Vladimir Putin keeps a statue of Peter the Great in his ornate Kremlin meeting room. The 17th- and 18th-century ruler has stood silently in the corner watching Putin greet foreign guests throughout his two decades in power, and it is no secret that the current leader views himself as the contemporary heir to the tsars – the man who is making Russia great and respected again. But in a speech to young engineers and scientists in Moscow on 9 June, he made that comparison explicit.
He had just come visiting the exhibition to mark the 350th anniversary of the birth of Peter the Great, he said, and it struck him, as he walked through the halls dedicated to the 18th-century ruler’s life – the first Russian leader to be given the title “Emperor” – that “almost nothing has changed”.
“Peter the Great waged the Great Northern War [against Sweden] for 21 years,” he remarked. But while some saw that war as taking land away from Sweden, he explained, they were wrong. Peter “was not taking away anything” from Sweden, he insisted, he was “returning” land that rightfully belonged to Russia. “This is how it was.”
Putin described how the triumphant leader had then founded the new capital he named after himself, St Petersburg, on territory the Russians had taken, or as he insisted, “returned” from Sweden.
“When he founded the new capital, none of the European countries recognised this territory as part of Russia; everyone recognised it as part of Sweden,” he explained. But in fact Peter the Great was “returning and reinforcing” territory that had belonged to the Slavs “from time immemorial”, he said. “That is what he was doing.”
It was not a subtle allegory, given the war that the Russian leader is currently waging in Ukraine, but in case anyone had missed his meaning, he spelled it out, smiling slightly to himself. “Clearly it fell to us to return and reinforce as well.”
Since he first came to power in December 1999, Putin has drawn on Russia’s imperial past as evidence of the country’s undeniable status as a great power, whose interests must be respected. He presents the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War in 1991 as a temporary aberration in an otherwise magnificent history. There had been “eras in the history of our country when we had to retreat”, he acknowledged in his latest speech, “but only in order to mobilise and move forward, concentrate and move forward.” He believes that Russia is ready to move forward once again.
This historical comparison is troubling for multiple reasons. First, it is clear that Putin subscribes to the raw, 18th-century conception of power. “Either a country is sovereign, or it is a colony, no matter what the colonies are called,” he said. “I am not going to give any examples so as not to offend anyone, but if a country or a group of countries is not able to make sovereign decisions, then it is already a colony to a certain extent… [with] no chance for survival in this tough geopolitical struggle.” It is obvious that he is talking about Ukraine and whether it should be a vassal of Russia or the West. He does not envisage a future for the country as a sovereign state in its own right.
“When people show you who they are, believe them the first time,” said the late Maya Angelou. When Putin compares himself to an 18th-century Russian imperialist and repeatedly states that he does not believe that Ukraine is a sovereign country that has a right to exist, we should believe him. It is time to stop talking about how the West should try not to humiliate Putin or to force him into a corner, suggesting that if only he is shown sufficient deference and provided with a golden off-ramp, he will take it. He is telling us plainly, in his own words, that this is not how he sees the world.
Second, there is no reason to believe that Putin’s ambitions end in Ukraine. Peter the Great likewise pushed south towards the Azov Sea in his first major military campaign in 1695-96, intent on ensuring Russia’s access to the Black Sea beyond, although he did not get as far as Mariupol on the Azov coast (which Russian troops now control), or Crimea, which Putin annexed in 2014. Peter then turned his attention to modernising the Russian navy and securing access to the Baltic coast through the Great Northern War with Sweden, which lasted for 21 years and yielded the land on which he built his new imperial capital, or rather, ordered hundreds of thousands of serfs (slave labourers) to build it. Many of them died in the process.
Peter the Great is often remembered as the leader who “opened the window” to Europe by moving the capital to St Petersburg and reorienting Russia towards the West. And that is true, but he did so after waging a war for more than two decades, and on the bones of his countrymen. When Putin looks at Peter’s statue in the Kremlin, perhaps that is the lesson that sticks with him: that you can lead your country into a long, vicious war, enforce brutal repression at home, and still be remembered as one of its greatest leaders for centuries to come.