How far back do you have to go to tell the story of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? You could start with 2014, when a pro-Russian president was ousted and the Kremlin first sent troops into the country. Or maybe 2005, when the Orange Revolution kicked off Ukraine’s drift out of Russia’s political orbit. Perhaps you need to go back to 1991, when the Soviet Union fell and the two countries became independent.
No, Vladimir Putin would say, you need to go much farther back than that: To 1941, at least. Or maybe 1917. Depending on the Russian president’s mood, you might hear about 1654 or even 988 and 882.
Putin is hardly the only world leader who refers frequently to his nation’s glorious history. But to an unusual extent, he seems to be living in the past, viewing current events through the prism of things that happened dozens or even hundreds of years ago. And that view is certainly influencing his actions as president.
According to a New York Times account based on interviews with those who’ve interacted with him recently, Putin has “completely lost interest in the present” and spends much of this time poring over Russian history with his closest confidants. Visiting foreign leaders are often treated to extended harangues on Russian history.
Putin’s penchant for playing amateur historian was perhaps demonstrated most dramatically by a 7,000-word essay published under his byline on the Kremlin website last summer, in which he enlisted more than 1,000 years of history to make the case that Russia and Ukraine are, in fact, one nation. He drew on many of the same historical arguments about the supposed illegitimacy of the Ukrainian state in his rambling Feb. 21 speech announcing the deployment of Russian troops to the occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, the prelude to the all-out invasion. Among other themes, the speech spent several paragraphs assailing Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin as the “creator and architect” of Ukraine’s illegitimate statehood.
“Putin was always interested in history from the very beginning of his presidency,” Ivan Kurilla, a professor of history at the European University at St. Petersburg, who studies the political use of history in contemporary Russia, told Grid. Kurilla said that for a long time he viewed Putin’s historical rhetoric as “just instrumental, just a tool.” But lately, he’s come to see it differently. “When Putin started to explain his Ukrainian war with a long lecture about history, I started to think that actually he’s quite serious. He has some weird ideas about the past and about Russian history. And he’s trying to find a place for himself in that history.”
So what are those ideas, and what do they suggest about how Putin views the war he has unleashed?
The deep past
The visitors to the Kremlin on April 20 may have been puzzled. At a meeting with a delegation of schoolchildren and administrators from an education nonprofit, Putin launched into a digression, questioning what he called the “Norman theory of the formation of the Russian state.” It was the sort of historical non sequitur that tends to be lost on those not versed in Russian history but provides some clues to his worldview.
Some background — from more than a millennium ago: According to legend, Rurik, a Viking prince, was invited by the Slavic people of Novgorod, in what is now northwest Russia, to be their ruler during a time of turmoil in the 860s. Rurik’s successor, Oleg, then relocated south to Kyiv, founding what is now known as Kyivan (or Kievan) Rus, the predecessor state to both Russia and Ukraine.
Most historians don’t take the Rurik legend at face value, but they agree that Rus had Viking origins. As Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy has written, the word “Rus” was probably first used by local Slavs to refer to Swedes. It was adapted from a Swedish word meaning “men who row.”
Faith Hillis, a professor of Russian history at the University of Chicago, said the notion that Rus was founded by Scandinavians “has implications that are offensive and bewildering to [Russian] nationalists, who are trying to say, ‘We were foreordained by God to have this wonderful state.’”
In his remarks, drawing on this Russian nationalist historical tradition, Putin referred to an “opinion” that Rurik “had a mother from the Slavs.” He added that the mere fact that someone was around in Russia at the time to invite Rurik to rule suggests there was a “quasi-state or proto-state” in Russia at the time. The point — for Putin: Slavic Russians have ruled these lands — modern Ukraine included — for more than 1,000 years.
Another key — and contested — figure in this story is Vladimir the Great, the ruler of Kyivan Rus who converted the kingdom to Christianity in 988. As the Putin regime has sought to more closely associate itself with the Orthodox Church and conservative religious values, the veneration of Vladimir has also increased. In 2016, a 52-foot statue of Vladimir was unveiled just outside the Kremlin, a move seen as politically provocative in Ukraine which claims “Volodymyr” as its own. (In a confluence of history and the current war, the current presidents of both countries share his name.)
For Putin, as he explained in that long essay last summer, it’s of critical importance that “Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are all descendants of ancient Rus … bound together by one language (which we now refer to as Old Russian), economic ties, the rule of the princes of the Rurik dynasty, and — after the baptism of Rus — the Orthodox faith.” Translation: All these lands have been Russian since the beginning and should be Russian now.
Alas, history is complicated. And quite a bit has happened in the intervening millennium to divide the two nations: Kyivan Rus was conquered by the Mongols in the 13th century, and the western part of Ukraine was later absorbed into Poland. This interrupts the Putin nationalist narrative, and it’s why 1654 is another key date: That’s the year when Ukrainian Cossacks fighting Polish domination swore allegiance to the Russian czar. From that moment on, in Putin’s view, “The Cossacks referred to and defined themselves as Russian Orthodox people.” A divided nation was reunited.
But, said Hillis, this history is also contested. Russians talk about 1654 as “the reunification of the two parties,” she said. “Whereas Ukrainians think about it as a treaty between two states that had certain overlapping interests.”
Hillis said it’s clear from Putin’s statements that “he’s not just making this up. There’s a long precedent for his arguments.” She suspects that he’s mainly been reading “19th century historians — imperial historians who were very interested in the origins of Rus.”
It’s an interpretation of history that’s tailor-made for Putin’s current political priorities.
Kurilla said while Putin’s dives into the deep history of Rus are a relatively recent phenomenon, the obsession with World War II has been consistent from the beginning — a “quasi-ideology for the regime.” As the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen wrote recently, the fixation on the war has become what some Russians call pobedobesiye, or “victory mania.”
It’s hardly surprising that a country would prominently commemorate victory in a conflict that may have killed more than 27 million Soviet citizens. The problem, according to historians, is that the government has been enforcing its own very particular interpretation of the war, and doing so very aggressively. While most of the world considers the war to have begun in 1939 with the invasion of Poland, in the Russian version it began in 1941, when Nazi Germany attacked Russia. This start date has the advantage for Russia of erasing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, under which the Nazis and Soviets agreed to divide Poland between them.
Putin has aggressively promoted his version of the war history. In 2020, leaders at a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States heard an hourlong screed in which Putin more or less blamed Poland for provoking its own invasion and downplayed the Nazi-Soviet pact by comparing it to the deal the allies made, ceding Sudetenland to Hitler in Munich in 1938.
Also in 2020, Putin published a long English-language article expanding on his revisionist views of World War II in the U.S. magazine National Interest, after which Russian embassies around the world emailed history professors to urge them to include it in their lesson plans.
Questioning the Putin interpretation of World War II is illegal in Russia — just as questioning the conduct of the current war can land Russians in prison. In 2016, an auto mechanic from Perm became the first person prosecuted under a new law banning the “dissemination of knowingly false information about the activities of the USSR during the Second World War.” His crime? A social media post linking to an article stating that “Communists and Germany jointly attacked Poland and started the Second World War on 1 September 1939!”
Steven Seegel, a professor of Slavic and Eurasian studies at the University of Texas, told Grid that Putin clamped down on dissenting views about the war so aggressively that “it became almost impossible to view history as a discipline or a method. It was really more like weaponized information.”
This weaponization became almost literal when Russia began its “denazification” campaign in Ukraine. The fact that Ukraine’s current leaders are clearly not Nazis is almost beside the point. As Gessen wrote, these days, Russia’s leaders simply “brand real or imagined challengers to their power as Nazis.”
Catriona Kelly, a professor of Russian at the University of Oxford, told Grid, World War II “is the number one form of historical legitimation for Putin. And so, what he says about Ukraine obviously draws on that. One thing that’s important is that it’s writing Ukraine out of the war. So, the enormously important role that was played by Ukrainian soldiers and the huge war losses in Ukraine are just absorbed into the Russian story.”
Another complication with Putin’s victory mania is the regime’s somewhat ambiguous view of the Soviet era. While Putin has described the breakup of the Soviet Union as a “geopolitical catastrophe,” he has evinced no nostalgia for communism. Though Lenin remains in his tomb on Red Square, the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution passed with almost no public commemoration. And Putin has blamed Soviet leaders including Lenin, Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev for Russia losing Ukraine in the first place. “Bolshevik Party leaders sometimes basically drove [the Ukrainians] out of Soviet Russia for various reasons,” Putin wrote.
And yet — recent days have seen widespread reports of Russian soldiers flying Soviet flags on their vehicles in Ukraine and restoring statues of Lenin that had been removed in Ukrainian cities. Living in the past means sometimes living with contradictions.
Others have helped Putin develop his historical arguments. Among Russia’s history warriors is the far-right Orthodox media tycoon Konstantin Malofeev, nicknamed “Putin’s Soros” for his promotion of foundations pushing the Kremlin line. In addition to allegedly backing separatist militias in eastern Ukraine, for which he has now been sanctioned by multiple countries, Malofeev had ambitious plans to build historical theme parks in Crimea promoting a family-friendly version of Russian history.
When I interviewed Malofeev in his Orthodox icon-bedecked Moscow office on a visit to Russia in 2014, he echoed the historically charged rhetoric that his patron, the president, would later use to much greater effect: “The current borders [of the Russian Federation] reflect the revolution of 1991 and the revolution of 1917,” he told me. “We the Russian people are a divided nation.”
Putin’s ally Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has also been urging Russians for years to “stop the schemes of those who wish to divide Holy Rus.” There’s also Yury Kovalchuk, the conservative oligarch and longtime Putin friend who was reportedly at his side as he pored over Russian history over the past two years.
Then there’s Vladimir Medinsky, who served as minister of culture for 2012 to 2020, when he was known for publicly blasting historians, writers or filmmakers who deviated from the official patriotic line. Kurilla told Grid that Medinsky is “the embodiment of the Russian historical politics, of this use of history for political purposes. He is not a historian. He is one of the most hated persons among Russian historians.”
Given Medinsky’s resume, it was somewhat surprising to see him emerge in March as Putin’s chief negotiator in ceasefire talks with the Ukrainian government. His selection was widely seen as a sign Putin wasn’t taking the talks all that seriously. But perhaps, from a president who seems to draw little distinction between Russia’s past and present, it wasn’t such a surprising choice after all.
Past is prologue
Putin is right that the definition of who and what is part of “Ukraine” has shifted dramatically over the centuries. He’s right that Ukraine’s history and culture are closely entangled with Russia. It may even be fair to say that many Russian-speaking Ukrainians did not always fully identify with the independent Ukrainian state. In his view, this makes the Ukrainian state illegitimate, a foreign imposition to be resisted as previous generations resisted the Nazis.
But as a student of history, he should also know that nations are often created out of the stories societies tell about their past. And given his own regime’s use of the Great Patriotic War, he should know that nothing unifies a country like resisting a violent invasion. Future Ukrainian leaders won’t have to refer to 988 or 1917 or 1991 to justify their nationhood. They’re more likely to talk about 2022.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.