Today's WorldView • Analysis
China and Russia draw closer, but how close?
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In words and deeds, Putin shows he’s rejecting even Soviet-era borders

His speech this week makes it clear he’s out to restore “historic Russia”

Russian President Vladimir Putin signs documents, including a decree recognizing two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent, at the Kremlin on Feb. 21. (Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images)
6 min

President Vladimir Putin’s emotional speech on Monday justifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was eye-opening in many ways. Among other things, it cast new light on the Russian president’s complicated and evolving relationship with the Soviet past.

Even before this week’s attack, Putin’s use of troops abroad — in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine — has been taken by some as evidence of a desire to rebuild the Soviet Union. U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), among others, have suggested this interpretation. So did President Biden in his Thursday comments announcing further sanctions.

And Putin’s own words have at times supported this interpretation — in 2005, for instance, he called the collapse of the USSR “a major geopolitical disaster of the [20th] century.”

In fact, what Monday’s speech reveals isn’t nostalgia for the Soviet state but Putin’s fury at the incompetence of early communist leaders who built it on such rickety foundations. In his current view, Vladimir Lenin and associates tore apart what Putin thinks of as “historic Russia” — and he is not about to forgive or forget.

The U.S. and Europe didn’t get what they wanted from Putin. But Putin didn’t get what he wanted from them.

Putin blames Russia’s Bolsheviks

In his hour-long tirade, Putin seemed at times more angry at the Bolsheviks who created the Soviet Union than at modern-day Western leaders.

Lenin, in his telling, pandered to nationalists, split up historically Russian territories and planted a land mine in the Soviet constitution by giving each Soviet republic the right to secede. Lenin, he continued, built “odious and utopian fantasies” that were “absolutely destructive” into the architecture of the state.

The Bolsheviks’ approach was “not just a mistake but much worse than a mistake.” According to Putin, their “injustices, lies and outright pillage” led directly to the 1991 Soviet collapse that scattered enclaves of ethnic Russians across now-independent countries.

Offering to help “decommunize” Ukraine, Putin made clear that the restructuring he had in mind would leave little of the country intact.

Of course, Putin’s logic here is flawed. Ukraine’s secession had nothing to do with Lenin’s secession clause. The Ukrainian independence declaration in 1991 made no mention of the Soviet constitution, which by that point had been discredited. Instead, Ukraine cited the right to self-determination in the U.N. Charter.

But that’s not the point. The real surprise in Monday’s speech is the abuse Putin heaps on communist icons and the Soviet historical record. Even the extended essay he published last summer, which in many ways prefigured this week’s speech, did not achieve the same intensity of anti-Bolshevik vitriol.

For Putin, invading Ukraine comes with political risk at home, these surveys show

What made Putin so anti-communist?

Putin has been falling out of love with Soviet communism for a long time. The story of this disenchantment is important for what it says about the Russian president’s current motives.

As a spy in Dresden in the 1980s, Putin already saw himself as a technocratic specialist for whom too much ideology got in the way. “For us professionals,” he once told his political adviser Gleb Pavlovsky, “it hindered our work.”

As the Berlin Wall collapsed, Putin was shocked by the Soviet superpower’s inability to defend itself. Angry crowds surrounded the KGB outpost in Dresden and Putin requested reinforcements. But, as he later recalled, “Moscow was silent.” To Putin, this was a stunning betrayal of the Soviet state by its communist leaders.

Still, he remained at least ambivalent. As president, 10 years later, he was solicitous of the many communists who were nostalgic for Soviet greatness. To the horror of liberals then supporting him, he restored the rousing Soviet-era music of the national anthem. New in power, he even drank a toast to Stalin with Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.

In part, this was electoral calculation — Putin still needed the backing of left-leaning older Russians. But in 2003, the Kremlin’s political operatives crushed the Communist Party as a political force and stole many of its voters by denouncing the party’s financial ties to billionaire oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Putin prosecuted him for tax fraud, and the Kremlin co-opted the party.

Still, Putin rarely spoke negatively about communism. In 2016, he confessed, “I really liked and still like communist and socialist ideas,” and claimed to have kept his old party card.

That Putin has complicated feelings about Russia’s past is hardly accidental. His father, a war veteran, was a loyal communist. His mother, a devout Russian Orthodox believer, secretly had the future president baptized. He grew up between two ideals.

At heart, Putin has always been a conservative, with a horror of revolutions — who was unlucky enough to grow up in a society that was forged by one. But by the Brezhnev era, when Putin came of age, the Bolshevik Revolution had crystallized into a tradition. Rather than images of anarchic street fighting, the 1917 revolution evoked ritualistic parades and collective celebrations. Paradoxically, Putin seems to have accepted the communist coloration of the Soviet past — out of conservatism.

Don't miss any of TMC's smart analysis! Sign up for our newsletter.

Putin’s new identity

At least, so it seemed. But a competing idea has been building for some time. Already at the Bucharest Summit in 2008, which Putin attended as a guest of NATO, he called Ukraine a “very complicated state” that had been patched together, in part, from territories taken from Russia. At that point, he seemed to recognize Ukraine’s borders as a fait accompli.

But in subsequent years, this grievance came back in ever more elaborate forms. And now a new identity has burst through. Putin no longer accepts the compromises of the Soviet past. His recent words and actions suggest he has become a radical nationalist, out to reshape borders and forge a single people out of Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians, despite the human costs of war.

Pre-1917 “historic Russia” included a range of territories beyond just Ukraine, some of which — like Kazakhstan, the Baltic states and Moldova — have ethnic Russian minorities. If Putin stays true to the convictions he embraced in his speech on Monday, the door he has opened may prove hard for the world to close.

Professors: Don’t miss TMC’s expanding list of classroom topic guides

Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at UCLA, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford and co-author of “Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century” (Princeton University Press, 2022).