Warped fantasies of Russia’s imperial past

The fake history behind
Russia’s attack on Ukraine

ZUMA PRESS INC./Alamy Stock Photo

In 1711 the poet Alexander Pope observed that “a little learning is a dangerous thing… its “shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain, And drinking deeply largely sobers us again”. We should bear Pope’s words in mind when seeking to understand how and why Russian President Vladimir Putin came to the fateful decision to send a 190,000 strong force into neighbouring Ukraine, inflicting so much horror on innocent people.

Putin was a KGB major before he entered Russian politics and he briefly led its FSB successor before becoming prime minister and then president as the millennium dawned. As such, Putin is heir to a conspiratorial and malevolent mindset that reaches back through the KGB, NKVD, OGPU and the Bolshevik Cheka to the Ochrana, the Tsarist secret police who lumped liberals, Freemasons and Jews into a vast conspiracy against the imperial Russian state.

Its torturers and executioners made the men who would take this to whole new lows under the Soviets. It is here, beneath the veneer of technocratic expertise on oil and gas pipelines and the ability to sing “On Blueberry Hill” to gullible Hollywood film stars that we find the real Putin, the thuggish delinquent from Leningrad’s “projects” whose resurfacing we see in the coarsening of his language, notably his belief that western leaders are “a bunch of fags”.

Despite the domestic regime often being described as “the power vertical”, it would be wrong to believe that Putin and his coterie of silovikii hard men are simply power technicians. There is an underlying ideology that feeds on resentment, and there are men like Nikolai Patrushev more hawkish than Putin himself. This thinking consists of a familiar story of national humiliation at the hands of the wicked West akin to the Chinese narrative of a “century of national humiliation” – in which Tsarist Russia was one of the colonial aggressors – plus a more positive assertion of the superior exceptionality of Russian civilisation.

In shorthand form this is called Russkii mir or Russian World. It means autocracy and Orthodoxy, with a large admixture of mumbo jumbo about Slavic “soulfulness” and viciousness towards what Putin openly calls “Gayropa”. A rather feeble Eurasian Customs Union serves to mask Russian domination of the project. In these senses Putin is just another conservative nationalist strongman, hence his appeal to so many of his populist admirers the world over who share his animosity towards “liberalism” as embodied by the European Union.

History – or a warped version of it – plays a part in this mentality. Putin knows people can grasp its fragments from their schooldays in a way that talk of souls and spirits is too abstract, too nebulous. But we must venture deeper than the rote role of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45, which is as omnipresent in Russia as it is in Britain, China or the US (though, tellingly, their dates differ). Putin reaches back to medieval Kievan Rus for the origins of Orthodoxy and incipient statehood – though that statehood was transferred to Moscow, which became the Third Rome in religious terms after the loss of Constantinople to the Turks.

Russia also acquired Asiatic accents after two centuries of Mongol rule. His little knowledge tells him that the lesser members of the Slav Orthodox family – Ukraine and Belarus – lacked statehood until Tsarist conquerors restored it; until then they were simply playthings of foreign contestation, while their high culture was Russian. Putin also admires Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, but for their empire-building, not their respective enthusiasms for the West and the European Enlightenment.

But there is one Tsar who really catches his imagination. Ironically, at a time when across the West public statues are being torn down, Putin has been busily erecting ones of Tsar Alexander III (1881-94), a stern reactionary nationalist, who famously said, “We can have no policy that is not purely Russian and national”. Though Alexander was known as “the peacemaker” for not being very warlike, he spent much time repressing minorities, from Germans to Jews.

In all, Putin has erected eight statues of Alexander, including a huge one in annexed Crimea in 2017. Indeed, such is Putin’s keen interest in history he required energy giant Gazprom to fund a touring “Russia: my history” exhibition to get across the official version. The content was devised by Bishop Tikhon, Putin’s personal Orthodox confessor, the beards, bells and smells crowd being as ubiquitous at Putin’s court as at his imperial predecessors.

With much solitary time on his hands during the covid crisis – during which the 69 years old Putin retreated to hermetically sealed apartments – the Russian President has taken to writing rather than reading history. Last July he authored 6,000 words on how he views Ukraine as indissolubly linked to Russia. In this version, the “state destroyer” Lenin relinquished Ukraine to the Central Powers in 1918, enabling a brief episode of chaotic Ukrainian statehood under Symon Petliura – just as described by the great novelist Mikhail Bulgakov. Then, after 1922, having granted Ukraine the status of an independent Soviet Republic, Khrushchev gifted it Crimea in 1954.

The fanatical anti-Semites who had run that wartime experiment resurfaced in Nazi occupied Ukraine twenty years later – murdering Jews by the tens of thousands – and it is their names (Stepan Bandera being one) which since 2014 have been commemorated on streets in independent “Kiev”. From there it is a short jump to claiming that ethnic Russian exclaves are being subject to “genocide”, which chimes with deeper Russian resentments that the Soviet Union was like a prison for the dominant national group, who since the fall of Communism have emerged like a butterfly from a chrysalis.

In that sense, the Russian “victims” of a polyglot empire, much given to celebrating the charming folkways of Chechens and Kazakhs, share something with the self-abnegating English in the British Empire. The spiritual father of Russian resentment was the erstwhile dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who late in life became a Putin favourite and whose conservative-nationalist trajectory resembles that of Dostoyevsky.

Putin’s distorted view of history has real consequences. Take one small incident. In the first week of the war, Russian missiles demolished a small port called Ochakiv on the Black Sea coast of Ukraine. Why? Ochakiv was reconquered from the Ottoman Turks for Catherine the Great in 1788 by the legendary Russian commanders Potemkin and Suvorov. It was then that Catherine started handing out the black and orange “beetle” ribbons sported by Russian troops since the incursion into Crimea and the Donbas in 2014. But what really riled Putin was that Ukraine had sought US help in modernising Ochakiv to house a few patrol boats that Putin views as a threat to his large Black Sea fleet.  By week four Ukraine was cut off from it almost entirely.

As well as fake history, which involves editing and embroidering the well-known, the old secret police mindset remains hyper-active in Putin’s Russia. While NATO has manifestly been playing grandmother’s footsteps for a decade and a half into Russia’s “sphere of influence” (a nineteenth-century geopolitical term) Ukraine has not been overtaken over by neo-Nazis and it is not conspiring to build a nuclear bomb or biological weapons. There are more fascists in the Russian Duma than in the Ukrainian Rada, and at least one of Putin’s ideological influences was a Russian fascist.

But all this is to be trapped by the past. Putin has led Russia down that road for over twenty years instead of diversifying an economy that has enabled oligarchs to capture the nation’s wealth; instead of offering young Russians a reason to remain and to have children. One day, when the pensioners, policemen, priests and public servants who support it die off, that sterile vision will pall. But until they do, Putin’s version will prevail, and soon Russia will be nothing more than a hydrocarbons appendage of mighty China. Meanwhile, Putin’s backward vision continues to mesmerise and distract the West, and terrible failures of statecraft abound.

Michael Burleigh is Senior Fellow at LSE Ideas and author of “Populism: Before and After the Pandemic”, part of which deals with British relations with Russia

Current Affairs

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