Putin Is Building the First Russian Nation-State

Russian Defense Ministry/Odintsovsky District, Russia - Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ

On June 16th, The National Interest published an article penned by Vladimir Putin himself, titled “The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II.”

His “real lessons” are essentially a staunch defense of the USSR and its pre-war diplomacy, particularly the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Moreover, he blames the Western powers and Poland for the outbreak of the war and its eventual horrors.

But the content of the article is less relevant than what it represents about Putin’s historical project, and by extension that of the Kremlin at large. Just over a decade ago, Putin was denouncing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and attempting to reconcile with Moscow’s former imperial subjects. Why is he now talking like a late-Soviet apparatchik?

The article was published just six days before Russia’s scheduled World War II victory parade. Although postponed from the original date of May 9th due to COVID-19, it still took place even while the pandemic raged on in Russia. Victory Day—already hugely important to the Russian government and public alike—seems increasingly significant more than seven decades since the end of the war. Though the iconography may fool you into thinking these parades are some Soviet holdover, only four Victory Day parades—in 1945, 1965, 1985, and 1990—were held in the USSR. Since 1995, one has been held every year, and their importance grows with each celebration.

This post-Soviet reappraisal of history is not unique to Russia, nor is the Kremlin’s revisionism a purely Russian phenomenon. Far from it, Russia is just one player in a game of narrative creation which is pitting states against each other on current geopolitical lines. Across Central and Eastern Europe, countries have been revising and propagating their views of history with state endorsement for decades. As a new iteration of the nation-building of old unfolds, history has once again become a key tool of national political development in modern Eastern Europe.

After decades of cultural and economic stagnation under enforced Communist rule, reexamining history was not at the top of the agenda. Busy with the transition to capitalism and joining Western institutions, and keen not to antagonize the elites of either the Soviet era or the new democratic one (in many countries, they were the same people), the topic was largely left untouched.

But as the initial hardships were overcome, every single Eastern European country has experienced a radical re-imagining of the past in public discourse. Some, like Poland, began in the late ‘90s, with new institutions built to research documents relating to recent history which had been kept in inaccessible state archives. Elsewhere, like in Ukraine and Russia, it took longer for history to find state patronage, but to similar effect.

Diverging, often diametrically opposed views on history have been solidifying on Europe’s new fault lines ever since. While Russia celebrated the victory of Soviet forces in the Great Patriotic War, Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltics looked back with scorn at what they see as 45 years of Communist oppression.

National histories have evolved into national ideologies. In nation-states which cherish their history dearly, the line between national and state ideology is becoming blurred. In this pan-Eastern European political development, Russia has become a central player as history pushes the political divide in Eastern Europe into a chasm, drawing in more and more countries from afar.

This war over history, coupled with the major changes to Russia’s constitution passed less than a month ago, are answering questions not just about the Russian Federation’s newfound identity and purpose, but also about its role in history. It is confirming a years-long process among the Russian ruling elite that has solidified nationalism as the country’s state ideology.

Old Stories, New Heroes

Asked in 1989 who they thought the greatest man in history was, 72% of Russians responded with Vladimir Lenin. Asked again almost 30 years later, Lenin had fallen out of favor along with the rest of the Communist Party. Another Vladimir had surpassed him, namely Putin himself.

But so, too, had another man—a man previously cast away and denounced more than half a century ago by Russia’s ruling classes and a man whose crimes defined the USSR in Western imaginations. Joseph Stalin has been reborn in the Russian imagination as the leader who saved Russia in a time of existential war. Despite being a Georgian, and responsible for the deaths of more Russians than any Russian leader in history, he has taken on new life as a Russian national hero. This rebirth is the fruit of a wider effort on the part of the Kremlin to rehabilitate the era during which Russia achieved its greatest military victories and geopolitical might.

Earlier this year, the Russian Orthodox Church consecrated a truly unique cathedral in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Soviet military’s victory in WWII. It is an elegantly geometric gold and dark green construction combining classical Orthodox iconography with WWII-era symbols of the Red Army and futuristic, wire-like patterns. Among the icons is the largest mosaic of Christ’s face in the world. More controversial were planned mosaics which would have included Stalin and Putin himself, the latter celebrating Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. While the Kremlin purportedly shelved these, the cathedral does still seem to include tributes to irregular Russian fighters, one of the few public cases of implicit acknowledgment that such forces have ties to the Russian state.

Stalin’s status as Communist leader is naturally less relevant here than his status as patriotic wartime leader. The Second World War offers a fantastic moral framework for a government to operate in. Insofar as the Russian state bears the mantle of a superpower which defeated Nazism and liberated Europe, it can occupy a unique moral high ground, historically and politically. In that conception, Russia is also a key component of the post-war international order, instead of an aggressive ideological foe. Putin emphasized both points strongly in his essay, particularly the latter.

Meanwhile, so the Russian line goes, an international coalition of neo-Nazis and neo-fascists is looking to destroy that memory and the legacy of the great Soviet victory. They do this in places like the Czech Republic and Poland by tearing down monuments to Soviet soldiers and generals. In Ukraine and the Baltics, states are rewriting history via decommunization and anti-Russian policies. Curiously, this international coalition of neo-fascists does not include Western Europe’s hugely popular far-right parties, which happen to be friendly to, and financed by, Russia.

Accusations of neo-Nazism had been leveled against the Baltic states—with their large Russian minorities and nationalist Baltic majorities—since the early 2000s. In 2014, they found their way to Ukraine in Russian state media after pro-Russian President Yanukovych was ousted by Ukrainian “fascists.” It was an incredible display of the power of historical memory, with Russians eventually rejoicing at the return of their historical province of Crimea and watching with disgust as Russian TV depicted Ukrainians as showing their true neo-Nazi colours.

Not long after, Putin began speaking more often about WWII, first referencing the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 2015 at a press conference with Angela Merkel. He presented it as the last resort of a Soviet Union which had been isolated by Western inaction into preserving peace in Europe one-on-one. It was not the first case of historical revisionism in Russia, nor was it the first time history was used as justification for actions abroad, but it was one of the first public signs of Russia’s developing national ideology.

Ideology is a problem Russia has struggled to deal with as much as any Eastern European country since the collapse of Communism. But, unlike Poland for example, Russia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and trans-continental country whose titular ethnicity is spread across more than a dozen states. It is no easy task to build an ideology capable of uniting and guiding such a country, nor was one readily available.

Liberalism failed to do so in the 1990s, remembered by older Russians as the worst decade in recent history. Conversely, neither extreme nationalism, nor a return to Communism offered an attractive enough alternative either. The threat of either one taking hold in Russia in the ‘90s was real, as was the fusion of the two in a so-called red-brown coalition, but neither came to pass.

But as it turns out, the key does lie in the USSR, which 75% of Russians consider to be the greatest period in their country’s history. But what they remember is not the stagnant and corrupt USSR of Leonid Brezhnev, nor the collapsing USSR of Gorbachev. Specifically, Russians rally to the memory of a USSR which, led by a great and patriotic Russian people, defeated the Nazis and saved half of Europe from extermination.

Unlike the annual Victory Day parades, the syncretic mix of patriotism with Soviet characteristics is no modern invention, nor is it quite the much feared red-brown coalition come to fruition. Rather, it is a product of wartime Stalinism, resuscitated to serve the needs of Russia’s ruling elite. To rally the population behind his regime as the Nazis stormed across Russia, Stalin turned not to dogmatic Communism, but rather to the potent force of Russian patriotism.

Stalin’s USSR was not guided by traditional Communist internationalism, but by Stalin’s idea of “Socialism in One Country.” That national-communist idea emerged from Marxist theory, but it also played a major role in Russian national development. It was Stalin himself who embraced and developed Russian nationalist ideology to save the Soviet Union from complete collapse.

In public speeches during the war, Stalin spoke of the “great Russian people” frequently and referenced past Russian heroes, such as medieval Prince Alexander Nevsky and aristocratic General Mikhail Kutuzov, to inspire his troops. These Russian generals even joined Lenin on Stalin’s wall in his office during the war. Additionally, Stalin revived the once-persecuted Russian Orthodox Church in a bizarre synthesis of Communist state atheism and Orthodoxy.

The revived church was in large part controlled by the Soviet security services, and the NKVD was involved directly in church electoral procedures. Interestingly enough, though, their criteria were not adherence or sympathy to Communist ideas, but rather a candidate’s “civic or patriotic work.” Despite the Soviet persecution of the church, Stalin played a historic role not just in Russian history, but in the history of the Orthodox Church as well.

That explains the juxtaposition of Stalin—Communist leader and destroyer of Moscow’s central Orthodox Cathedral—being immortalized in the Russian military’s new cathedral. Stalin may have been a Communist, and the Orthodox Church may be Christian, but both played a crucial role in Russian national development, and now they have found a new life as pillars of Russian national state ideology.

As part of a set of comprehensive constitutional reforms Russians only just ratified, the Russian state will enshrine in law the right and obligation of the state to “protect historical truth.”

Time will tell how Russia acts on that obligation.

A New Intermarium

On a trip to Odessa last year, I stumbled across an old Polish Catholic Church. Half out of interest and half to escape from the scorching summer heat, I went inside. It was empty—few Poles remain in Ukraine after all. But it had been lavishly refurbished. Among the glowing marble and impeccably restored art, emblazoned with Polish and Ukrainian inscriptions, stood a series of placards. Like the church, the placards were bilingual and together created some kind of exhibition.

The title — “Order No. 00485.”

A reference to NKVD Order No. 00485, which led to the execution of over 100,000 mostly educated Poles in a targeted anti-Polish campaign by the Soviet security services. Stalin’s picture graces the placard titled “Architects of the Crime,” along with other top Soviet leaders.

An unambiguous message. But from whom?

The exhibition is a project of the Polish Institute for National Remembrance, Poland’s flagship institution in Eastern Europe’s burgeoning history wars. Founded in 1998 as part of Poland’s decommunization efforts to deal with study of the Communist regime, its scope quickly expanded, along with its influence.

The Institute itself is divided into three branches. The first is a judicial one to promote legal action against those who committed “crimes against the Polish nation.” A second one declassifies documents from the Communist period, disseminating these findings among the public. The Institute inherited documents—nearly 80km worth—from the secret archives of the Communist regime and maintained exclusive access to all of them. These documents were particularly sensitive and powerful since they included the names of collaborators and informants of the Communist regime.

But the flagship branch of the Institute is the third: the Public Education Office (BEP). The BEP used its vaguely defined role to immense effect from the very beginning. It published books, hosted conferences, academic clubs, helped with youth education, teachers’ training, and much, much more.

Its prominent role in Polish society grew exponentially after Poland’s 2005 elections. A wave of anti-establishment fervor followed a “lustration mania” caused by the leaking of thousands of names of alleged collaborators from the Institute’s archives, which accused many prominent public figures. It helped the nationalist Law and Justice party win a decisive victory. They then replaced the head of the Institute with a more nationalist historian and more than doubled its budget.

The Institute’s activities became even broader. It made a board game for children in which you are forced to queue for goods under Communism, and it also organized holiday camps and historical re-enactments. In a very controversial exhibition, it displayed the names and biographies of local secret police officers on public squares and major streets. When Law and Justice returned to power, reinvigorated, in 2015, it ordered the Institute to popularize history as “an element of patriotic education.” The Institute has been stepping up its activities at home and abroad ever since.

The Institute’s exhibition in Odessa is not the only one. Such exhibitions can be found in other cities in Ukraine and in various Polish cultural outposts as far as the UK and the U.S. And there is no confusion as to who the heroes and villains in these histories are.

In the newly opened Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk—made in collaboration with leading Western historians—the Polish story of the war is told in state-of-the-art detail. The very first part of the exhibition dedicates three separate rooms to the three perpetrators of the war—Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and, the Soviet Union.

While Stalin enjoys approval ratings of 70% in Russia, the rest of Eastern Europe is tearing away any legacy the Soviets left behind. For the past year, Ukraine has been going through a sweeping period of decommunization since the government made illegal all Soviet symbols and positive references to the USSR in the media. In the Czech Republic, the tearing down of a statue of Soviet General Konev has led the Russian Minister of Defence to open an international criminal case against those responsible.

To the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, Putin’s account of Soviet history is seen as not only an insult, but a threat to the national ideologies that form the bedrock of their modern statehood. Soviet liberation was a new occupation which subjugated them to decades of Russian rule, which they have only recently freed themselves from. In their histories, Russian imperialism is a major threat to the nation and has merely taken a new form in modern Russian politics, just as it did under the red star. Any political faction not explicitly focused on an ethnic Russian support base can easily gain popularity with a patriotic stance against the Kremlin.

Were this conflict limited to bilateral remarks between Russia and Eastern European countries, it may not have grown so large, and Russian leaders may not have taken to so publicly lecturing the world about WWII. But the intensification over the past year that culminated in Putin’s article is the result of Eastern European states enlisting the help of their far larger and more powerful allies.

In 2019, the European Parliament adopted a resolution which placed equal guilt for the outbreak of WWII on the Soviet Union. Russia took offense to the USSR being equated with Nazi Germany and responded in kind. As if not to be outdone by the Europeans, Washington gave its own support to its eastern allies. In a joint statement with the Foreign Ministers of Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII, Nazi Germany was mentioned just once, in the first paragraph. The remainder of the six paragraphs dealt with Soviet rule over Eastern Europe.

For a statement commemorating the end of the Second World War, it is incredibly light on comments related to the war or the Allies’ chief enemy.

Russia’s Identity and Belonging

History has always been a contentious issue in Eastern Europe. History was used and abused to justify numerous annexations, expulsions, and genocides throughout the 20th century. But, conversely, it was with history that modern states could claim to represent entire nations, sometimes quite literally saving those nations from extermination. History allowed these states to free themselves from the clutches of the foreign empires—Russia included—that ruled over their lands for centuries and find new life as modern nation-states.

Communists viewed history differently, as a grand predetermined march in which nations played only a transient role. By the 1980s, it looked to many like the Communists had indeed stamped out ethnic and national identities and built some new “Soviet man.” Very few predicted ethnic and national tensions would unravel the world’s second greatest power as well as its satellites.

The Yugoslav Wars offered an early indicator of the power of history in contemporary Eastern Europe. Croatia’s War for Independence, for example, went beyond a drive for political independence. It served as a complete repudiation of the entire Yugoslav Communist mythos. Serbia meanwhile—then still Yugoslavia under a red star—was fighting to save patriotic Serbs from a rabble of Croatian Nazis and “Turks.”

Ignoring the clear logic of the conflicting national ideologies at work, Western journalists descended on the region to explain to those at home how ancient ethnic rivalries were tearing apart Tito’s much-admired Yugoslavia. The focus on a clash of civilizations missed out on the far more important revival of nation-states and the ideologies which formed them.

Few predicted a similar story would play out decades later between Russia and Ukraine. While the end of history was being declared in Washington, it was only entering a new cycle for half of Europe. The nation-states dreamed up by Central European thinkers in the 19th century have become a hard-fought 21st century reality.

Putin’s article—like his speech—calls on the world to create a “common reliable security system,” recalling the one founded after WWII with the USSR one of the founding members. In American eyes, with Georgia and Crimea in mind, it was Russia itself that tore up the foundations of the global security system in its cold pursuit of national interest. And accusations of cold national interest have come hand in hand with accusations of neo-Sovietism and neo-imperialism. Conversely, Russia interprets these accusations as mere justifications, similar to those used by NATO during its previous Eastern European interventions.

Putin courting the American public through a historical article is something you may expect from the Prime Minister of Bulgaria or Ukraine—not the leader of a purported great power. Decades of failed Russian diplomacy have left the country isolated from the West it was so eager to join in the 1990s, only for the country to follow its former satellites down a similar path of national development.

But is the modern Russian state any different than its Imperial or Soviet predecessors?

The Russian Empire brought entire nations, and thereby tens of millions of people in foreign lands, under its rule in a matter of decades. The USSR, in turn, shifted ancient national borders at will. Modern Russia strains its economy to sponsor breakaway ethnic Russian states in countries themselves weak and peripheral. In both strength and territorial sway, it does not possess the might of previous eras of Russian history.

Russia took longer to get here than Poland, Croatia, or the Baltics. It toyed with various technocratic and liberal solutions to its identity problem along the way, but it has arrived at the same conclusion. As much as Russian nationalists love to speak about Russia’s “Eurasian” character and celebrate the country’s distinctive characteristics, Russia is as European as it gets. Specifically, its geopolitical realities and the ideological stance taken by the Russian state mirrors nothing so much as that of its Eastern European rivals.

Common epithets like neo-Soviet, Eurasianist, and neo-imperialist rarely refer to a genuinely adopted ideology within Russia’s elite. Neo-Soviet means little when the ruling elite actually stems from the Soviet era. Nor does Eurasian refer to much beyond the country’s geopolitical position, considering Russia’s extreme centralization and the fringe status of actual “Eurasianists.” Neo-imperialist is perhaps the most accurate charge, but it oversells the reach and ambition of Russia’s nationalism. Russia may be a nation that has inherited an empire, but that does not displace the centrality of Russian nationalism in the modern state’s identity.

The idea that may come closest to describing modern Russia is the “civilizational state,” but even this falls short. Fundamentally, a civilization ends up reaching far beyond its founding people or city. Its state, culture, and language end up tying together many different regions and peoples. In that sense, Soviet rule approached something more like this model than the Russian Federation does. Nationalism is about a single people and its historical identity.

Is Russia the same as the small homogeneous nation-states of east-central Europe? Of course not. But does Russia look, sound, and act like them? Absolutely, and even more so with each passing day. Nationalism, we must not forget, tore both Yugoslavia and the USSR apart. It was the pursuit of a unified national state that drove Serbian armed forces into Croatia and Bosnia, and similarly the pursuit of national unification saw Russian troops arrive in Ukraine to liberate their Russian brethren.

Returning your nation’s long-lost historic provinces would get you immense popularity anywhere in Eastern Europe under the right political conditions, and Russia is no different. That does not mean that Putin or the Russian leadership is motivated by such a desire for national unification, but it was the path they followed in Ukraine and have stayed on since. It is the political manifestation of centuries of national myth-making that has made the nation-states of central and eastern Europe what they are today, Russia included.

In its amended constitution, the multinational Russian Federation has confirmed that those who speak the Russian language are the country’s “state-forming people.” In the same clause, the description of the Russian Federation as a “union of a multinational people” became a “union of multinational peoples.” It is a subtle but important distinction. The former implies a multitude of nationalities that form one people in a united Russian state. The newly amended phrase defines a multitude of peoples, of which Russians are at the top.

In Russian, there is an important distinction made between the adjective российский (rossiyskiy) and русский (ruskiy). The former denotes a belonging to the Russian state—hence Российская Федерация (Rossiyskaya Federatsiya)—while the latter refers to an ethnicity. That clause confirms that while it may be a Rossiyskaya Federatsiya, it is more importantly a ruskiy state. If there was ever any doubt before as to what modern Russia is, that clause has removed it.

The Kremlin’s grand project of building a history is not, ultimately, verging upon a new political syncretism. Behind the apparent contradictions of Soviet and Russian Orthodox symbols displayed side-by-side is a strikingly traditional political goal, one undertaken by states across Europe and the Western world. The Russian Federation is embracing its role in history as the first Russian nation-state.

Luka Ivan Jukic is a graduate student at the UCL School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies. He has lived in and reported from many countries in Central and Eastern Europe.