The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin makes his imperial pretensions clear

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Last September, Russian President Vladimir Putin was given a history lesson from a schoolchild. Putin was lecturing a gathering of students in the far-eastern city of Vladivostok about the merits of possessing “knowledge of the past” to have a “better understanding of today.” In one exchange, he invoked the great legacy of Russian czar Peter the Great, who he said defeated the Swedes at the Battle of Poltava in the Seven Years’ War against Sweden in 1709.

Except that wasn’t quite right, as Nikanor Tolstykh, a student from the Arctic Circle city of Vorkuta, reminded the Russian president. Russia fought Sweden in what’s known as the Great Northern War, which lasted more than two decades from 1700 to 1721. The Seven Years’ War was a sprawling, global conflict later in that same century during which Russia and Sweden actually were on the same side.

In the aftermath of this mild fact check, the principal of Tolstykh’s school decried the “arrogance” of her pupil in local media. In a separate interview, Tolstykh’s teacher admitted she would not have had the temerity to contradict Putin. A Kremlin spokesman insisted that Putin had an “absolutely phenomenal knowledge of history,” but that “he is always prepared to listen to such corrections, whether from a child or a specialist.”

Last Thursday, Putin showed that he had not forgotten this correction. At an event commemorating the 350th anniversary of Peter’s birth, he explicitly likened himself to the empire-expanding czar and celebrated his years of conquests.

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Peter the Great waged the Great Northern War for 21 years,” Putin said after visiting an exhibit in Peter’s honor. “It would seem that he was at war with Sweden, he took something from them. He did not take anything from them, he returned [what was Russia’s].”

The Russian president then alluded to the ongoing “special operation” in Ukraine, which he and his state’s propaganda arms have also cast as war of restoration and return — no matter that the sovereignty-violating invasion marks a grievous breach of international law and has led to many billions of dollars in damage to Ukraine’s towns and cities, the deaths of thousands of people and disruptions to the global economy that imperil millions more.

“What was [Peter] doing?” Putin said. “Taking back and reinforcing. That’s what he did. And it looks like it fell on us to take back and reinforce as well.”

Peter’s wars and territorial expansion helped shape the contours of the later Russian empire, pushing its frontiers to areas of Finland in the north and the Black Sea in the south. The Battle of Poltava that Putin cited saw Russian forces deliver an epochal blow to Sweden’s continental ambitions in Europe. A few years earlier, Peter established his west-facing capital of St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea, built at the site of a captured Swedish fortress.

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Putin has for years lionized the 18th century monarch and keeps a bronze statue of the czar over his ceremonial desk in the Kremlin’s cabinet room. In a 2019 interview with the Financial Times, he declared that Peter “will live as long as his cause is alive.” At the time, the British newspaper interpreted that “cause” to be the preservation of Moscow’s “sphere influence” along the borderlands of an expanding NATO bloc.

But the ongoing war has revealed something more deep-seated in Putin’s psyche: a narrative of mythic destiny that supersedes any geopolitical imperative and which has set Russia on a collision course with the West. Ukraine for Putin is an inseparable part of the Russian story; it is where Orthodox Christianity entered into Russian culture more than a millennia ago and therefore a kind of cradle of Russian civilization. He preceded the invasion of Ukraine with a speech fueled by historical animus, raging at the Bolshevik reorganization of the Russian empire while rejecting Ukraine’s right to sovereignty.

“Though this grievance seems situated within what Putin has called the tragedy of the Soviet collapse, his imperial inspiration extends even deeper into the country’s past,” wrote Lynne Hartnett, a historian of Russia at Villanova University, in The Washington Post. “As Putin described it in a 2012 speech, the revival of Russian national consciousness necessitates that Russians connect to their past and realize that they have ‘a common, continuous history spanning over 1,000 years.’ ”

Others pointed to historical legacies Putin may not welcome. “Like Putin, Peter wanted to build Russian military power, and not only reformed his army but built his navy, just as Putin spent 20 years modernizing his military,” wrote Mark Galeotti in the Spectator. “In the process, though he began the Russian state’s slide into insolvency and ensured it would be fighting wars not just to its north-west but also to the south, against the Ottomans.”

Russia is, of course, not the only country where ruling nationalists get swept away by such grievance. Hungary’s illiberal Prime Minister Viktor Orban grumbles about the borders delineated by the World War I Treaty of Trianon and the loss of a “greater Hungary” in the surrounding Balkans. Turkish nationalists, meanwhile, lament the Treaty of Sèvres, which tore up the defeated Ottoman Empire and shrunk the Turkish footprint in the Middle East. Hindu nationalists in India conjure up the idea of “Akhand Bharat,” a united Indian subcontinent defined by the historic reach of Hindu culture.

Political scientists would classify these urges as “revanchist” or “irredentist,” with politicians whipping up their supporters with rhetoric about lands lost and brethren communities separated by unjust borders. But Putin’s revanchism, unlike that of most other right-wing nationalists elsewhere, now has provoked a geopolitical conflagration with a growing body count.

Putin’s critics point to his explicit embrace of Peter the Great’s conquests as evidence of the foolhardiness of offering concessions to the Kremlin now. The war, they argue, was never about NATO expansion or a farcical belief in the need to “denazify” Kyiv, but the uncompromising zeal of a 21st century imperialist.

“Putin’s confession of land seizures and comparing himself with Peter the Great prove there was no ‘conflict’, only the country’s bloody seizure under contrived pretexts of people’s genocide,” tweeted Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian government. “We should not talk about [Russia] ‘saving face’, but about its immediate de-imperialization.”

One need look no further than Poltava, site of Peter’s famous, empire-building triumph over Sweden, but which is now within Ukraine. Local authorities there have not welcomed Putin’s invasion. Instead, a court in the Poltava region two weeks ago found a pair of detained Russian soldiers guilty of committing war crimes.