Russia’s war in Ukraine is a fight as much about the past as it is about the future. Three days before the massive military invasion of Ukraine began, Russian state-TV broadcast an hour-long speech in which President Vladimir Putin claimed that historically Ukraine has always been linked to Russia. For him, the independent Ukrainian state was the result of a historical mistake first committed by the Bolsheviks who granted Ukraine the status of a republic within the Soviet Union. This, his narrative goes, contradicted Ukrainians’ historical rootedness within the Russian state and sowed the seeds for a radical nationalism which made Ukrainians susceptible to the false promises of the West when the Soviet Union collapsed.
When the Russian military moved into Donbas following Putin’s speech, this extended the violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity that had begun in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s support of separatists in Ukraine’s east. Neither were Putin’s allegations about Ukrainian history entirely new. Back in July 2021, his essay “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians” contended that Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians were “one people”, organically linked through their shared history, culture and territory. Putin’s narrative denies that Ukrainians may tell their history differently and contradicts what historians know about Ukrainian nationalism. His interpretation is also legally irrelevant. Regardless of how we write Ukraine’s history, the invasion is an attack on a sovereign state whose borders are subject to international law. And yet, Putin’s historical narrative cannot be simply sidelined as an irrelevant delusion of a madman: it is a crucial instrument of his political actions domestically and internationally. History is used to underwrite the politics of Putinist Russia.
Putin's narrative denies that Ukrainians may tell their history differently and contradicts what historians know about Ukrainian nationalism
Presenting an ideological foundation for war, Putin’s speech on February 21st also marked the culmination of a domestic trend in Russia, where the state has turned into the ultimate watchdog of the historical narrative. The consequences for those writing and thinking about history have been significant. Notable is the fate of Memorial, a human rights organisation with origins going back to the perestroika years. Memorial has played a crucial role in restoring truths about the Soviet totalitarian past, compiling lists of over three million victims of state terror.
Memorial’s headquarters in Moscow house a rich archive documenting personal histories of political repression and for many years have served as a space for critical debate about the present as much as the past. Under pressure for years, the organisation was accused of supporting “terrorism” and of infringing Russia’s law on “foreign agents”, resulting in the Russian Supreme Court’s decision to “liquidate” Memorial in December 2021. On February 28th while Russian and Ukrainian delegations met for negotiations on the Belarusian border and Russian units shelled the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, Memorial’s appeal against this decision was rejected. The verdict puts an end to three decades during which professional historians and activists brought to light human rights infringements in both Soviet and post-Soviet times.
Meanwhile, the distortion of history takes on physical shape in Ukraine. On February 28th, the Ukrainian ministry of foreign affairs reported that 25 paintings by celebrated Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko were destroyed after the museum of Ivankiv, a town near Kyiv, was hit by Russian fire. During an attack on Kyiv’s TV tower, reports suggest that Russian forces also damaged the Babyn Yar memorial site which commemorates one of the largest single massacres of the Holocaust. The following day, Kharkiv National University, a major centre of learning since the early 19th century, was heavily damaged by a Russian missile. Putin’s narrative has countless blind spots. It disregards that plenty of Ukrainian territory lay outside the borders of imperial Russia and refutes histories of nationalist expression to which the empire responded with stringent Russification measures. Likewise, it is silent about the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s and the Holocaust and has nothing to say about the widespread popular support for Ukraine’s independence in 1991. The war now turns historical reductionism into tangible destruction.
Given Putin’s earlier career at the top of the KGB, his politics have been mislabelled as an attempt to revive the Soviet Union. Yet, while he has called the Soviet collapse the major geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, his history and politics defy simplistic ascriptions. They combine the imperialist aspirations and conservative values of the Russian Empire, the glorification of military prowess that was at the heart of Soviet identity after the second World War, and frustration as Eastern European countries increasingly define their national politics looking to the European Union, not Russia. Putin’s history is not a step back in time: instead this is the creation of a new past, one that responds to the contexts of the early 21st century.
While he has called the Soviet collapse the major geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, Putin's history and politics defy simplistic ascriptions
Putin’s distorted language on Ukraine, the crackdown on narratives that do not align with those of the state, and the catastrophic damage already done to the people and places of Ukraine are intrinsically linked. Since the war began, Russian authorities have detained thousands of anti-war protesters and put an end to the country’s few remaining independent media. Academics, journalists, scientists and others have published and signed open letters calling the war a war and appealing to the government to stop it. Many historians have joined these initiatives. Words, signatures and protests may seem insignificant in the face of tanks and airstrikes, but all of this matters. Mobilising the past to serve the present is by no means the sole domain of Putin, but this horrifying iteration must be recognised and denounced for what it is: a violence that seeks not just to distort and obliterate the past, but also to legitimise, galvanise and authenticate the invasive actions of an autocratic regime that now threatens the lives of millions beyond Russia’s borders.