The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin’s centuries-long march into Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin has portrayed his country as struggling for survival. (Illustration by Johanna Goodman. Images: Wikimedia Commons; Library of Congress; Agence France-Presse/Getty Images; Boyer/Roger Viollet/Getty Images; Alexander Nemenov/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images; and Heidi Levine for The Washington Post.)

When did Russia’s war in Ukraine begin? For most observers in the West, the answer is in 2014 when, in response to the Euromaidan revolution that overthrew the corrupt regime of the Moscow-friendly Viktor Yanukovych, Russian troops first invaded and occupied Ukrainian territory. The Kremlin expanded the conflict drastically on Feb. 24 of this year with an invasion of the entire country that Russian President Vladimir Putin now threatens to escalate into a direct military confrontation with NATO. But, as three new books show, this war has a longer history: Russia has been fighting it not just for years but for centuries. Ukraine has been a key battleground in an ancient and civilizational struggle that has defined Russia’s path through history, its relations with its neighbors and its very sense of itself as a country.

The popular aphorism that “Russia is a country with an unpredictable past” understandably works its way into all three books. Russia’s past is packed with traumas, ruptures, defeats and victories that have been invoked, distorted and reinvented by successive generations. In “A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, From the Pagans to Putin,” Mark Galeotti recounts how Russia’s rulers have proved a largely pragmatic bunch, ready to rummage around in a grab bag of historical symbols, myths and traditions (many of them imported) to shore up their claims to power. Writing in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, authors Rodric Braithwaite and Orlando Figes are readier to cast Putin not as a cynical manipulator of Russian history but as a firm believer in its apparent lessons. Figes’s “The Story of Russia” is the most detailed, astute and compelling of the three; it wears its learning lightly and weaves a well-crafted history together with an insightful examination of the narratives that have become “fundamental to the Russians’ understanding of their history and national character.” All three books illuminate the deep historical wellsprings of Putin’s war on Ukraine and the accompanying crackdown in Russia itself.

Russia’s long struggle with the West has also been a struggle with itself, one that has ebbed and flowed since at least the turn of the 18th century when Peter the Great embarked on far-reaching institutional and cultural reforms intended to Westernize his empire, to make it economically and militarily more competitive. He succeeded, but at the expense of a rent in the fabric of Russian history that left many recently Europeanized elites feeling estranged from the traditional culture of the peasantry. In “Russia: Myths and Realities: The History of a Country With an Unpredictable Past,” Braithwaite cites the Russian historian and statesman Nikolai Karamzin, who lamented a century after Peter’s death, “We became citizens of the world but ceased in certain respects to be citizens of Russia.” Anguished debates ensued over whether the empire’s elites should endeavor to “civilize” the common people to instill in them Western values: respect for the individual, the rule of law, constitutions. Or should they embrace Russia’s traditions as the foundation of a distinctive non-Western culture based upon the teachings of the Orthodox Church? Was liberalism a force to be emulated or resisted?

Russians have answered that question in a variety of ways ever since, but for the Russian state in its successive incarnations — tsarist, Soviet and now post-Soviet — the answer has almost always been the same. Each has erected ideological ramparts to resist the encroachment of Western ideas. The fascistic hyper-patriotism now pumped out by the Kremlin’s TV studios is but the latest version of an abiding claim to superiority over the West. The Russian president himself is an enthusiast for this invective and only too eager to join the fray. As his tanks bore down on Kyiv in their failed assault on the Ukrainian capital in March, Putin found time to opine publicly on the controversy surrounding J.K. Rowling’s views on transgender rights. Western countries had, Putin averred, degenerated to the point where basic biological facts were now in doubt; Russia was, by contrast, a bastion of traditional values and a beacon to peoples around the world who thirst for moral leadership.

The ideological cornerstone of Putinism is the vision of a state locked in a struggle for survival. It draws on deep historical narratives that have been rehashed for at least four centuries, since the Time of Troubles, which at the end of the 16th century plunged the medieval kingdom of Muscovy into more than a decade of civil war while enabling the Russians’ great foe to the west, Poland, to invade and occupy the country. In 2005, Putin revived a tsarist-era holiday, now dubbed the Day of National Unity, to commemorate the expulsion in 1612 of the Poles from Moscow. Since the early 2000s, the Russian government has waged a determined campaign to control public understandings of the past, prescribing the content of school textbooks, films and documentaries, museums and memorials. Multimedia exhibitions thronged with visitors rehearse the repeated invasions of Russia from the Mongols in the 13th century to the Nazis in the 20th to bludgeon home the message that the Russians need a strong leader to defend them from internal enemies and external foes. This effort to foster a sense of national unity based on historic sacrifices and victories has undoubtedly reinforced the domestic appeal of Putin’s increasingly stark confrontation with the West. History has become, as Galeotti writes, a “guidebook for geopolitics.”

And so to Ukraine, the latest arena in this centuries-long struggle and one rich in historical significance. Last July, Putin published his now-infamous essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” effectively a manifesto for the invasion. It offered a distorted account of relations between the peoples of today’s Ukraine and Russia since the 9th century that amounted to a grievance-laden dismissal of Ukrainian nationhood as a fake enterprise supported only by Russia’s enemies. The sovereign Ukrainian state that emerged from the rubble of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a fabricated entity, designed to convert the Ukrainians (who in Putin’s version are not really Ukrainians at all but either traitorous or duped Russians) into an “anti-Moscow nation” and an instrument of Western aggression against Russia. The desire to undo the post-1991 settlement and reunite the “Russian world” became, Braithwaite writes, an “obsession [which] fuelled his brutal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.”

In its mendacious rendering of the past, Putin’s historical screed tapped deep currents of imperialist nostalgia and the enduring belief that the lands to Russia’s west were its historical patrimony. Figes cites the pan-Slavist Mikhail Pogodin who, in 1853, at the outset of the Crimean War, sent a memorandum to Czar Nicholas I: “If we do not liberate the Slavs and bring them under our protection, then our enemies, the English and the French … will do so instead. … Then we will have ranged against us not one lunatic Poland but ten of them.” Nicholas commented in the margin, “Absolutely right.”

Yet Putinism lives not by history alone. Aggression abroad is closely bound up with repression at home. The disastrous invasion of Ukraine has been politically sustainable in Russia so far only because the Kremlin has suppressed all but its own sanctioned coverage of the “special operation.” Critical voices challenging Putin’s casus belli and highlighting Russia’s isolation, the atrocities committed daily by Russian troops and the disastrous costs of the conflict for Russia have been all but silenced. More than two centuries after Catherine the Great exiled the writer Alexander Radishchev to Siberia for daring to criticize the institution of serfdom in print, Russia is once again a country in which holding up a placard (even a blank one!) on a street corner leads to arrest. Incautious social media posts criticizing the war are now punished by up to 15 years in prison.

Historical analogies are no substitute for historical explanations. There is not, Figes makes clear, a cultural DNA that condemns the Russians to rehearse the same drama of tyranny and doomed revolt. The problem lies rather in the chaos of each revolt, which discredits the very democratic impulses that challenge, however fleetingly, the authoritarian domination of the state. All three books show how, in the last century, the overthrow of the old regime in Russia has twice been accompanied by a breakdown of law and order and vast suffering among the population. In 1917 many Russians abandoned their support for democracy and, amid the chaos of the revolution and the ensuing civil war, endorsed an authoritarian state that would guarantee order and halt the spread of anarchy. Seventy years later, in the mid-1990s, faced with economic collapse, spiraling crime and the rise of the oligarchs, only 7 percent of Russians thought the downfall of the Soviet Union had been a democratic victory. The elevation to the presidency of a former KGB officer on the eve of the new millennium represented for many a welcome promise of order and authority restored.

This historical record inspires little optimism for Russia’s future. Under Putin, the state has hollowed out and then crushed the institutions essential for the establishment of a democratic system. Nongovernmental organizations, independent media and universities, museums and theaters have been engulfed by a rising tide of xenophobic hysteria, branded “foreign agents,” forced to close or brought to heel with the imposition of pro-Putin apparatchiks who ensure that the Kremlin’s line is dutifully parroted. Thousands of political opponents, independent journalists, intellectuals and artists have been cowed, driven into exile or, like Alexei Navalny, now languish in Russian jails, convicted on charges trumped up by pliant prosecutors and judges. When change finally does come to Russia, the forces of democratic renewal will lie shredded and scattered. Nothing is set in stone, but the future, like the history, looks bleak.

Daniel Beer is a reader in modern European history at Royal Holloway College, University of London, specializing in modern Russian history. He is the author, most recently, of “The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars,” which won the Cundill History Prize.

A Short History of Russia

How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, From the Pagans to Putin

By Mark Galeotti

Hanover Square. 224 pp. $16.99 paperback

The Story of Russia

By Orlando Figes

Metropolitan. 348 pp. $29.99

Russia: Myths and Realities

The History of a Country With an Unpredictable Past

By Rodric Braithwaite

Pegasus. 270 pp. $27.95

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