In the Kremlin room with that long white table where Putin entertains his foreign visitors there is a quartet of statues of the tsars he most admires. Their achievements are his benchmark of success.
The first two statues are dedicated to the eighteenth-century rulers who established Russia as an empire on the European continent: Peter the Great, who conquered the Baltic lands in his wars against the Swedes; and Catherine the Great, who swallowed half of Poland, extended Russian power to the Black Sea through her wars against the Turks, and annexed the Crimea, from which the Russian navy dominated the Near East.
The speed of Russia’s growth alarmed the powers of Europe. Between the sixteenth century, when it began the conquest of Siberia, and the Revolution of 1917 the Russian Empire grew at a rate of 50 square miles every day. Western fears of Russia reached their peak following the defeat of Napoleon by Alexander I, the third tsar in Putin’s pantheon. Writers like the Marquis de Custine, in his bestselling Russian Travels (1839), argued that the country was fundamentally expansionist in character, a view later reinforced by the Cold War. Does Putin’s war of unprovoked aggression in Ukraine support this theory, or is it part of something new?
Russia grew on the forest lands and steppes between Europe and Asia. There are no natural boundaries, neither seas nor mountain ranges, to define its territory, which throughout its history has been colonised by peoples from both continents. Its openness made Russia vulnerable to foreign invasion. The Mongols and the Turkic-speaking tribes, the Teutonic Knights, the Poles and Swedes, the Ottomans—they all invaded Russia prior to Napoleon.
The Russian state developed to defend the country’s frontiers, subordinating society to its military needs. Social classes were organised to benefit the state as taxpayers and military servitors. Territorial aggrandisement was its method of protecting Russia’s frontiers. History shows that Russia tends to advance its security by keeping neighbouring countries weak, and by fighting wars beyond its borders to keep hostile powers at arm’s length.
Ukraine long played a special role as a “borderland” (the meaning of the Slav word ‘ukraina‘) between Russia and the West. From its incorporation into Russia in the seventeenth century, Ukraine served as a conduit for Western ideas, technologies, and fashions in Russia. But it was an open door for Europe’s armies to attack Moscow, if they got the Cossacks or Ukrainians to join their side.
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This last point was emphasized by Putin in his long essay ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, published in July 2021, which can now be read as his justification for the invasion of Ukraine. At many points throughout its history, Putin argued, Ukraine had been used by hostile foreign states—the Poles and Swedes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Austrians and the Germans in the First World War, the allied powers in the Russian Civil War, the Nazis after 1941—as a Trojan horse against Russia. The West today, he claimed, was doing just the same. Russia was at war, not with the Ukrainians, but with their masters in NATO.
Many Russians are persuaded by this narrative because it builds on Cold War fears. It also makes sense to them in the framework of the history they were taught at school and have been fed through films and TV programmes over many years: that Russia does not start aggressive wars but is a victim of attacks by hostile Western powers, and therefore, needs a strong state and leader to defend itself against the West.
That was the lesson they had learned from Alexander Nevsky, the saintly prince of Novgorod, who in 1242 defeated the Teutonic Knights (German crusaders who had set out to impose Catholicism on Orthodox Russia) in a battle on the ice of Lake Peipus in today’s Estonia—a victory that looms large in the national consciousness because it forms the central episode of Alexander Nevsky (1938), Sergei Eisenstein’s great patriotic film, which was seen by millions in the Soviet Union during the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. It too was the lesson they had learned from 1812, the Patriotic War against Napoleon; and the story they were told about World War Two, which they date from 1941, when the Soviet Union was invaded by the Germans, not from 1939, when there was a Soviet-Nazi pact.
The other argument of Putin’s essay—that Ukraine is a historic part of Greater Russia and has never had an independent nationhood—also makes sense to the Russians’ understanding of their country’s history. From tsarist times the Russians have been taught to look down on the Ukrainians (the “Little Russians”) as their junior brothers in a family of Russians (with the Belarussians or “White Russians”) which made up the empire’s Slavic core. The Russians’ leading role in the Soviet Union was similarly emphasized, particularly after 1945, when Stalin credited the “Great Russians” for the Soviet victory and began a campaign of Russification in the newly annexed territories of west Ukraine, Moldova, and the Baltics.
The sense of cultural superiority which this inculcated in the Russian population may help to explain the brutality of Putin’s operation in Ukraine. The Russian killings of civilians, their rapes of women, and other acts of terror are driven by a post-imperial urge to take revenge and punish them, to make them pay for their independence from Russia, for their determination to be part of Europe, to be Ukrainians, and not subjects of the “Russian world.”
The “Russian world” is Putin’s mythic concept of a spiritual empire uniting Russia with Ukraine and Belarus in a tripartite nation going back to Kievan Rus in the first millenium. The idea was developed by the Russian Church to promote its spiritual inheritance from Kievan Rus, a link broken by the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It was seized on by Putin, who used it as an arm of his foreign policy to defend the Russian speakers (he called them ‘our citizens’) left outside the territory of Russia after 1991. He justified his invasion of Ukraine on the bogus pretext of protecting them from the genocidal aims of what he called the Junta, the post-Maidan nationalist government in Kiev. The fact that these Russians were Ukrainian citizens, and identified themselves as such, did not count in Putin’s view.
This is where the last tsar in our quartet of statues, Nicholas I, appears closest to Putin in his vision of the Russian World. Devoutly Christian, Nicholas believed that Russia was an empire of the Orthodox uniting Moscow (‘the Third Rome’ or last remaining seat of the true faith) with Constantinople and Jerusalem. On these grounds, in 1853, he went to war against the Turks to force the sultan to concede to his demands for a privileged position for the Orthodox in the Balkans and the Holy Lands (both then ruled by the Ottomans). His fatal error was to underestimate the western powers’ willingness to support the Turks. In 1854 the British and the French sent their allied forces to the Crimea where they captured the Russians’ naval base at Sevastopol, forcing them to surrender.
Among Russia’s nationalists, including Putin, Nicholas I is a national hero because he stood up to the West for Russia’s spiritual interests, and because he made that stand alone, against the opposition of the western-looking liberal intelligentsia. Likewise, Putin cultivates the image of a man who stands alone for Russia, who is Russia in his patrimonial autocracy.
Whether he believes in the religious (‘Russian’) values which he places at the heart of his anti-Western nationalism is hard to say. Unlike Nicholas I, he was not brought up as an Orthodox believer, but had a KGB training, which lends more credence to the view that he is merely using these ideas —for instance his attacks on U.S. arrogance or LGBT rights—to stir up feelings of mistrust and hatred for the West. It is a hostility already felt by millions of Russians who lost out from the collapse of 1991, who never quite adjusted to the market system and democracy, and who now want a return to something like the Soviet Union.
Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine is a sign of the imperial expansionism that has defined the Russian state for so much of its history. But it is based as much on mythical ideas as on geo-politics in the conventional sense: ideas of a nationalist, socially conservative, anti-Western and religious character that underpin dictatorships in Russia, China, and Iran. Before us we can see a new type of empire arising in Eurasia, uniting countries with historic grievances against the West. It is an empire growing in supporters and ideas.
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