Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not just a war on history but a war of history. The opening salvo began with Putin’s angry, hour-long history lecture, trying to erase Ukrainian statehood from the history books. Western leaders have responded by marshaling their own stilted histories to frame and comprehend Putin’s war motivations. Nowadays, the only historical debate seems to be whether Putin seeks to reconstitute Russia’s Soviet empire or its czarist empire. Either way, politicians and pundits seem sure he’s reverting to Russia’s autocratic, imperial traditions.
But simply drawing a red line from Russia’s autocratic past to its autocratic present obfuscates more than it enlightens. If we are to understand Putin, we should focus instead on the more proximate and relevant history of Russian democratization of the 1980s and ‘90s. After all, the institutional foundations of modern Putinism were laid in these decades, not centuries earlier.
By the 1970s, the Soviet Union had largely become a run-of-the-mill autocracy. Civil liberties were constrained and the Communist Party held a monopoly on political power, but Marxism-Leninism had lost its ideological potency and Stalinist terror was a thing of the past. Long lines and empty shelves embodied the stagnation and corruption of the economy, while the elderly leaders in the Politburo embodied the stagnation and corruption of the political system.
When a young Mikhail Gorbachev inherited the post of general secretary in 1985, he began a series of reforms meant to jump-start the moribund Soviet economy and breathe life into the decaying body politic. His perestroika meant a “restructuring” of the old administrative-command economy, leading to the beginnings of private enterprise. Glasnost — or “openness” — encouraged Soviets to have a frank discussion about the problems in the system. And demokratizatsiya (democratization) was meant to reinvigorate Soviet politics by retiring the old guard and replacing them with new people with fresh ideas, through multicandidate — and then even multiparty — elections.
Before demokratizatsiya, Soviet elections were a farce: The people did not select their leaders but rather simply affirmed local representatives vetted and approved by the Kremlin. With Gorbachev’s 1989 creation of the 2,250-seat Congress of People’s Deputies, Soviet voters were, for the first time, free to choose their members of their parliament. The following year, that very Congress repealed Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution — which enshrined the leading role of the Communist Party — to develop a genuine multiparty political system.
Soviet citizens could now choose leaders — both for the national legislature and the leadership of each of the Soviet Union’s 15 constituent republics — who represented their views. Unlike previous generations of leaders who rose to power by being loyal apparatchiks within the ruling Communist Party, this generation of politicians had to court the electorate if they wanted power. Caught up in the wave of democratization that toppled the Berlin Wall and swept joyously across the communist bloc, the understanding that sovereignty ultimately lay with the people could not be denied, even within the Soviet bastion of absolute autocracy.
As Nobel Prize-winner Amartya Sen famously argued, the idea that popular sovereignty was the expectation rather than an aberration — “like a ‘default‘ setting in a computer program” — was a modern, 20th-century development. That such a fundamental shift in understanding took root even in the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s — because of both the wave of liberalization internationally and the demands of the Soviet people themselves — is the key to understanding the entire modern Putinist system.
Ultimately, the political interests of the various Soviet peoples found expression in nationalist democrats like Boris Yeltsin — duly elected president of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic — who in 1990 urged fellow reformers both within the Russian Federation and the leaders of neighboring republics to “take as much sovereignty as you can swallow.” When they did, the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving 15 newly independent countries. The largest and most populous was the Russian Federation.
Russia’s post-Soviet foray into liberal democracy under Yeltsin in the 1990s was unquestionably messy, corrupt and tainted by a decade-long economic depression. But while the pains of marketization constrained Russians’ economic freedoms, their political freedoms were greater than at any time in Russian history. A grass-roots civil society flourished in the 1990s, alongside a robust media environment and penetrating investigative journalism. Civil liberties meant Russians were free to criticize, organize, campaign and contest for political power. The Russian legislature — the Duma — became a raucous forum with far-right nationalists, old-school communists, pro-Western liberal reformers and Kremlin loyalists all vying for power.
Today, pro-Putin Russian patriots scoff at the 1990s as some misguided attempt to parrot the decadent West rather than follow Russia’s autocratic “civilizational” traditions. But ironically, Yeltsin’s democratic legacies — however imperfect — are crucial to modern Putinism, as the entire system is still built upon that supposedly “Western” concept of popular sovereignty.
Throughout much of the 1990s, Yeltsin — drunk, corrupt and ailing — had public approval ratings of less than 30 percent. Russia’s freewheeling media endlessly criticized his policy failures and personal shortcomings. Independent television networks beamed demoralizing scenes of Russia’s disastrous war in Chechnya (1996-1998) into peoples’ apartments nightly, further eroding Yeltsin’s public approval.
No public enthusiasm meant no legislative support for his policies, his reforms or his government. Even though — on paper, at least — Yeltsin’s own 1993 Constitution invested tremendous power in the presidency, in practice his lack of popular support rendered him virtually powerless.
Yeltsin appointed Putin prime minister in 1999 and anointed him interim president soon after.
Then, in the 2000s — with surging global oil prices driving a decade-long economic boom — the previously little-known Putin boasted approval ratings above 70 percent in his first two terms. With his own party of power — United Russia — behind him, he suddenly wielded tremendous influence, using the exact same political institutions that Yeltsin built.
Within this institutional structure, presidential power could only be exercised within the limits of public approval. When Putin tried in 2005 to slash benefits for pensioners, veterans and people with disabilities, the public backlash was so overwhelming it sent the supposedly “omnipotent” Putin backpedaling furiously, scuttling his reforms.
Under Putin — unlike Soviet and imperial Russia — the autocrat is not absolute. His actions are constrained by the will of the people, if indirectly.
Once in power, Putin’s first order of business was to bring powerful Yeltsin-era oligarchs to heel, including placing their once-independent television networks into the hands of trusted Kremlin loyalists. With control of the airwaves, Russia’s resulting “information autocracy” has been entirely geared toward maintaining the image of Putin as a competent leader deserving of public support, if not adulation.
Certainly, the czars had their censors and the Soviets had their agitprop, but neither was the primary pillar of their rule. Putin’s autocratic power is based on mass persuasion, not mass repression — on a carefully curated image of competence, not concentration camps.
This is a crucial distinction: If all Russian autocracies are not the same, then strategies to confront them should not be the same either. All the efforts to end Putin’s war by popping the Kremlin’s disinformation bubble — allowing the Russian people to view the horrors unleashed and react accordingly — bear witness to this fundamental truth.
Historical comparisons can be illuminating, but they can also be dangerous. Political scientists have long warned that overreliance on analogies from the past can distort leaders‘ information processing about the present, unduly constraining the range of policy options and leading to bad decisions.
Indeed, we are all watching in real time how Putin’s stilted and misinformed views about the past are leading Russia into disaster in the present. And while there’s little that can be done from abroad to remedy the Kremlin’s stilted and misinformed reading of European history, at the very least, Western leaders and their publics should be careful to not follow Putin’s lead by basing their strategic decisions in the present upon a willful misreading of their opponent’s history.