Puncturing Putin’s dangerous myths

Everyone reveres WWII myths — but the cult of the Great Patriotic War defines modern Russia


This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Perhaps like investment advisers’ caveats that past performance may not be an assured promise of future profits, historians ought to issue a health warning when making predictions about the future, which can be a precariously exposed business. In 2014, just before Russia invaded Crimea and began to occupy chunks of Eastern Ukraine, Orlando Figes — one of the best historians of Russia writing in the English language — published a brilliant little book, Revolutionary Russia.

The Story of Russia, Orlando Figes (Bloomsbury, £25)

In it, he declared boldly that as Russia had become weaker since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was “no longer the aggressive threat it once was. It does not start foreign wars”.

It’s best, perhaps, to glide over this. Many of us, after all, have been there with these hostages to fortune. Best to remember Figes’s great gifts as an historian. His book The Russian Revolution, A People’s Tragedy is the go-to work on the subject (after those of Trotsky and Nikolai Sukhanov, both of whom lived through the events) and his beautifully written Natasha’s Dance brought Russia’s cultural heritage to a larger audience. Interpreting the future, though, may be better left to someone else.

Interpretation of the past is the main theme of The Story of Russia, a short primer of Russian history from the two centuries before the Mongol invasion of the steppes to Vladimir Putin’s most recent assault on Ukraine. It is an interesting essay in historiography as much as an excellent work of vivid storytelling.

There’s an old Soviet-era joke from the days when official Marxist/Leninist ideology ordained that Communism was the assured destiny of the USSR. “Russia is a country with a certain future,” the saying went. “It is only its past that is unpredictable.”

Every nation has comforting myths and narratives about their history: the cultural battlefield that fills the columns in this magazine is proof of that, as was much of the debate about Brexit. Ask a native American what he or she might think about the founding myth that the US has never been an imperial power, or a Frenchwoman about the idea that Joan of Arc was a symbol of freedom.

But Figes is undoubtedly right that nowhere are myths about the past so important and alive — dangerously so — as in Russia. Present policymaking is to an enormous extent based on how the current establishment of ultra-nationalists who are close to the dear leader perceive history. “No other country is so divided about its own beginnings,” he writes. “History is always political … myths can be dangerous when used by dictators to reinvent their country’s past.”

Figes begins with a description of the “grey November morning” in 2016 when President Putin unveiled a hideous 20-metre high monument outside the walls of the Kremlin to Grand Prince Vladimir, 10th century ruler of Kievan Rus. According to Putin’s speech that day, the little-known Vladimir founded “the first Russian state … he gathered and defended Russian lands … by founding a strong, centralised state”.

The myth is central to his justification for invading Ukraine

Details about the real Grand Prince are scarce. Among the few things we do know is that he had at least 800 concubines before he chose to be a Christian rather than a Muslim around the year 988 (he is an Orthodox saint). To the Ukrainians, he is hailed as Volodymyr, ruler of an entirely separate Ukrainian state.

As Figes explains, there is almost no evidence to justify Putin’s claims that there was anything like a unified state called Kievan Rus. Repeated invasions from the east and the south saw to that, before Ivan the Terrible, the first tsar, began the creation of a Russian empire five centuries later, to which Ukraine eventually became annexed in the 1700s.

To Putin, the Russianness of Vladimir is crucial to his world view. The myth is central to his justification for invading Ukraine, as he made clear in “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, his 5,000-word essay published in the summer of 2021. He argued there was no such thing as a Ukraine separate from Russia, or a Ukrainian culture.

The very idea of Ukraine, he claimed, has been “an anti-Russian project” since the 17th century and the territory of the present Ukraine “lies on historically Russian lands”. Few in the West took any notice, which is why we were ill-prepared for the disaster that has created turmoil in our economies, overturned geopolitical assumptions, destroyed thousands of lives, much of the infrastructure of Ukraine and has brought catastrophe in Russia.

From this founding myth, Figes explores many others that have been useful to tsars, communists and the siloviki, the “men of force” in charge of the military and state security who are in the inner circle of power today. There’s the idea that an empire as large and diverse as Russia’s needs a strong, autocratic leader — a vozhd — or anarchy rules. As Stalin said without a hint of irony, “Russians are a Tsarist people.” As they have seldom been given much alternative, who knows? For centuries, most people in the West appear to have accepted the argument, which has often turned out to be a mistake.

From Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine, Alexander II (who abolished serfdom as late as 1861), Lenin and Stalin, to Gorbachev and Putin, the arc of Russian history, as Figes sees it, the ebb and flow of the tide, has been a near-schizoid desperation to be part of Europe, accompanied by a fear that Russia’s Eastern roots would be lost. “Russia is between East and West,” Alexander Herzen said in the 1840’s. As true now as ever.

Figures from Russia’s past were judged in a mock trial

In the mid 2010s, one of the most popular shows on Russian TV was The Court of Time. Figures from Russia’s past were judged in a mock trial, and the jury would reach their verdict by telephone. Those judgments do not suggest we should be optimistic about a change of attitudes among the Russian public any time soon. More than 78 per cent of the people believed Stalin’s murder of the kulaks and forced collectivisation were justified; nine out of ten thought the Hitler-Stalin Pact necessary; 91 per cent thought Stalin’s forced labour during rapid industrialisation justified.

All the participants in the Second World War revere enduring myths: Dad’s Army, Dunkirk and England Alone, Saving Private Ryan, la Gloire of the French resistance. But the cult of the Great Patriotic War continues to define modern Russia today. As Figes explains, Putin and his entourage call the Ukrainians “fascists” partly because some wartime Ukrainians saw ridding themselves of the Soviets as the principal war goal and 80 years ago allied themselves with the Germans.

The post-war idea of the conflict was manufactured by the Communists and refined by Putin. Originally Stalin, embarrassed by the Soviet death toll, announced an official war dead as seven million and downplayed the war. Only in the 1960s did the Politburo admit to a more realistic 28 million death toll, begin to celebrate Victory Day as something holy and start to present the USSR as the “saviours of mankind”. Putin has given the war greater significance still — almost religious in its symbolism — and lambasts the West for not giving Russia the reverence he feels it is due for its feats of arms.

Figes is acute about placing the past in Russia’s present. As for the future, it is risky making predictions. But I will go with one of them in this book. “Russia appears to be trapped in a repeating cycle of its history … The Ukraine war is unnecessary. Unless it is soon stopped, it will destroy the best of Russia — those parts of its culture and society that have enriched Europe for a thousand years.”

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