Vladimir Putin’s justifications for invading his country in Ukraine – that is, legitimate concerns about the erosion of Russia’s geopolitical security being prompted by NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe – seem increasingly idiosyncratic as the war enters its sixth month.
So it’s worth examining other factors that might motivate the Russian president and his advisers. One of these was aptly summed up by historian Serhii Plokhy in his 2018 study Lost Kingdom, A History of Russian Nationalism from Ivan the Great to Vladimir Putin:
Russia today faces enormous difficulties in reconciling the mental maps of Russian ethnicity, culture and identity with the political map of the Russian Federation.
The collective consciousness of most countries depends on some degree of undisputed mythology that is widely accepted by the populace as part of the national history. But Russia searches in its institutions and collective memories for that sense of certainty in its past, having lost the last great unifying idea of Soviet communism.
The consequences of this loss directly challenge and feed Russia’s existential insecurities that it has failed to reconcile since the late Soviet era and particularly the post-Soviet era – a tale of Russian victimization and loss of national heritage.
For this reason, Putin’s vision of Russia’s past clings to the idea of a 9th-century political entity known as Kyivan Rus, used by the president and his ideological allies as an anchor point for Russia’s nationality.
Without them, Russia will become a relatively young state, dating back only to Ivan III. who ascended the throne in the 1460s as the first monarch to assume the title of tsar (or emperor – although this was never officially recognised). He was also the first to successfully challenge the nomadic Mongol empire that had ruled the Grand Duchy of Moscow for the past two centuries.
Therefore, Russia’s story – to counteract its political origins as a vassal state of the Golden Horde – must be retold through an encounter with another entity, Kyiv. But as we know, Kyiv is the capital of another state, Ukraine, which has its own history, collective trauma and national consciousness.
The net effect of this is historical incoherence, with multiple timelines and pasts competing for legitimacy — something the Kremlin is adept at exploiting. As such, many of the most important historical memories – such as what is known in Russia as the “Great Patriotic War” (World War II) – are currently being challenged as some of the more outlandish justifications for invading Ukraine. Once again, according to the Kremlin’s official line, Russia is fighting a new wave of fascism.
During the transitional period of the post-Soviet years in the 1990s, there was still hope that free markets and investment would bring Russia more closely into sync with modern, Western liberal societies. That was the soft power approach of “Change through Handel(Change through Trade), which then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel championed for two decades. But that change or convergence never came.
The extent to which the worldviews of East and West have diverged again became clear at the Victory Day celebrations in Russia in May. That year, five-year-old children were dressed up as tanks with the now infamous pro-war Z symbol painted on the front. They were accompanied by their teachers, who wore World War II-era uniforms.
Russia, as Kevin Platt, a specialist on Russia and Eastern Europe, writes in the 2020 book Power and Time, has an uncanny “ability to reach past frontiers of the present to lay claim to every element of the historical record.” So now post-Soviet nostalgia mixes with the rehabilitation of the Stalin era and its seemingly sole defeat of National Socialism. This is underpinned by the sacred mission of Russia as the heir to Kyivan Rus’ and hence the entire Byzantine, Orthodox Christian civilization.
The “wrong form” of history
Two years after Putin’s first presidency, Russian director Aleksander Sokurov introduced the world to the cinematic version of Russia’s historical consciousness in the Russian Ark. The film is a continuous 90-minute one-take with no cuts or edits, recorded on a single tag at the famous Hermitage art gallery.
The key to understanding Russia is this sense of curated continuity, maintained through the connection of various foreign elements – like an art exhibition that travels through time again and again. “Our past is not yet gone,” Sokurov mused in an interview about the project. “The main problem of this country is that we don’t know when it will be over.”
Russia is trying to build a new past on the battlefield in Ukraine. This is something like the process of what is known in mineralogy as pseudomorphosis – an incorrect form – as observed in the 1920s in connection with Russia by the German philosopher Oswald Spengler. In pseudomorphosis, new content fills out the old frames, forming entities “whose internal structure contradicts their external form,” as Spengler writes in The Decline of the West:
I call historical pseudomorphosis those cases in which an older foreign culture so massively overlies the country that a young culture born in this country cannot catch its breath and not only achieve pure and specific forms of expression, but also does not fully develop own self-confidence.
You will hardly find a better description of the current situation in Ukraine, where Russia is trying to impose its interpretation of the past on another country’s present.