Dec 14th 2023

Putin's Search for a Usable Past 

by Vitaly Dymarsky


Vitaly Dymarsky, a former Saint Petersburg editor of the radio station Echo Moskvy (liquidated by the state in March 2022), is an editor of Diletant, a magazine of history and society. 


SAINT PETERSBURG – Kremlin insiders like to tell the following story. In the fall of 1999, when Vladimir Putin was tapped to succeed Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s future president blurted out in surprise: “Oh, and I thought of Gazprom.” What else could a working-class Leningrad native dream about?

Putin had never seen himself in high politics. He had adapted well to the new market economy of the chaotic 1990s, thriving in the gangster-land of Saint Petersburg, where he found his place at the junction of public service and a largely criminal business sector.

But after Putin’s boss, Saint Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, lost his re-election bid, the former KGB-FSB officer had to seek lucrative positions elsewhere. Through either personal or corporate connections, he managed to relocate to the capital, setting in motion the series of political appointments that would bring him to the Kremlin.

Upon becoming president, Putin expressed a commitment to the peaceful transfer of power, freedom of speech, and other virtues of democracy. He meant it. After all, he was a pawn, abiding by the constitutional order and Yeltsin’s oral bequest. He had no ideas of his own, and the intellectuals mapping out Russia’s political and economic future had no interest in him.

Money was the one thing that would animate his reign. It was clear from the start that the businessman took precedence over the politician in Putin’s personality. I saw this firsthand as a member of the Kremlin press pool. I met with the president several times in informal settings, and business was the only topic he discussed with any passion. He could rattle off numbers with ease, telling us what each oligarch owned, down to tenths and hundredths of a percent of corporate shares. When we asked him if he planned to pursue power after his second term was up in 2008, he said “I have toiled like a galley slave,” implying that he would go on to enjoy life.

Yet one must never forget that Putin is first and foremost an intelligence officer whose dominant trait is suspicion. During his first two terms, he came to realize that he and his own accumulated capital would never be safe unless he was in power, lest his rivals seize his assets and lock him away. He would have to figure out how to “sell” himself to the people.

He started sketching out his plans in earnest near the end of his second term. Putin the businessman gave way to Putin the politician. Over the next four years, he would entrust the throne to a placeholder, Dmitry Medvedev, while sliding into the prime minister’s chair. By 2012, Putin had developed an irresistible desire to remain a presidential galley slave forever. Massive protests in 2011 showed that it would no longer do simply to declare that “Great Russia is rising from its knees,” as Yeltsin had put it. A new national project was needed.

The Kremlin throne notwithstanding, Putin is only human. He likes to appear knowledgeable, so he started reading historical picture books and soon realized that history is not an exact science. If others refute your interpretation of the past, you can dismiss their criticism as being subjective or politically motivated. And if you can espouse your views from the Kremlin, you need not tolerate any criticism at all.

So, Putin plunged into the past, each time emerging from the sea of historical facts with a tendentious interpretation to meet the political needs of the moment. First, through efforts led by a team of “social scientists” working alongside the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus, Joseph Stalin was restored to his former greatness. Suddenly, the victory over Nazi Germany far outweighed the Great Terror of 1937-38 and even Stalin’s shameful cooperation with Hitler, which the Soviet Union officially denied for half a century, until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the 1980s.

Lying behind the historical rehabilitation of Stalin was, of course, Putin’s own desire to become a “great” commander. Russian history was then ransacked to justify imperial adventurism and increasingly repressive domestic policies, with historical examples marshaled to show that great Russian rulers always know what is best for the country. As presidential aide and former Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky put it, there should be only “bright pages” in the history of Russia.

The bright pages now include Ivan the Terrible, who rejected Catholicism and created the oppressive oprichnina, the predecessor of the current security services. They also include Alexander Nevsky, who supposedly defended Russia from Western encroachments, defeating the Teutons in the Battle on the Ice. Never mind that there is no evidence to support this version of events; it is now history, according to Putin.

But the pinnacle of Putin’s “scientific contribution” to Russian history was his July 2021 article “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” This text has no historical value whatsoever (the entire argument is contained in the title), but that is beside the point. It was a political document, designed to set the stage for the full-scale invasion that followed on February 24, 2022.

Putin thus has become a kind of Trinity. Within the country, he is Stalin 2.0; for the outside world, he is a version of Nevsky; and for his fellow siloviki from the Soviet and post-Soviet security apparatus, he is the heir of Ivan the Terrible.

On the eve of the next presidential election, on March 17, 2024, Putin has set himself another “intellectual” task. Despite a constitutional ban on state ideology, he is eager to imbue his rule with greater meaning. But what he has come up with so far looks lopsided and incoherent, combining Eurasianism, capitalism, Russian nationalism, anti-Westernism, traditional values (which no one can define, though Putin speaks of them incessantly), Orthodox Christianity (but also praise for Russia’s status as a multi-confessional country), and – of course – imperialism.

It’s a nonsensical amalgamation, sustained by a steady stream of new “discoveries” that promise to reveal the hidden genius and sublime purpose of Russian history. The past, in Putin’s hands, really is an unknowable country, and it is putting Russia’s future in doubt.

Vitaly Dymarsky, a former Saint Petersburg editor of the radio station Echo Moskvy (liquidated by the state in March 2022), is an editor of Diletant, a magazine of history and society. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023. 


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