Defeat in Ukraine dooms Putin’s distorted historical worldview

Without victory, the essence of Putin’s confected vision of history and Russian identity disappears.

The ceremony for signing the treaties on the accession of the Donetsk People's Republic, the Lugansk People's Republic, the Zaporozhye Region and the Kherson Region to the Russian Federation. Credit: American Photo Archive / Alamy Stock Photo.
The ceremony for signing the treaties on the accession of the Donetsk People's Republic, the Lugansk People's Republic, the Zaporozhye Region and the Kherson Region to the Russian Federation. Credit: American Photo Archive / Alamy Stock Photo.

Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine has been accompanied by a bracing, if unsurprising, barrage of historical grievances from the Russian president and his supporters. He has long used history to frame the present, by selecting and distorting episodes from a mythical past. Anyone who doubts it should read Putin’s 2020 essay setting out why the Second World War demonstrated that Russia has a right to spheres of influence. Or his 2021 essay insisting on the historical unity of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. Or his 24th February eve-of-war speech denigrating Ukrainian history.

What drives these pronouncements – and the anachronisms they promote — isn’t a desire to set the historical record straight. It is a desire to impose the supposedly correct memory of the past on Russians and on the rest of the world.

History denotes events as they happened or, in theory, an academic and objective representation of these occurrences. By contrast, collective and cultural memory signify interpretations of the past and the way those interpretations are conveyed. The Kremlin deliberately blurs these distinctions, passing off interpretation as incontrovertible historical fact. Russian politicians and supportive media constantly invoke past events, from the 1709 Battle of Poltava, when Peter I defeated Sweden’s Charles XII, to the fall of the USSR, as evidence of internal heroism or external perfidy that legitimises the Kremlin’s policies today. Examples abound, from Russian television hosts telling audiences the West is waging war in Ukraine as revenge for Poltava, to the presidential administration instructing MPs to compare Russia’s war on Ukraine with previous epic – and bloody – feats, from Stalingrad to Borodino.

As well as functioning as an instrument of politics, Russian collective memory has assumed many of the attributes of a set of political beliefs. In The Uses and Abuses of History, the historian Margaret MacMillan described how secular societies invest history with the meaning previously gleaned from religion, with narratives of a heroic or traumatic past becoming parabolic moral guidelines for life in the present. Over the last decade or so, this trend has only accelerated, driven by numerous factors, from the rise of identity politics to social media’s democratisation and polarisation of debate. The Russian Orthodox Church has played an important role in propagandising such narratives in Russia, imbuing them with ecclesiastical legitimacy.

The scholar Nikolai Koposov, himself forced into exile from Russia in 2009 due to his defence of free historical thought, has tracked how memory is replacing ideology as a marker of identity in Russia and across Europe. If the Russian example is peculiar, it is due to the intensity of its leaders’ obsession with controlling the past, combined with the authoritarian political reality and the idea that the democratisation of historical truth is an attack on the very core of Russianness.

Under Putin, Russia has witnessed the criminalisation of alternative views of the past; the constitutionalisation of memory (the need to defend and respect the memory of the Second World War was written into the constitution in 2020); and the preponderant use of history in international relations, from memory wars over the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe to forging memory alliances with other irredentist powers.

The Kremlin’s obsession with controlling memory both facilitates and is facilitated by the lie that Russian history is static and immutable and therefore contains within it a Russian identity that is also static and immutable. Rather than seeing the nation as something created – and evolving – around shared bonds, Putin and his acolytes cite Russian history not only to cohere the nation, but also as evidence of a coherent nation. Put simply, one’s understanding of history dictates one’s cultural (if not national) identity, and vice versa.

The way in which history is described in Russian political discourse, public speech, and criminal legislation, makes it clear there is a Russian way and a non-Russian way to remember the past, according to the Putin regime. Remembering Russian or world history ‘incorrectly’ constitutes not a difference of opinion but an existential attack on Russian culture. It is an attempt to undermine ‘Historic Russia’, the very primordial essence from which Russia’s existence springs.

This essence, Historic Russia, ostensibly establishes Russia’s right to behave as a great power, with its own special path of development, and as a state civilisation with a messianic role rooted in 1,000 years of history.

But without Ukraine, this essence evaporates. Russia is not a great power if it can’t control its smaller neighbour. It is not a strong state if it can’t conquer cities 40km from its border. It has no civilisational legacy without the inheritance of Kyivan Rus’. And it is not worthy of its mission if it can’t convince even Russian speakers to join it in cultural communion. That is why, as he launched missiles towards Kyiv, ‘the mother of all Russian cities’, Putin declared that ‘Russia is fighting for its historical future’. Ukraine is the essence in Russia’s essentialism.

Elsewhere, both Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, have made the audacious claim that without Russia, Ukraine has no history. Ironically, in their compulsion to state this they reveal that the opposite is true: without Ukraine, the conception of Russian history that reigns in the Kremlin, and most of Russian society today, ceases to exist.

Russia’s war against Ukraine cannot end on a compromise or geopolitical wrangling over the Donbas. Even if one pretends that the US or EU could and should convince Ukrainians to negotiate with bad-faith genocidal mythomaniacs, it wouldn’t end the war – it would simply exacerbate and extend Ukrainians’ suffering. This is an unwinnable war for the Kremlin, an attempt to brutally reforge reality in support of myths of Russian greatness. But eventually, reality comes for us all, even for Vladimir Putin.

Author

Jade McGlynn