Last Thursday, Joe Biden invoked history to explain Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. ‘He has much larger ambitions,’ the US president said. ‘He wants to, in fact, re-establish the former Soviet Union. That’s what this is about.’
It isn’t. Putin thinks the Soviet Union wasn’t tough enough. In his address to the nation last Monday, Putin claimed that it went pear-shaped from the get-go: from the moment in 1922 when Lenin decided to ‘appease nationalist ambitions on the outskirts of the [Tsarist] empire’ by creating the USSR as a confederation. Its fifteen constituent republics were theoretically allowed to go their own way, and though Stalin was forceful enough to keep this ‘odious and utopian’ revolutionary fantasy in check, it constituted a ‘ticking time bomb’. Because nationalism was allowed to endure, neo-Nazism ‘rapidly developed’ across Ukraine after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Putin’s made the same argument before, linking it to a second fundamental flaw in Soviet political structures. In a 2016 speech to supporters in Crimea – the Ukrainian peninsula he invaded in March 2014 – Putin blamed Lenin for having also planted seeds of conflict in the now contested eastern Ukrainian regions of Lugansk and Donetsk. Ethnicities hadn’t just been given too much autonomy a century ago, he said; ethnic difference had been disregarded when that suited Bolshevik purposes. That was why Russians in eastern Ukraine were suffering today. Lenin had wanted the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to contain more workers, so he had ‘nonsensically’ detached the mining region from Russia.
Putin’s resentments aren’t consistent. In 2005, he called the USSR’s collapse the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [twentieth] century’. That hasn’t made his sympathy for Russians stranded outside the Motherland any less potent though. Nostalgia for selective Soviet achievements, along with implicit pride in the glories of Tsarist imperialism, has given him a viewpoint that systematically downplays or disregards the aspirations of any nation previously ruled from Moscow.
Putin’s difficulty with the idea that other peoples think differently is now reaching its terrible culmination. In an article posted on the Kremlin’s website last year ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, now more revealing than ever, Putin proposed that the very notion of a country with a capital in Kyiv was a fantasy imagined by intellectuals and Polish noblemen. ‘Since there was no historical basis – and could not have been any – [their] conclusions were substantiated by all sorts of concoctions’, he wrote. Insofar as Ukrainians had any distinct identity at all, they were just ‘Malorossy’ – Little Russians.
Putin’s approach to history isn’t rigorous, as the reflections in that rambling 6885-word article prove, but he’s understood the practical value of politicised nostalgia for at least fifteen years. At a meeting in his suburban villa on 21 June 2007, he convened a confab of academic historians which has come to assume great significance. ‘The old adage that whoever controls the past also controls the present and the future is being proven true time and time again today,’ he told them. Their duty was therefore to develop a coherent historical narrative, so as to ‘develop a national ideology that represents the vision of ourselves as a nation.’
School textbooks, state-owned media and government pronouncements have been promoting a centrally-coordinated approach to Russia’s past ever since, and one episode in particular has assumed pivotal significance. The date of Putin’s meeting with the historians was no accident – it was the eve of the anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 – and efforts to recall the Great Patriotic War almost immediately began to intensify. Between 1945 and 1991, there were just four parades to celebrate the defeat of Nazism. After Putin’s 2007 call for patriotic history, Victory Day became the defining moment of Russia’s political calendar – and now, if his invasion announcement of 24 February is to be believed, the country is once again battling to ‘demilitarise and de-Nazify’ a genocidal regime.
The argument is useful for smearing Russia’s adversaries. It’s not a plausible view of history though, let alone a fact. It’s a smokescreen and a lie. Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy is a Jew, whose grandfather fought with the Red Army while three great-uncles were being exterminated by Nazis. Anyone who thinks he’s spent the last two years presiding over a neo-Nazi state is delusional. Putin’s real complaint is that Ukrainians haven’t shown enough gratitude for Russian lands mistakenly given up by the Bolsheviks – and need to be reminded by force.