“People in Russia say that those who do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union have no heart, and those that do regret it have no brain.”- Vladimir Putin, Interview with German Television Channels ARD and ZDF, May 5, 2005.
“A New Cold War.” “Vladimir Putin, the Neo-Soviet Man.” Many commentators in the West have been quick to use such phrases when pointing to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine. But while Russia’s behavior certainly points to a renewed bellicosity and aggression, it is doubtful Putin himself views his actions in specifically Soviet terms. Rather, all of his own remarks on the crisis use the language and imagery of the pre-1917 Russian Empire and the unique nationalism it fostered. In terms of past rulers, Putin fancies himself more Nicholas I than Nikita Khrushchev. It was the former’s official formulation of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality” that came to define the ideals of the nineteenth-century Russian state, and they go far in describing Putin’s own motivations as well.
Consider the first of the trio: Orthodoxy. Putin’s public professions of faith and support for the Russian Orthodox Church have won him a host of admirers over the years. Among others, these have included Alexander Solzhenitsyn, arguably the most famous Soviet dissident of all and one who also viewed his country through a nineteenth-century lens of national and religious greatness. The treatment and extremely harsh punishment of the punk group “Pussy Riot” following its protest performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior was yet another sign of the close relationship between church and state in Putin’s Russia. It should come as no surprise, then, that Putin referenced the historic significance of Crimea for Orthodoxy in his address to the state Duma following the Crimean referendum:
“Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride. This is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptised. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilisation and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.”
Putin is referring to Vladimir the Great, a saint in the Orthodox Church who held the title of Grand Prince of Kiev from 980 to 1015 A.D. Kievan Rus’, the historical entity to which modern Russia traces its heritage, was Christianized by Vladimir in 987 A.D.
And the region is not merely important to Russia’s religious history, but to its “nationality,” its cultural and literary history. Alexander Pushkin, the greatest and most beloved of all Russian poets, travelled extensively in Crimea, where he wrote some of his most famous verse. Nikolai Gogol, another giant of nineteenth-century Russian literature, was born in Ukraine, and countless other notable authors in the Russian canon have ties to the region. Putin is cleverly tapping into this rich cultural history to justify his illegal and thuggish actions without apology.
In the same speech to the Duma, Putin was quick to honor the fallen soldiers of the Russian Empire who died to add Crimea to its territory under Catherine the Great. But for all his Russian nationalist language, what may come as a surprise to many is the strong anti-Soviet language he used to justify his re-annexation of Crimea. He seemed to lament Ukraine’s independence as a tragedy of the Soviet legacy:
“After the revolution, the Bolsheviks, for a number of reasons – may God judge them – added large sections of the historical South of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine. This was done with no consideration for the ethnic make-up of the population, and today these areas form the southeast of Ukraine.”
Nikita Khrushchev transferred the territory to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954; Putin made his disdain for the Soviet leader’s decision clear in the same speech. “The decision was made behind the scenes,” he commented. “Naturally, in a totalitarian state nobody bothered to ask the citizens of Crimea and Sevastopol.” Speculating on what may have motivated Khrushchev to cede the territory, he publicly mused that “What stood behind this decision of his – a desire to win the support of the Ukrainian political establishment or to atone for the mass repressions of the 1930’s in Ukraine – is for historians to figure out.” If ever there has been a more cynical use of anti-Soviet rhetoric, I have yet to come across it.
Make no mistake: the U.S. should remain vociferous in defending Ukraine’s sovereignty and condemning Russian aggression. But we must also face the cold reality that Putin’s aggression abroad has shot his approval rating at home to levels unseen since his reelection. This is in large part due to the spinning of events in Ukraine and Crimea into Putin’s narrative of national greatness and renewed prestige. Putin is many things, but no one should doubt his shrewdness as a politician.
Nat Brown is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He holds a Master’s in Slavic Languages and Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Image of Livadia Palace in Crimea, the summer of Russian Tsar Nicholas II, courtesy of Big Stock Photo.