To paraphrase one of Barack Obama’s favorite phrases, the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice. Were Vladimir Putin to offer his own rendition of these words, it would probably go something along the lines of: The arc of history is long, but it bends backwards.
This, at least, appeared to be the thrust of the Russian president’s message this week when he offered a rambling and ahistorical speech dismissing Ukraine’s right to exist and then days later announced Moscow’s intent to invade the country in order to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.” In his telling, if Ukraine had once been part of the Soviet sphere, it should be part of Russia. And just as Russia defeated the Nazi regime in Germany, it would do so again—this time in Kyiv.
Putin is not the only world leader who has harkened back to an ahistorical past to justify his decisions in the present. Right-wing nationalists around the world have sought to portray themselves as the primary defenders of a glorious past that their enemies would seek to deny or forget. By whitewashing uncomfortable legacies and seeking to cultivate a politics of historic grievance, Putin has attempted the same. But in his justification for the invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s ahistoricism has bordered on delusion. Whether the Russian people or the rest of the world share in it, for now, appears to be immaterial: If there’s one audience this revisionist history is designed for, it’s Putin himself.
The evolution of Putin’s historical revisionism can be seen throughout his public statements over the years. In 2005, he famously described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. Two years later, Putin bemoaned the aftermath of the Soviet era and the pernicious, unipolar world—one led not by Moscow, but by Washington—that it had created. Last year, in perhaps the clearest articulation of his worldview, Putin said that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people—a single whole.” On Monday, he took that sentiment even further, declaring Ukraine to be “an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space” whose independence was a product not of self-determination (Ukrainians resoundingly voted in favor of independence from the Soviet Union in a 1991 referendum), but rather “a mistake.”
Unlike his 2014 address announcing Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, which was largely framed as a moment of celebration, this was an angry speech—one ostensibly designed to make Russia’s people angry too, and to justify what was to come. “In territories adjacent to Russia, which I have to note is our historical land, a hostile ‘anti-Russia’ is taking shape,” Putin said in another address ahead of the invasion. “For our country, it is a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a nation.”
It’s hard to know what Putin means by historical future (which is, on its face, an oxymoron), though we can take an educated guess. When Putin speaks of Russia today, he speaks of a country whose greatness is defined by its past—namely, its imperial history and its victory during World War II—which he believes must guide its present. “Putin weaponized history by giving it a function,” Orysia Lutsevych, the head of the Ukraine Forum at the London-based Chatham House think tank, told me. As far as the Russian president is concerned, “history is the fortune teller of the future.”
Such historical narratives can be compelling, especially when they elicit the kind of nostalgic nationalism that has proved potent elsewhere, including in the United States (where Donald Trump’s Republican Party has dubbed itself the defender of “patriotic education”), India (where Hindu nationalists have appealed to pride in India’s past to undermine its secular present), and Hungary (where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán often invokes the territories the country lost after the First World War). “Putin is not the only person who is old enough to have felt that sense of deep, personalized humiliation and shame that came with the loss of power of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War,” Keir Giles, the author of Moscow Rules: What Drives Russia to Confront the West, told me. “Anything that reasserts Russia as that great power with a greater status than others and the right to a global presence and global influence in others’ affairs will be popular in those sectors of the Russian population.”
Still, it’s difficult to gauge just how big that sector is or how pervasive the narrative has been among those who don’t share Putin’s semi-mythological view of history. A recent CNN poll, published the day before the start of Moscow’s military invasion of Ukraine, found that though roughly half of Russians support using military force to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, only 36 percent support doing so as a means of forcing a reunification of the two countries. The lack of support for the latter was most clearly evidenced by anti-war protests that have broken out across Russian cities.
When I spoke with Denis Volkov, the director of the Moscow-based Levada Center, Russia’s last independent pollster, in early February, he told me that though the majority of Russians fear war, few would feel comfortable voicing opposition to it if it came due to fear of reprisals. Indeed, more than 1,700 arrests have already been made. Besides, Volkov said, “public opinion will be no limit to the Russian government.”
Though Putin may feel obliged to justify his war of choice to the Russian people, who with Ukrainians will share the costs of a bloody and drawn-out conflict, his revisionist history is designed to appeal to no one more so than himself. By restoring Russia’s control over its former territories, Putin not only corrects what he sees as a historic wrong but also cements his place in Russian history as the leader who restored the country to its rightful status.
The irony is that in his quest to make Russia great again, he risks achieving just the opposite. Invading Ukraine has already resulted in wide-ranging sanctions and has all but ensured Russia’s diplomatic isolation. Even Putin’s friends in Europe, such as Orbán and Czech President Milos Zeman, have gone out of their way to reiterate their support for Ukraine and their commitment to a joint European Union stance.
“Putin’s views have become more and more extreme over time to the point where they are now more or less unrecognizable and have few points of contact with history as it’s understood in the outside world,” Giles said. “He’s operating in a different plane of reality and in a different century.”