History can be a great teacher. It can also be very destructive. It is Ukraine’s tragedy that the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, is a textbook example of how to draw the wrong lessons from the past.
Putin’s rise to power is a result of many factors. Putin was born into a bully and fighter from his rough childhood. He was a KGB prisoner, which gave him an icy outlook on power and everything. He was arrogant, careless, and had a long time at the top.
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This explosive mixture would have not been possible without Putin’s perverse vision of history. Putin’s actions have shown that, for him, history consists of two—and only two—things: the collective lives of nations as he imagines them, and endless Hobbesian geopolitical struggle between them. These things are important, and he is constantly confirmed by his preconceptions. However, the Russian president is now unwilling to consider anything other than the historic role played by patience and restraint in helping humanity survive the Cold War risks.
He has chosen Ukraine to be his hill-to-kill on because of his law-of the-jungle mentality. This is for two reasons. The first, it’s about his view of history. First, Putin’s idea about the past of Russian-Ukrainian interaction is a bizarre Russian-nationalist caricature. Second, Putin’s ideas about recent world history, essentially between the Second World War and now, are one long gripe.
Putin’s key delusion is his willful failure to understand—and accept—how Ukraine has come to be. For him, as far as he concedes that Ukraine exists, for now, he insists that most of its territory doesn’t belong to it. Cherry-picking the past, he has cobbled together a deeply false narrative of Russia repeatedly gifting Ukraine lands it did not deserve, for which he blames the former Soviet Union’s Communist rulers. And so, to him, not only is Ukraine not really there but almost all of it is really Russian in terms of “true” identity—or, at least, so close to Russian that the difference becomes irrelevant. These are his lengthy discussions on the “common history” of Ukrainians and Russians. With a mind naturally intelligent yet grievously impoverished by nationalism and a soul without compassion except for those he selects to count as his own, this is a leader who makes time to produce—surely with some help—massive screeds on the past as he misunderstands it. Putin is not only an inept student of history. And worse: Putin believes he can be its master.
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Although Russia and Ukraine share a history of interaction in the past, they aren’t exactly one. While Ukraine could establish an independent state only recently, its history of becoming a nation is much longer—and it is no more an “invention” or “construction” than Germany, the U.S., or, indeed, Russia.
Putin ignores the irony of being the one who has destroyed the Ukrainian-Russian relationship, possibly for ever.
And Putin’s distortion of history is even broader than that. This distortion of history also includes the Second World War as well as the Soviet Union’s collapse and end of Cold War. Unlike his dark musings about Ukraine, his ideas on these events are not entirely baseless—but the consequences of his errors there are no less serious.
Putin views the Second World War as a historical struggle between Fascist Evil and the Rest of the World. In which the Soviet Union played a crucial role in defeating Nazism (which he believes isn’t enough recognized by the West), he said. It is true. Where he loses contact with reality again, is in “nationalizing” this achievement for Russia. As if millions of Ukrainians—and others—had not fought in the Soviet army as well. Or as if those sacrifices bestow no rights on their descendants, while Russian sacrifices somehow justify Moscow’s predominance. Putin considers the far-right in Ukraine a red rag because of another legacy from World War II. His claim to “denazify” Ukraine is ridiculous and evil in its stunning hypocrisy, while the West has not done enough to signal that though it welcomes Ukraine, the same is not true for the Ukrainian far right—a far right that does not, as Putin claims, run the country, but that is real.)
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Concerning the way the Soviet Union yielded in the Cold War and then ended, Putin sees a great defeat that could have been avoided if late-Soviet leadership had not been too “soft.” In reality, it was the Soviet Union’s failure to reform its economic system—compared to the way China has done—that forced it to retreat from superpower confrontation. While its then leadership, under Mikhail Gorbachev wasn’t perfect, Russia should still be proud of one historic accomplishment: the Cold War was ended peacefully. Putin sees the problem and wants to fix it. Should he ever believe that Russia faces massive geopolitical decline again, he will fight—including against the West. According to him, he’d prefer no world than a Russia-free one. He is a nationalist of great power and believes that a Russia-free world would be better. Mary Elise Sarotte, a noted scholar on the Cold War, has advised us to consider the possibility of nuclear World War III again. Indeed.
There is much debate among pundits and scholars about what took place after the fall of the Soviet Union. But it is clear enough that Putin sincerely—and not without at least some plausibility—believes Russia was cheated by the expansion of NATO, and the fact that the West did not confine itself to the more cautious, yet viable Partnership for Peace program initiated in 1994 that offered cooperation but not full NATO membership to countries in eastern Europe.
For a historian in particular, it is a dismal fact to face, but Putin’s war of aggression on Ukraine shows the dreadful power of history—with history understood not as what actually happened, but as what we believe happened. It is not an innocuous source of plots and characters for documentaries, or movies. If it is misunderstood or misused, history can ruin the present as well as vitiate its future.
We all need to take great care when dealing with something this dangerous. Here’s one suggestion for now: Keep in mind that Russia’s past and identity, in reality, is not Putin’s to define. Leo Tolstoy (the great Russian patriot as well as unbending moralist, who wrote Peace and WarWould have detested Putin, prayed for his soul, or both.
Two tasks are at hand: Protect Ukraine from any further pain and protect the rest of humanity from an end-of-human history war. Even while we answer Putin’s attack with unprecedented resolve, we need to distinguish between what is absolutely unacceptable in his thinking and which of his ideas can, if he desists, feature in a responsible compromise, that could, for instance, make room for a neutral and independent Ukraine with full E.U. membership. To do that, if we don’t want to make Putin’s mistake of acting on a false idea of reality, we must look beyond his violent caricature of history to understand—not accept but understand—how he sees not just the present, but the past as well.