History is a teacher. But it can be a very bad one. It is Ukraine’s tragedy that the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, is a textbook example of how to draw the wrong lessons from the past.
Many things have gone into the making of Putin, the accused war criminal: His rough childhood produced a fighter and bully. His training in the KGB added a chillingly cold outlook where power is the key to everything. His long stay at the very top, then, made him arrogant and careless.
But without his perverse view of history, this explosive mix would not have ignited by way of a massive invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s actions have shown that, for him, history consists of two—and only two—things: the collective lives of nations as he imagines them, and endless Hobbesian geopolitical struggle between them. And these things do, actually, matter, so he feels constantly confirmed in his prejudices. But the Russian president now leaves no room for anything else, in particular the role in history of restraint and patience, quiet yet real and persistent forces that helped humanity survive the risks of the Cold War.
In his law-of-the-jungle mindset, he has picked Ukraine as his hill to kill on, for two reasons, both about history as he sees it. First, Putin’s idea about the past of Russian-Ukrainian interaction is a bizarre Russian-nationalist caricature. Second, Putin’s ideas about recent world history, essentially between the Second World War and now, are one long gripe.
Putin’s key delusion is his willful failure to understand—and accept—how Ukraine has come to be. For him, as far as he concedes that Ukraine exists, for now, he insists that most of its territory doesn’t belong to it. Cherry-picking the past, he has cobbled together a deeply false narrative of Russia repeatedly gifting Ukraine lands it did not deserve, for which he blames the former Soviet Union’s Communist rulers. And so, to him, not only is Ukraine not really there but almost all of it is really Russian in terms of “true” identity—or, at least, so close to Russian that the difference becomes irrelevant. This is the gist of his long disquisitions on what he sees as the common history of Russians and Ukrainians. With a mind naturally intelligent yet grievously impoverished by nationalism and a soul without compassion except for those he selects to count as his own, this is a leader who makes time to produce—surely with some help—massive screeds on the past as he misunderstands it. Putin is not only a very bad pupil of history. Worse again: He thinks he is its master.
In reality, Russia and Ukraine have a long past of close interaction, but they are not the same. While Ukraine could establish an independent state only recently, its history of becoming a nation is much longer—and it is no more an “invention” or “construction” than Germany, the U.S., or, indeed, Russia.
Meanwhile, Putin misses the bitter irony that he is the one devastating the relationship between Ukrainians and Russians, quite possibly forever.
And Putin’s distortion of history is even broader than that. It also prominently includes the Second World War, the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, and the post-Cold War period. Unlike his dark musings about Ukraine, his ideas on these events are not entirely baseless—but the consequences of his errors there are no less serious.
Regarding the Second World War, for Putin it was a historic struggle between fascist evil and the rest of the world, in which the Soviet Union made a key contribution to defeating Nazism, which he feels is not recognized enough by the West. That much is true. Where he loses contact with reality again, is in “nationalizing” this achievement for Russia. As if millions of Ukrainians—and others—had not fought in the Soviet army as well. Or as if those sacrifices bestow no rights on their descendants, while Russian sacrifices somehow justify Moscow’s predominance. (With respect to another legacy of the Second World War, far-right forces in Ukraine are a red rag to Putin. His claim to “denazify” Ukraine is ridiculous and evil in its stunning hypocrisy, while the West has not done enough to signal that though it welcomes Ukraine, the same is not true for the Ukrainian far right—a far right that does not, as Putin claims, run the country, but that is real.)
Concerning the way the Soviet Union yielded in the Cold War and then ended, Putin sees a great defeat that could have been avoided if late-Soviet leadership had not been too “soft.” In reality, it was the Soviet Union’s failure to reform its economic system—compared to the way China has done—that forced it to retreat from superpower confrontation. Its then leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev was not flawless, but it did leave behind one great historic achievement of which Russians should, actually, be proud: it initiated and then accepted a peaceful end to the Cold War. Putin, however, sees a catastrophe and is determined to do better, as he understands it. Should he ever believe that Russia faces massive geopolitical decline again, he will fight—including against the West. As he has told us, he prefers no world at all to a world without Russia. And to him, as a great-power nationalist, that really means a world without a powerful Russia. The eminent scholar of the Cold War Mary Elise Sarotte has warned us to take the danger of nuclear World War III seriously again. Indeed.
With respect to what happened after the end of the Soviet Union, debate continues among scholars and pundits over whether the West made and broke promises not to expand NATO. But it is clear enough that Putin sincerely—and not without at least some plausibility—believes Russia was cheated by the expansion of NATO, and the fact that the West did not confine itself to the more cautious, yet viable Partnership for Peace program initiated in 1994 that offered cooperation but not full NATO membership to countries in eastern Europe.
For a historian in particular, it is a dismal fact to face, but Putin’s war of aggression on Ukraine shows the dreadful power of history—with history understood not as what actually happened, but as what we believe happened. History is not a harmless provider of good plots for slick documentaries and gripping movies. Misunderstood, misrepresented, and misused, it can destroy the present and vitiate the future.
Clearly, something so dangerous should be handled with great care, by all of us. Here’s one suggestion for now: Keep in mind that Russia’s past and identity, in reality, is not Putin’s to define. Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian patriot and unbending moralist who wrote War and Peace, would have despised Putin or prayed for his lost soul or both.
We face two tasks now: To protect Ukraine from as much further suffering as can still be prevented and to protect the world from a war to end human history. Even while we answer Putin’s attack with unprecedented resolve, we need to distinguish between what is absolutely unacceptable in his thinking and which of his ideas can, if he desists, feature in a responsible compromise, that could, for instance, make room for a neutral and independent Ukraine with full E.U. membership. To do that, if we don’t want to make Putin’s mistake of acting on a false idea of reality, we must look beyond his violent caricature of history to understand—not accept but understand—how he sees not just the present, but the past as well.
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