The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin’s war aims to undo the traumas of the 1990s for Russians

Territorial expansion is part of Putin’s attempt to rebuild a national identity — with no regard for Ukrainians

A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, smeared with red paint, during an antiwar protest Feb. 26 outside the Russian Embassy in Bucharest, Romania. (Inquam Photos/Reuters)
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In many ways, the unlikely pairing of two strands of Russian history, centuries apart, is driving Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. The Russian president has engaged his country’s imperial legacy in an attempt to overcome the trauma encountered by Russia in the 1990s. At the close of the Cold War, the country was adrift, with a spiraling economy, rampant crime and a loss of identity. Putin has worked to address all three, with territorial expansion key to rebuilding a national identity — one built around restoring the country’s imperial glory and supposed sense of unity.

In the 10th and 11th centuries, Kieven Rus’— what we today know as Ukraine — became a great European power and the center of Eastern Slavic culture. But the Mongol invasions of the late 13th century caused the already politically fragmented kingdom to fall apart. The territories unincorporated by the Mongol armies fell to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Enter the principality of Muscovy (a precursor to “Moscow”). Once subservient to the Mongol Empire — just like Kievan-Rus’ — Muscovy shifted its fate in 1480 when its grand prince, Ivan the Great, refused to pay tribute to his Mongol overlords and successfully proclaimed his territory’s independence. Muscovy then annexed fragments of Kievan-Rus’.

In the centuries that followed, Muscovy transformed into Russia. It accumulated territory in the east from Indigenous people, in the south from the Ottoman Empire and in the west after it partitioned Poland (1772-1795) and later proclaimed victory in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). By the turn of the 20th century, few could miss Imperial Russia’s territorial command over the globe.

But in 1917, the Russian Revolution fractured Imperial Russia. The empire fell apart as a newly born provisional government dealt with an unsatisfied population at home and World War I on its borders. After Russia relinquished the former imperial territories on its Western border, Ukraine firmly established its independence with the cultural heritage of Kievan Rus’ at the heart of its nation. But by 1922, Ukraine found itself reabsorbed into a collection of republics — formally supervised but supposedly not controlled by Russia — under the singular title of “the Soviet Union.”

That’s where Ukraine would remain for a half-century. The winds began to change only when a failed 1991 coup d’etat led by communist hard-liners opposed to the liberal restructuring instituted by Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev triggered a vacuum in Soviet authority. Several Soviet republics, including Ukraine soon proclaimed their independence from Moscow. The Soviet Union officially collapsed on Dec. 25, 1991.

Russia lost 23.8 percent of the territory it once claimed as its own and became a territorial shell of its former self. Once an empire that dominated both Europe and Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries and served as a powerful counterbalance to the United States throughout the Cold War of the 20th century, the nation no longer seemed to hold a powerful sway on the world stage.

This reality created a crisis of identity for Russians: Would their nation be special any longer?

The decade that followed offered no evidence that it would. After 1991, Russia encountered poverty and high crime as the country transitioned from a centralized command economy to a market economy — quite literally overnight in a process dubbed “shock therapy.” At the top, a new class of oligarchs emerged. These individuals quickly and savvily seized the previously state-owned resources that could no longer claim an owner. For everyday Russians, however, bread prices skyrocketed by 600 percent. The homicide rate doubled between 1994 and 1995, eventually averaging 84 murders a day.

Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Prize-winning collections of interviews, “Secondhand Time, captured the emotional trauma of these changes. Interviews with Russian citizens throughout the book revealed that many could no longer conceptualize their own identities. Citizens spoke of lost pride. They admitted to feeling ashamed. The chaos affecting Russian society in the 1990s evoked a nostalgia for the not-so-distant Soviet past, when everyday life seemed more stable.

And Russia’s leadership seemed feckless, unable to solve the crises plaguing the nation. The once popular Boris Yeltsin dove into alcoholism and failed to turn the tide for his country.

In 2000, Putin succeeded Yeltsin. He introduced economic and social restructuring, ranging from a flat income tax to a “bargain” struck with the newly minted Russian oligarchs. He allowed them to maintain their dominance over the Russian economy in exchange for their political support for his restructuring and leadership.

The economy turned around and began to boom — for eight straight years. Crime subsided.

But this all came with a cost: the loss of individual liberty and the freedom of speech in various spheres of public and political life. This cost served as a safety net for Putin. If his social and economic successes stopped assuring his claim to power, then this repressive hold on the freedom of speech surely would.

Putin left office in 2008, allowing Dmitry Medvedev to formally serve as Russian president while Putin maintained an informal influence. But in 2012, Putin returned to the presidency. Upon this return, he supplemented his tyranny over the freedom of expression with the repression of LGBTQ populations.

It was difficult for Russian citizens to take this opportunity cost into account, as Putin’s initial economic success trickled down to the average Russian household.

Putin also understood the thirst for a sense of national pride. Through his forceful rhetoric, he began to help reforge a national identity. He proclaimed the fall of the USSR in 1991 a catastrophe. That disaster fueled the decade of decline and emotional trauma that haunted Russians, and Putin sought to redress it by harking back to the imperial past. He spoke of a single Russian people: one that he could supposedly repatriate.

For Putin, this hyper-nationalist rhetoric went hand in hand with territorial expansion. He could not restore the magnificence of Imperial Russia without its former land acquisitions — and without its supposed former people. He invaded Georgia in 2008. He invaded Crimea in 2014. Now he has invaded Ukraine, where fierce resistance indicates that the population sees itself as Ukrainian, not Russian, despite Putin’s attempts to warp the truth.