The History Putin Would Rather Forget

Putin's selective recounting of Russia's history with Ukraine speaks volumes.

The History Putin Would Rather Forget

I meet strangers on trains, in the airport, and they ask me what I do. When I tell them that I study the history of Central Europe, they ask me what that is. I remember telling a girl on the train to Oxford to close her eyes and imagine the space between France and Russia. By this I intended to gesture toward the enormous fluidity of the political entities within the Holy Roman Empire, my specialty. In retrospect, I may have inadvertently implied that Central Europe is more acted upon than acting; a region overshadowed by centers of force external to it. Certainly since the Cold War, we have paid more attention to Central Europe as an agent of history, whether Mitteleuropa or Peter Wilson’s “heart of Europe.” These concepts depict the history of Europe; like all historical discussion, they also signal a position in the present.

Since the war in Ukraine, Central Europe is definitely back.

By this I mean not only that the states comprising Central Europe are geostrategic agents, but also that the way European decision makers think about Central European history informs their actions, and the way they speak about it adumbrates their thoughts.

In his recent interview with Tucker Carlson, Putin justified his war in Ukraine by appealing to history as he understands it. As a historian of the seventeenth century, what I found exceptionally interesting was not the history Putin described, but the history he did not describe. I believe he chose not to describe the early-modern period in Central Europe precisely because it is an obsession for him.

Most of Putin’s presentation of history focused on the middle ages. Then he segues: “It was in the 13th century. Now I will tell what happened next and give the dates so that there is no confusion. Then in 1654,” the “people who were in control” of Ukraine “turned to Moscow so that Moscow took them under its rule.”

What Putin leaves out between “the thirteenth century” and “what happened next” includes most of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During this period Muscovy was peripheral. The largest powers in Central Europe at the beginning of this period were the Holy Roman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the empire of Sweden also rose and fell.

I believe the motive for this telling silence is fear. Putin is obsessed with Poland, Lithuania, Sweden and Finland, and to a lesser extent Germany, and he is afraid of them. He is uncomfortable with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries because early-modern Muscovy’s position was ambiguous then.

At first glance, this seems counterintuitive. What Putin is almost entirely repressing is a series of conflicts known as the Northern Wars, which lasted from the 1550s to the 1720s. These conflicts are traditionally taught as “Russia’s wars of emergence,” which shaped Russia as an important European power. In the past, Putin has compared himself to Peter the Great, who reigned at the end of this period, from 1682 to 1725. This interview was Putin’s attempt to explain himself and justify himself to the United States from his own point of view, which includes his instrumental use of history. If Russia emerged as a great power through seventeenth century conflicts, why not discuss at least the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries?

In his interview with Carson, Putin did not mention Peter the Great at all. Instead, he referred to a single seventeenth-century event which he believes established Ukraine as an integral part of Russia, Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s uprising against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which led to the creation of an independent Cossack state in what is now Ukraine. During this uprising, Khmelnytsky conducted an alliance with Muscovy against Poland-Lithuania, known as the Pereislav agreement. Putin imbues this event and artifacts associated with it with totemic force. During the interview, he repeated: “these are documents from the archives.” “Here are letters from Bogdan Khmelnitsky” requesting the alliance, “Here are copies of these documents.” And he handed a literal binder of documents to Carson, so he could touch them and feel them.

Putin mentioned nothing else from this period. He barely touched Poland during the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, even though the entire significance of the Khmelnytsky uprising for Russia is that the conflict it catalyzed fatally weakened the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to Muscovy’s benefit.

Contemporary observers hearken back to the period in Polish history that Putin glosses over. They point out that Ukraine had been part of Polish territory for longer than it was part of the Russian Empire or the USSR. When these writers argue that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was governed by representative institutions and comparatively tolerant of multiple religions, they are also signaling their support for the contemporary EU or NATO, or their opinions about the contemporary Russian Federation. “It's time to bring back the Polish-Lithuanian union,” writes Dalibor Rohac in Foreign Policy, while Neal Ascherson uses his review of a book on late eighteenth century Polish history to say that Russia has “always” been parasitic to its neighbors. Like Putin’s presentation of history, this version of Central European history is also selective, and its role is also to litigate issues in the present.

I think Putin remained largely silent on Poland-Lithuania during this interview because before the mid seventeenth century, it was a military superpower and the largest power in Europe, and he does not wish to be reminded of this. Several days ago, Poland voted to suspend participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, and provided security guarantees to Lithuania. Dmitry Medvedev already seems to believe, or claims to believe, that Warsaw is standing behind Ukraine because “Warsaw elites can’t wait to see themselves taking geopolitical revenge on Russia, including reconsidering the Pereiaslav Agreement.” Medvedev assumed Russia’s enemies share Russia’s hysterical revanchism. He continued, “Polacks have miscalculated their idée fixe: it’s no longer mid-18th century. Poland is not equal to Russia and will never be.”

But ironically, the analysts who discuss the war in Ukraine through references to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth are rarely Polish. Polish politicians seem more likely to refer to an openly religious, Catholic sense of the history of Central Europe and their role within it, such as Donald Tusk’s statement in January that the “line between good and evil” has often run through Ukraine.

By the 1650s, the most powerful force in Northeastern Europe was the Swedish empire, which Putin entirely ignores in this interview. This is another striking omission, since the traditional narrative of Russian ascent is that it became a great power in wars against Sweden in the early eighteenth century. But Sweden has now joined NATO, and so has Finland; perhaps comparison to even a victorious war against Sweden cuts a little too close to the bone. Nor can Russia pick NATO apart through the Baltics.

Instead of discussing the seventeenth century, Putin skipped from 1654 directly to Catherine the Great. Putin has based himself on Catherine without really internalizing the differences between her historical context and his own: one of the reasons he admires her is that he believes she achieved victory at less cost than Peter the Great. It is she who, in Ascherson’s words and in my own unfortunate phrasing, was able to treat Central Europe as merely “the space between Western Europe and Russia.” Yet while Catherine oversaw a political and military structure that reliably put units in the field, Putin seems to be cannibalizing his country to feed his military. Killing Prigozhin and Navalny may have strengthened Putin’s personal position within the state, but the resilience of the Russian Federation itself is still in doubt.

Benedetto Croce wrote that all history is contemporary history, because the study of the past is informed by the writer’s own time. These uses are instrumental: as Timothy Snyder has pointed out, you can use history to legitimate almost any claim about your nation. They are all examples of invented traditions. But in contrast to an older interpretation of Putin’s actions as cynical, calculated realpolitik, I have throughout this essay interpreted his statements about history both as justifications for his actions in the present and as earnest expressions of his beliefs. This is why they are fascinating; as Snyder writes, “There is something pathetic about someone as versed in lying as Putin actually believing the lies he was told when he was young.”

Putin’s specific word choices and silences in this interview with Tucker Carlson reveal that he is more afraid of NATO powers like Poland, Sweden, and the Baltic states than he wants to appear. Russia was a C-tier power in the period that this interview skipped, and it is again.

Featured image is The Battle of Narva, by Alexander Kotzebue