Commentators are drawing lessons from the conflict in Ukraine, but they are missing one key point. Above all, the Russian attack and possible dismemberment of Ukraine reflects the power of ideas.
Read the English translation of the Putin speech to justify Russian’s actions in Ukraine. It is striking how much Putin cites history, going as far back as the 17th century, to justify the Russian incursion.
One of Putin’s core views is that Ukraine is not a legitimate country in its own right. He is clear about this claim and its import: “So, I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia.” Putin himself published a July 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” which goes further back yet and discusses Ancient Rus.
Putin’s speech immerses the audience in detail, citing the history of Stalin, Khruschev, the 1917 October Revolution, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and what Stalin did in 1922 with respect to the People’s Commissar of Ethnic Affairs. The need for the earlier Soviet Union to offer concessions to the nationalists is portrayed as one reason why Ukraine was allowed to have some of its identity as Ukraine. Here is a typical passage: “Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can be rightfully called “Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.” He was its creator and architect. This is fully and comprehensively corroborated by archival documents, including Lenin’s harsh instructions regarding Donbass, which was actually shoved into Ukraine.”
By the time you get to the end of Putin’s speech he is still talking about history, and reciting how Ukraine squandered the wonderful inheritance left to them by the Soviet Union. Furthermore, that same Ukraine has become a tool of Western attempts to disrupt Russia.
Putin is full of ideas about history. You can argue how much these remarks reflect Putin’s own concern with ideas, or the Russian public’s concern or that of foreign audiences, but it is probably all of those. Furthermore, Putin has embraced a coterie of Russian intellectuals, marketing what is sometimes called Eurasianism, who parrot and develop the notion of Russia as a power-deserving Eurasian civilization.
If you think the current version of Ukraine was never a valid nation to begin with, a twisted set of mental contortions might bring you around to Russian expansionism. Russia is just taking back what is rightfully theirs, and by the end of this speech Putin is concluding that: “the possible continuation of the bloodshed will lie entirely on the conscience of Ukraine’s ruling regime.”
The obsession with ideas and also with history is a longstanding tradition from earlier leadership. For instance, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin held an extensive library, amounting to about 19,500 books, which he used as a personal, working archive. Stalin was known for his extensive marginalia and for leaving greasy fingerprints on the book pages. Marxist politics, economics and history were prominent in the library, and after Lenin, the most heavily represented authors in the library were Stalin himself, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Marx, Kamenev, Molotov, and Trotsky.
So Putin is hardly breaking from the mold. We also know, from previous documentation, that Putin considered the dismantlement of the former Soviet Union as a great tragedy. That too is an idea, and it further reflects the continuity between Putin’s efforts and those of his predecessors.
If you write books, whether good or bad ones, and wonder whether your work matters, I suggest the answer lies before you on your TV screen each evening. Russia is a nation of ideas, led by people who are obsessed with ideas. The rest of the world, most of all Europe, will need better ideas in turn.
Addendum: Here is Ryan Avent on the power of ideas.