unfolding catastrophe in Ukraine. Only by situating the conflict in the history of the Kremlin’s long war with the West can we understand Vladimir Putin’s aims in the country he has invaded and is seeking to destroy.
The familiar narrative of the Kremlin’s geopolitical ambitions in Ukraine has Moscow responding to the perceived military threat of Nato’s eastward expansion and the political threat of coloured revolutions and emerging democratic regimes on Russia’s borders. But in his recent pronouncements the Russian president has cast himself as a leader on a historical, not just a global, stage. Last July, Putin published a 5,000-word article, “On the Historical Unity of the Ukrainians and the Russians”, which offered a warped history of Russia’s conflict with European powers stretching back centuries, and presented Ukraine – and the Ukrainian people – as one of the battlegrounds in that conflict.
What now passes for independent Ukraine, Putin argued, “has no basis in historical fact” and is cobbled together from a patchwork of territories acquired over the centuries first by the Russian empire and later by the Soviet Union. Ukrainian national identity, he claimed, was fomented in the 19th century by the Poles – who leveraged it in their struggle for independence from the Russian empire – and sponsored by the Austro-Hungarian empire in a bid to weaken a great power rival. For Putin, Ukrainian nationalists in the past two centuries have been little more than the puppets of foreign states that wish Russia ill. And nothing has changed in the 30 years since Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union. Putin wrote that “the Western authors of the anti-Russia project set up the Ukrainian political system in such a way that presidents, members of parliament and ministers would change, but the attitude of separation from and enmity towards Russia would remain”. Many interpreted this argument, which sweeps aside differences in language, history and culture, as a denial of Ukraine’s right to statehood. Anders Åslund, a former senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, immediately warned that the essay’s publication meant that Putin was setting the stage for war.
The claim that Russians and Ukrainians constitute one people is not new. When 19th-century Russian imperial thinkers confronted the rise of Ukrainian Romantic nationalism – often associated with the poet Taras Shevchenko – they formulated a concept of the triune Russian nation consisting of the Great Russians (today’s Russians), Little Russians (Ukrainians) and the White Russians (Belarusians), and argued that the Ukrainian and Belarusian languages were mere Russian dialects. Following the doomed Polish rebellion against St Petersburg in 1863, the tsarist authorities prohibited Ukrainian-language publications, and restricted cultural activities in the arts and sciences that promoted Ukrainian culture. These policies of Russification were replicated across the empire as Russia struggled to contain the rise of non-Russian nationalisms in its borderlands and, in the process, increasingly defined itself as a national Russian state.
Russification hindered the development of a modern Ukrainian national consciousness but did not stamp it out. By the time the Russian empire stumbled into war and revolution, the idea of a Ukrainian nation could no longer be ignored or suppressed. In 1917 Ukrainian socialists established a state of their own and one year later declared independence. In neighbouring Austria-Hungary, Ukrainians also declared independence as the West Ukrainian People’s Republic. These bids for independence soon failed, consumed by the civil war that engulfed the former tsarist empire. But by the time the Bolsheviks (re-)conquered most of what used to be the tsarist territories of Ukraine in 1920, recognition of a separate Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic within the pseudo-federal USSR was the price they had to pay to consolidate their rule.
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The right of the republics to secede from that Union, enshrined in the Soviet Constitution of 1924, was, Putin argued in his essay, a “dangerous time bomb, which exploded the moment the safety mechanism provided by the role of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was gone”. Putin condemned the Bolshevik leadership for creating an artificial Ukrainian republic – a fabricated entity, he reckons, but one which has been seized upon by Russia’s enemies to divide Russians from Russians and to create an “anti-Moscow nation”.
In Putin’s telling, the modern Ukrainian state is “entirely a product of the Soviet era” and, as such, it has no authentic claims to statehood. When Ukraine voted for independence in 1991, it rejected its own Soviet borders and now, Putin argued, Ukrainians “should leave with what you came in with” – that is to say, with nothing at all. In this narrative, eastern Ukraine, southern Ukraine and Transcarpathia are all Russia; the Ukrainian capital itself is ur-Russia; even the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism in the west of the country, for centuries part of the Polish kingdom and the Austro-Hungarian empire, is Russia. In his only reference to the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939, Putin claimed that “lands previously seized by Poland were returned to the USSR. Their main part was given to Soviet Ukraine.” As far as Putin is concerned, then, the whole of Ukraine, divested of the trappings of statehood bestowed by the USSR, is Russia’s historical patrimony.
An enduring sense of historical grievance fuels this revanchist imperialist nostalgia. Both before and after 1917, Russians were never simply former colonisers of their ethnic minorities and peripheries. They themselves lived under repressive regimes, whether tsarist or Marxist, that denied the rights of ethnic Russians, particularly in the provinces, and enslaved vast swathes of the population, whether as serfs, as collective farm workers or as prisoners in the Gulag. The Soviet Union is commonly termed an empire, but it failed to exhibit the defining characteristic of imperial systems: different regimes of government in the metropole and in the periphery. Between 1917 and 1991, the Bolshevik Party subjected the entire population of the Soviet Union to coercive policies of resource extraction, forced modernisation and political repression. It approached both Russians and non-Russians as objects of a civilising mission and instituted centralised hierarchies of power across the country that were applied to both. The British and the French empires might have struggled to defend the glaring hypocrisies of regimes founded on democracy at home but administrative rule abroad; the sanctity of private property on the one hand but the expropriation of indigenous peoples on the other. The Soviet state by contrast brooked no such inconsistencies and denied its entire population private property and political and religious freedoms.
Having established the national republics of the USSR, the Bolsheviks launched a drive for linguistic and cultural homogenisation within each of them. National literatures, music, histories, food and dress were all celebrated on condition they were infused with socialist ideals. National languages were promoted in schools, courts, factories and farms; locals in the republics were given preference over Russians in the workplace and hired into administrative positions. The Soviet Union became, in the words of one historian, an “affirmative action empire”. “National in form, socialist in content” was the maxim, as Bolshevik leaders struggled to avoid what they – keen students of imperial collapse – understood to be the destabilising effects of Russian nationalism.
Yet this promotion of non-Russian nationhood was short-lived. Under Stalin, the supposed equality of all nationalities in the USSR was a political fiction, and national minorities, including Germans, Poles, Finns, Koreans, Tatars and Chechens, became the object of suspicion. From the 1930s to the 1950s, they also became victims of brutal campaigns of persecution, ethnic cleansing and, in the case of Ukraine, the Holodomor of 1932-33, a man-made famine which historians such as Anne Applebaum argue was an act of genocide. But both before and after Stalin, the USSR could stake a plausible claim to being a state that accommodated national differences within a political framework that strove for integration rather than exclusion. That approach to the Soviet Union’s national minorities came at the expense of privileging ethnic Russians.
[see also: Why Putin is beholden to Stalin’s legacy]
This history explains why Russians have come to see themselves not just as champions of imperialism but also as its victims. Putin’s essay and his rambling address on 21 February this year, in which he recognised the independence of the “People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk”, bristled with resentment at how Russians have been abused, divided and exploited by the machinations of foreign powers and the stupidity of the Bolsheviks themselves. Behind this resentment is a nostalgia for the pre-Soviet imperial past. “Do you want de-communisation?” Putin asked rhetorically of the Ukrainians. “Well, that’s fine with us. But don’t stop halfway. We are ready to show you what genuine de-communisation means for Ukraine.”
It is as if Putin is suggesting that the only way for Russians to liberate themselves from their own history of subjection is by restoring dominion over the national minorities of the late Tsarist empire. No longer the celebration of difference, but rather its denial. Putin’s criticisms of Lenin are an attempt to turn the clock back to the policies of Russification and the suppression of non-Russian nationalisms in the imperial periphery.
Central to this new imperial project is Putin’s repeated invocation of the “Russian world”. This term rose to prominence in Russian official media between 2013 and 2014 during the Euromaidan protests and the annexation of Crimea and has been tirelessly pumped out by Kremlin channels ever since. Ideas that were previously the preserve of eccentric far-right nationalists such as the philosopher and political strategist Alexander Dugin or the journalist and author Alexander Prokhanov have become routine in the broadcast media, the official press and the Kremlin’s social media operation. They are supported by the creation of well-funded institutes both in Russia and abroad, and backed by a gallery of Kremlin sock puppets masquerading as historians and philosophers. One of the pithiest formulations of the “Russian world” comes from Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s closest thing to an ideologue and the chief architect of the annexation of Crimea. In an interview in 2020, Surkov declared, “the Russian world is something bigger than Russia itself. Because we are in fact a dispersed people, our population stretches well beyond our own borders. What is the Russian world to me? It’s everywhere, where people speak Russian and think like Russians, or where they respect Russian culture.” At his most expansive, Surkov claimed that the Russian world extended to all parts of the world where people respect and consider Russia a model of statehood worthy of emulation, but it is clear that speaking Russian and thinking like a Russian are the key criteria for inclusion.
If the Russian people are divided and dispersed across borders, Putin sees it as his historical mission to reunite them. Evidence for this was glimpsed on 24 February, the day the invasion began, when the official news channel RIA Novosti published an article by the pro-Kremlin historian Pyotr Akopov that had been time-stamped for publication two days later, in anticipation of a successful military campaign in Ukraine. Akopov hailed the “the birth of a new world before our eyes” and claimed that “Russia is restoring its historic unity: the tragedy of 1991, that dreadful catastrophe of our history, that unnatural dislocation, has been overcome”. Putin, Akopov reassured his readers, had to act now so as not to lose Ukraine forever: “Vladimir Putin assumed a historic responsibility in deciding not to leave the resolution of the Ukrainian question to future generations.”
[see also: Putin’s theory of war faces its toughest test]
He did so for two reasons, Akopov argued. One was state security and the threats posed by an “anti-Russia Ukraine that could serve as an outpost from which the West could pressure us”. But the real reason was the need to overcome “the trauma of a divided people, the trauma of national humiliation, experienced when the Russian house lost one of its foundations (the Kievan) and was then forced to reconcile itself to the existence of two states… and of two peoples.” Akopov boldly declared: “Now this problem no longer exists: Ukraine has returned to Russia.”
The account of Russians’ imperial victimhood and Putin’s restoration of their historically mandated unity is supplemented by an official history of the Second World War that has glorified the Soviet experience and demonised all opposition to Communist Party rule as fascist and even genocidal. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the regime elevated the war into a kind of state religion which even eclipsed the original religion of the Revolution. The museum devoted to the battle of Stalingrad, the Mamayev Kurgan, which opened in 1967, and the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, which opened in Kyiv in 1981, are striking manifestations of how victory came to validate the entire Soviet state, its history and its culture. The source of the regime’s legitimacy now lay not in future utopias but in past victories.
The tireless invocation of this narrative of heroism and self-sacrifice relied, however, on the continuing demonisation of all groups who fought against the Soviets during the war, sometimes alongside the Germans because they believed that a German victory would secure them independence from Moscow. These people – who included Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians – were in fact motivated by a complex set of ambitions rooted in the radicalised, and often aggressively nationalist and racist, politics of the 1930s and 1940s. But official postwar culture in the Soviet Union suppressed discussion of any context – forced collectivisation, famine, the Stalinist Terror – that might have inspired their hatred for the Communist regime. Instead, as the historian Amir Weiner has argued, it demonised them: they were not the “by-products of war” but “eternal enemies whom the war and occupation helped uncover”. They were beyond redemption. In Ukraine, nationalists convicted of membership of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists or the Ukrainian Patriotic Army were only granted rehabilitation in mid-1991, as the Soviet regime was breathing its last.
Still a historical source of legitimacy in an underwhelming present, the cult of the Great Patriotic War has only intensified in post-Soviet Russia. The official narrative of a Soviet heroism arrayed against fascism and aggressive ethno-nationalism has been amplified through media, rituals of public commemoration and the establishment of commissions on “historical education” by figures such as the former culture minister and head of the hyper-patriotic Russian Military Historical Society Vladimir Medinsky (the suspected author of Putin’s historical essay, he is currently leading the Russian delegation in talks with the Ukrainian government). Alternative accounts have been persecuted. On the eve of the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian State Duma introduced fines and prison sentences to a 2021 law banning “any public attempt to equate the aims and actions of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during the Second World War”. On 28 February, the authorities denied an appeal by the long-persecuted human rights organisation Memorial, which has researched the crimes of the Soviet regime including those committed during the war, against its court-mandated liquidation.
Official news coverage in Russia of the Euromaidan of 2014, and the subsequent annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbas, made routine reference to a newly installed “fascist junta” in Kyiv. The Russian infosphere was filled with horrifying images of fascist hordes marching on Crimea and crucifying children. In the late 1940s and 1950s, veterans of the Second World War donned “St George ribbons”; at the instigation of the Kremlin, these ribbons have re-emerged, creating a visual continuity between the defeat of Hitler, on the one hand, and opposition to the Euromaidan and support for the annexation of Crimea, on the other. This conflation of past and present narratives of war is the backdrop to Putin asserting during his declaration of war on 24 February that Ukraine has been overrun by neo-Nazis and Banderovtsy, the followers of the wartime fascist Ukrainian leader Stepan Bandera. For Putin, defending the “Russian world” is an extension of the sacred victory over fascism.
As his tanks bear down on Kyiv and his shells pummel Kharkiv and Mariupol, Putin is thinking not just geopolitically; he is also thinking historically. Many Kremlin watchers have in the past decade or so assumed that the Kremlin’s historical narratives were colourful packaging on a project rooted in sober strategic calculations, one piece in a carefully curated attempt to rally Russian TV audiences behind its policies. But the invasion of Ukraine suggests that we need to take this historical agenda more seriously. Putin might after all be a true believer, and if Russian history teaches us anything, it’s beware the true believers.
This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain