How far back do you have to go to tell the story of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? You could start with 2014, when a pro-Russian president was ousted and the Kremlin first sent troops into the country. Or maybe 2005, when the Orange Revolution kicked off Ukraine’s drift out of Russia’s political orbit. Perhaps you need to go back to 1991, when the Soviet Union fell and the two countries became independent.
No, Vladimir Putin would say, you need to go much farther back than that: To 1941, at least. Or maybe 1917. Depending on the Russian president’s mood, you might hear about 1654 or even 988 and 882.
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Putin is hardly the only world leader who refers frequently to his nation’s glorious history. But to an unusual extent, he seems to be living in the past, viewing current events through the prism of things that happened dozens or even hundreds of years ago. And that view is certainly influencing his actions as president.
“Putin was always interested in history from the very beginning of his presidency,” Ivan Kurilla, a professor of history at the European University at St. Petersburg, who studies the political use of history in contemporary Russia, told Grid. Kurilla said that for a long time he viewed Putin’s historical rhetoric as “just instrumental, just a tool.” But lately, he’s come to see it differently. “When Putin started to explain his Ukrainian war with a long lecture about history, I started to think that actually he’s quite serious. He has some weird ideas about the past and about Russian history. And he’s trying to find a place for himself in that history.”
So what are those ideas, and what do they suggest about how Putin views the war he has unleashed?
The deep past
Some background — from more than a millennium ago: According to legend, Rurik, a Viking prince, was invited by the Slavic people of Novgorod, in what is now northwest Russia, to be their ruler during a time of turmoil in the 860s. Rurik’s successor, Oleg, then relocated south to Kyiv, founding what is now known as Kyivan (or Kievan) Rus, the predecessor state to both Russia and Ukraine.
Faith Hillis, a professor of Russian history at the University of Chicago, said the notion that Rus was founded by Scandinavians “has implications that are offensive and bewildering to [Russian] nationalists, who are trying to say, ‘We were foreordained by God to have this wonderful state.’”
For Putin, as he explained in that long essay last summer, it’s of critical importance that “Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are all descendants of ancient Rus … bound together by one language (which we now refer to as Old Russian), economic ties, the rule of the princes of the Rurik dynasty, and — after the baptism of Rus — the Orthodox faith.” Translation: All these lands have been Russian since the beginning and should be Russian now.
Alas, history is complicated. And quite a bit has happened in the intervening millennium to divide the two nations: Kyivan Rus was conquered by the Mongols in the 13th century, and the western part of Ukraine was later absorbed into Poland. This interrupts the Putin nationalist narrative, and it’s why 1654 is another key date: That’s the year when Ukrainian Cossacks fighting Polish domination swore allegiance to the Russian czar. From that moment on, in Putin’s view, “The Cossacks referred to and defined themselves as Russian Orthodox people.” A divided nation was reunited.
But, said Hillis, this history is also contested. Russians talk about 1654 as “the reunification of the two parties,” she said. “Whereas Ukrainians think about it as a treaty between two states that had certain overlapping interests.”
Hillis said it’s clear from Putin’s statements that “he’s not just making this up. There’s a long precedent for his arguments.” She suspects that he’s mainly been reading “19th century historians — imperial historians who were very interested in the origins of Rus.”
It’s an interpretation of history that’s tailor-made for Putin’s current political priorities.
It’s hardly surprising that a country would prominently commemorate victory in a conflict that may have killed more than 27 million Soviet citizens. The problem, according to historians, is that the government has been enforcing its own very particular interpretation of the war, and doing so very aggressively. While most of the world considers the war to have begun in 1939 with the invasion of Poland, in the Russian version it began in 1941, when Nazi Germany attacked Russia. This start date has the advantage for Russia of erasing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, under which the Nazis and Soviets agreed to divide Poland between them.
Steven Seegel, a professor of Slavic and Eurasian studies at the University of Texas, told Grid that Putin clamped down on dissenting views about the war so aggressively that “it became almost impossible to view history as a discipline or a method. It was really more like weaponized information.”
This weaponization became almost literal when Russia began its “denazification” campaign in Ukraine. The fact that Ukraine’s current leaders are clearly not Nazis is almost beside the point. As Gessen wrote, these days, Russia’s leaders simply “brand real or imagined challengers to their power as Nazis.”
Catriona Kelly, a professor of Russian at the University of Oxford, told Grid, World War II “is the number one form of historical legitimation for Putin. And so, what he says about Ukraine obviously draws on that. One thing that’s important is that it’s writing Ukraine out of the war. So, the enormously important role that was played by Ukrainian soldiers and the huge war losses in Ukraine are just absorbed into the Russian story.”
Past is prologue
Putin is right that the definition of who and what is part of “Ukraine” has shifted dramatically over the centuries. He’s right that Ukraine’s history and culture are closely entangled with Russia. It may even be fair to say that many Russian-speaking Ukrainians did not always fully identify with the independent Ukrainian state. In his view, this makes the Ukrainian state illegitimate, a foreign imposition to be resisted as previous generations resisted the Nazis.
But as a student of history, he should also know that nations are often created out of the stories societies tell about their past. And given his own regime’s use of the Great Patriotic War, he should know that nothing unifies a country like resisting a violent invasion. Future Ukrainian leaders won’t have to refer to 988 or 1917 or 1991 to justify their nationhood. They’re more likely to talk about 2022.
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