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‘Putin is Ivan the Terrible’s reincarnation’: The historical roots of the war in Ukraine

Polish professor traces cause of current Russian invasion back to the 16th century

The course of the war in Ukraine is writ large in history, says a leading historian of this southern Polish region on the border with Ukraine. Prof Lucjan Fac traces the cause of the war, and a pattern of Russian aggression, back to the 16th century.

"Vladimir Putin is the reincarnation of Ivan the Terrible," Fac said as he showed me through the local branch of the Polish National Museum on Thuraday.

Ivan the Terrible (1547-1584), also known as Ivan Grozny, was the first tsar of all Russias, who tried to unite fragmented territories held by Slavic tribes.

“Ivan believed the religious and political doctrine which saw Moscow as the Third Rome, after the ancient Roman empire and Constantinople,” Fac explains. “This doctrine caused wars for centuries, and Putin is steeped in it. He thinks like the tsars. He sees democracies as unstable, because presidents and prime ministers come and go while he remains in power.”


Fac's friend and fellow historian, Jan Jarosz, the director of the National Museum, believes Putin wants not to reconstitute the Soviet Union but to create "Great Russia".

"In the tsarist mentality," Jarosz says, 'Big Russia' [present-day Russia] plus 'Little Russia' [Ukraine] and Belarus equals Great Russia. Putin wants all eastern Slavs to unite in one Great Russia."

Jarosz cites a press conference given by Putin five years ago. When asked what he would do about Ukraine, Putin responded: “Have you read the memoirs of General [Anton] Deniken?”

The early 20th century Russian general wrote that whoever rules in Moscow must consider Ukraine to be a part of Russia.

Territorial claims based on history are not unusual. Israel bases its occupation of Palestinian land on the Bible. Serbia considered Kosovo to be the cradle of its identity, a role that many Russians ascribe to Kyiv. “History is like a knife,” says Fac. “You can use it to cut an apple. You can use it to cut bread. Or you can use it to kill someone.”


After Putin seized Crimea and part of the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine in 2014-15, Ukrainians grew accustomed to the idea they might lose those territories permanently, Fac says. His background as a military historian gives him insights regarding the future: “The Ukrainian army improved a great deal; some were even trained in Przemysl by Poles. They were prepared for the Russian army. Putin is sending the first line of Russian boys to their deaths, and he is ready to sacrifice a second and third line.”

After French president Emmanuel Macron spoke to Putin on Thuraday, the Élysée said that Putin's goal "is to take control of all Ukraine".

But Fac believes Putin wants only the eastern half of Ukraine, including its two biggest cities, Kyiv and Kharkiv. “He thinks there are too many pro-European nationalists in western Ukraine who would fight as partyzanci”, Fac explains, using the Polish word for second World War resistants.  “Putin wants to push all civilians to the western part of the country.”

Polish commentators have been saying for months that Putin would start the war in February, when invasion routes are frozen. “The weather is helping him,” Fac says. “In the spring Russian armour will bog down in mud.”

Fac believes that Putin will seize only the “small Russia” mentioned by Jarosz, the museum director. “He will colonise it with Russians, which is what Russia has always done.”

Putin’s rapid disappearance would offer the only salvation for Ukraine, Fac says.

“Putin was counting on the weakness of the EU. I have been surprised by the unity of the EU. Putin is surprised too... Nobody knows how Ivan the Terrible died, but I don’t think it was of natural causes... The oligarchs and generals could turn on him. A putsch is possible. If they replace Putin with someone else, the conflict could end and sanctions could be lifted. The longer it goes on, the more irreversible the damage.”


A map on the wall of Jarosz's office shows Poland at its apogee in 1668, when Polish power extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Poland's eastern border was the border of present-day Ukraine then. "For 400 years, from 1385 until 1772, Przemysl and [the west Ukrainian city of] Lviv were the centre of Poland," says Fac.

The Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Josef granted Poland autonomy in 1867, which prompted the first stirrings of Ukrainian nationalism, Fac says. When the empire ended with the first World War, Poles and Ukrainians fought, as chronicled in Fac’s recent book, Forgotten War, the 1918-1919 Polish-Ukrainian War. Poland won, and kept Lviv until 1939.

Over the past 600 years, all or parts of present-day Ukraine have been, in succession, Polish, Austro-Hungarian, Polish again, Soviet and finally, since 1991, independent Ukraine.

Soviet and German forces converged on Poland in 1939, splitting the country in two. The San river, which runs through Przemysl, was the demarcation line. Russia deported thousands of Poles from the east bank of the river to Siberia. Germany wiped out the Jewish quarter on the west bank, sending its inhabitants to the Belzec extermination camp.

Today, the west bank, where the National Museum is located, is an empty quarter of parking lots and bus stops.

The museum contains photographs of many murdered Jewish inhabitants of Przemysl, and liturgical items from their synagogues. There are also photographs of a smiling Ukrainian woman greeting Adolph Hitler, and a Ukrainian Orthdox priest blessing the Ukrainian SS division.

Closest ally

Yet today Poland is perhaps Ukraine’s closest ally in its hour of need. The airport at Rzeszów, 91km from Przemysl, is a hub for arms shipments to Ukraine, and Poland expects to receive a million Ukrainian refugees, to whom it offers food, lodging, transport and sympathy. “We realise we have much more in common with Ukrainians than any other people,” Fac says.

But he fears the war signifies his own failure as a historian. “These wars repeat themselves all the time and we are surprised; we are still not learning. I feel it as a personal failure.”