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History as Putin Sees it: Unity or Else

History as Putin Sees it: Unity or Else

Thursday, 24 February, 2022 - 12:00

In an article published in July, President Vladimir Putin invokes historical arguments to refute the legitimacy of the Ukrainian state. During his speech recognizing the republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, he reiterated this position, saying that Ukraine lacks the foundation of an independent entity in the first place. He painted a bleak picture of its political and economic conditions.

Going far back in history to justify today’s actions and behavior is a game that, despite the risks, remains a favorite among politicians who usually share characteristics that render “the facts of history and geography” prioritized over today’s realities. We see copious use of revisionist histories by the Baath in its Iraqi and Syrian wings. Comparisons not wholly disconnected from reality between Putin’s recent statements and Saddam Hussein’s insistence on “bringing the offshoot back to its origin” on the eve of his invasion of Kuwait. Similar views were expressed by the Syrian Baathists when they argued that Lebanon was an “artificial entity” before the past decade’s events demonstrated just how artificial many of the region’s entities are.

European and Asian nationalists of various colors and strikes were amateur interpreters of history, explaining its course in line with their whims and interests. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Japan did not shy away from using the past to justify its invasion of Korea, recalling the Mongol Empire’s two attempts to occupy Japan from the Korean coast but not Japan’s invasion of Korea in the late sixteenth century.

A historian should go over what the Russian President said in his long article and during his fiery speech on the evening of the twenty-first of February. The roles played by figures like Alexander Nevsky and Bohdan Khmelnitsky, Hetman rule in Ukraine, and the relationship between the Russian Church and Russian “boyar” class one the on hand and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth on the other, and even the degree to which the Mongol Yoke is responsibility for hindering the Russian state’s development, are among the issues that should be put in the contradictory contexts chosen in line with the interests of those scavenging through ancient texts for justifications for their behavior.

There is nothing new here. History is just as much an arena of political struggle as it is an objective and empirical academic field. Readers of modern history ought to scrutinize Putin’s account of how the modern Ukrainian state emerged after the 1917 revolution. He denied that the nascent state had any popular representation, limited its founders to a few Ukrainian intellectuals influenced by the West, and pointed to Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev’s leadership of the Communist Party for thirty years, and the political structure of Soviet Union, which Russia was the political, economic and human heart of, to justify his argument on the shared fate of Russia and Ukraine that allowed these two individuals of Ukrainian origin to reach the summit of power. As for the Kolkhoz (collectivization of private agricultural land and turning it into state farms) and the famine that hit Ukrainian during the early years of Stalin’s term in the thirties, which came to be known as the Holodomor, the suffering from these calamities was shared by Russians and Ukrainians. Meanwhile, emphasizing the Russians’ responsibility and portraying these actions as attempts to commit genocide against the Ukrainian people is nothing more than a Western effort to divide the two peoples, or rather “a single people in two states” (another Baathist slogan).

Everything that unites Ukrainians with Russians, then, is genuine and commendable. Everything that divides the two peoples is a fabrication cooked up under the influence of mercenaries and traitors. A simplistic and comforting vision to those who reduce history, which is complex by its very nature- because of the complexity of human behavior and the economic, social, and cultural factors that shape it- to very clear cut conclusions like those Putin reached during his televised address: deviating from the course of unity with Russia has left the door wide open to thieves, oligarchs, and Russia’s enemies of Russia controlling the fate of Russia Ukrainian people. Jaws could hit the floor in bewilderment if we were to recall the identical assessment about how Putin and his entourage manage the economy and politics in Russia.

This is to not minimize the gravity of the actions taken by the West when it overwhelmed Russia in the 1990s. It exploited the chaos that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse, maximizing its benefits. It ignored the most basic security needs of a country of Russia’s size, insisting on adding former Soviet republics such as the three Baltic states to NATO and building missile defense bases in Poland and Romania under the pretext of countering Iranian missiles... All this provided people like Putin- who write similar articles and give similar speeches- the ammunition they need. Today, the West and Russia find themselves stuck atop two tall trees, with neither side having access to a ladder that would allow for a safe and quiet descent to the ground.

And so, are the story about the transition from paganism to Orthodox Christianity or the story of how the Rurik Dynasty founded the Russian principality and was behind the emergence of city-states in and around Novgorod- to say nothing about the West’s foolishness two decades ago- valid arguments to raise in denying today’s Ukrainians the right to an independent state and to choose the destiny they believe will lead to prosperity and development? Does accepting the Russian point of view not imply the right to pose the same questions about Putin’s rule, its particularities, and virtues? At the end of the day, the Russian president’s words are muffled by the roar of tanks heading towards the Ukrainian border.

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