Putin’s Speech Laid Out a Dark Vision of Russian History

There’s no room for Ukraine in the Russian leader’s distorted telling of the past.

By , a journalist in Latvia and the creator of The Eastern Border podcast.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech.
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 21. Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Over his many years as the leader of Russia, President Vladimir Putin has dedicated a lot of time and effort to controlling history. The Kremlin works hard to ensure Putin’s constructed worldview, in which Russian greatness is derived from the country’s past glory and suffering, is taught in schools and shown in all media and academic discourse as reality. A shocking and important example of this was the closing late last year of the Memorial human rights organization, which investigated Soviet repression, with the prosecution claiming that Memorial “creates a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state and denigrates the memory of World War II.”

It was no surprise, then, that the first part of Putin’s major televised speech on Monday was full of historical grievance. It was a messy, incoherent, angry rant that is difficult to make sense of but that put forward a dark vision of renewed national glory. Putin’s mix of half-truths, fantasies, and lies of omission rightly has neighboring states, once victims of Russian imperialism themselves, highly worried.

Ukraine was Putin’s chief target. He began by talking about the special place Ukraine has in Russian history, culture, and religion, and then made his first big historical claim: “Since time immemorial, the people living in the southwest of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians. This was the case before the 17th century, when a portion of this territory rejoined the Russian state, and after.”

Over his many years as the leader of Russia, President Vladimir Putin has dedicated a lot of time and effort to controlling history. The Kremlin works hard to ensure Putin’s constructed worldview, in which Russian greatness is derived from the country’s past glory and suffering, is taught in schools and shown in all media and academic discourse as reality. A shocking and important example of this was the closing late last year of the Memorial human rights organization, which investigated Soviet repression, with the prosecution claiming that Memorial “creates a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state and denigrates the memory of World War II.”

It was no surprise, then, that the first part of Putin’s major televised speech on Monday was full of historical grievance. It was a messy, incoherent, angry rant that is difficult to make sense of but that put forward a dark vision of renewed national glory. Putin’s mix of half-truths, fantasies, and lies of omission rightly has neighboring states, once victims of Russian imperialism themselves, highly worried.

Ukraine was Putin’s chief target. He began by talking about the special place Ukraine has in Russian history, culture, and religion, and then made his first big historical claim: “Since time immemorial, the people living in the southwest of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians. This was the case before the 17th century, when a portion of this territory rejoined the Russian state, and after.”

This is a deliberately confused statement: The identity of Kievan Rus, the historical kingdom that converted to Orthodoxy not in “time immemorial” but in the 10th century, is equated with the Moscow-centered Tsardom of Russia that emerged in the 16th century. To his audience, though, all these “Russians” are the same. It’s all Russia—and always has been.

Then came a piece of confusing nonsense. Putin claimed that modern Ukraine was created by the Russian communists and that Vladimir Lenin and his associates started this process right after the 1917 revolution in a brutal way, by dividing Russian lands. He specifically added: “Nobody asked the millions of people living there what they thought.”

Presumably he’s referencing the 1919 creation of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic—one of the constituent states of the Soviet Union. But Ukrainian identity and nationalism long preceded that, and Lenin’s vision of Soviet control had no space for genuine Ukrainian independence, which was crushed brutally by the Soviets. Putin’s claim bears very little resemblance to reality, but it’s a nice simple narrative—and a sop to his anti-communist supporters. Everything was Russia, and then Lenin divided it.

Putin then talked about how Stalin handed lands taken from Poland to Ukraine, along with Romanian and Hungarian territory. Stalin is the good communist in this narrative, the wise Russian father handing out land to his graceful subjects. There’s no room for the complications of Stalin’s crimes or complicity with the Nazis in invading Poland in 1939—indeed, raise those issues in modern Russia and you may be falsely accused of pedophilia and left to die in prison, like 67-year-old historian Sergei Koltyrin.

Putin followed this remark up with the following statement: “And in 1954, [then-Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev took Crimea away from Russia for some reason and also gave it to Ukraine. In effect, this is how the territory of modern Ukraine was formed.” By not mentioning the reason here, Putin portrays Khrushchev—himself a Ukrainian—as a simpleton compared to Stalin. (Stalin was Georgian, but he was an enthusiastic Russian nationalist nevertheless, much like the Austrian Adolf Hitler was about Germany.)

Yet diving into the likely reason for the transfer unveils another reason Putin didn’t mention it. The traditional Soviet explanations for the move, published in 1954, are about the nobility and generosity of the Russian people. But there’s another reason I find more convincing: Khrushchev was well aware of the largest issue in Crimea, lack of drinking water, and figured it would be handled better administratively through a north Crimean channel that would support the peninsula with water from Ukraine. And since they were all one Soviet Union, why not package it up as a gift?

But that’s an embarrassing bit of history for Russia right now, because eight years after its invasion, it still hasn’t solved the drinking water issue itself. Crimea still has regular water rationing. And that’s only one of many problems that have come alongside annexation, from collapsing bridges to massive economic costs.

Putin then returned in his speech to the October Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent arguments between Stalin and Lenin about how the USSR should be formed. Again, in his version of history, Stalin is the good guy. Stalin suggested building the country on the principles of limited autonomy within a national framework—that is, giving the republics broad powers upon joining a unified state. Putin argued that Lenin criticized this plan and suggested making concessions to the nationalists. He summarized that Lenin’s ideas amounted to, in essence, a confederative state arrangement and a slogan about the right of nations to self-determination.

This view won out in the end, but Putin is critical and raised questions about this choice of a government form and why the rights of secession—which the nations used to break away in 1991—were even included in the Soviet Constitution. Putin said Ukraine might as well have been named after Lenin himself. He ended this part with a clearly open threat: “You want decommunization? Well then, that works for us! But don’t stop halfway! We’re ready to show what a true decommunization would mean for Ukraine!” In this version of history, Ukraine only exists because of communism—and so decommunization means the end of Ukraine.

When stagnation hit, Putin argued, it was this “dangerous infectant” together with internal struggles for power that led to the end of the USSR—and with the Communist Party’s inability to find “real solutions,” the point of no return arrived in September 1989 with the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee’s plenary session. Putin openly hates the decision that was made there—to adopt the Communist Party’s platform, returning to more autonomous republics and give the republics more rights—as, in his view, it was the leading Communists’ inability to do more radical, centralized things by the perestroika era that really was the seed of the collapse.

From all this, Putin’s vision of history is clear—if viciously wrong. A great Russia once existed, of which Ukraine was but a part. The bad communists, like Lenin and Khrushchev and their successor Mikhail Gorbachev, divided up that great Russia in an artificial way, creating divisions where none existed before. Implicit in this is that Ukrainians who say differently are deluded or manipulated by others. Now, that natural vision has to be restored by a strong leader, walking in the footsteps of Stalin.

The things that are left out of Putin’s version are too numerous to recount, from tsarist oppression to the Holodomor, when Ukrainians were starved by Soviet policy, to the very existence of the Baltic states. As so often with nationalists, Russia is simultaneously powerful and a victim in this, mighty but constantly sinned against and targeted by others.

But that’s the point. This is a simple version of history, put forward by a strongman determined to transform it into a simple version of the future: one in which all so-called Russians, including Ukrainians, bow before the might of the empire—and the emperor.

 

Kristaps Andrejsons is a journalist in Latvia and the creator of The Eastern Border podcast on the USSR and modern Eastern European politics. He is also a PhD candidate in communications science.

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