There is a peculiar modern tendency to describe things we don’t like as belonging to the past. The Taliban are medieval, Donald Trump supporters backward, Brexiteers nostalgic for empire. Under this rubric, Vladimir Putin is a Soviet throwback and the war he may soon start in Ukraine, as John Kerry once remarked, is like some 19th-century skirmish transplanted into the 21st.
It is no doubt a comfort to imagine that these things that do not conform to our ideas of modernity are, therefore, not modern. To think this way means that we are modern and on “the right side of history.” In this way of looking at the world, all the bad things we see around us are like ghosts from the past whose deathly grip on progress might frustrate it for a while, and with potentially terrible consequences, but cannot stop its wheels from eventually grinding on. This is, of course, total nonsense.
As brutal as the Taliban is, just like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, it is not a medieval organization but the product of our globalized age of digital propaganda, social media, and the like. Similarly, Trumpism is an expression not of 1950s America, but of today’s America. And then there’s Putin, who, whatever we want to believe, is a man very much of our world. In fact, not only is he as modern as any Western leader, but compared with those who seem to think that modernity equates with sometime around the year 2000, he is considerably more modern.
To be sure, modern does not mean “good” or “reasonable” or “right.” Nor does Putin’s modernity mean that he has been—or will be—successful, either for the Russian people or in his stated objectives of pushing back NATO’s frontiers and keeping Ukraine tied to Russia. To say that the Russian president is modern, in fact, is not to make a value judgment at all. He is, as my colleague Anne Applebaum has set out, a violent, kleptocratic danger to the world. Nevertheless, understanding Putin as a modern phenomenon is fundamentally important if we are to avoid the category error that assumes the danger posed by him and his sort is that they might turn back the clock, not speed it up, re-creating old worlds rather than forging new ones.
In fact, while we do not know what the 21st century will look like, it is reasonable to assume that it will far more closely resemble Putin’s vision of Darwinian geopolitical struggle than the kind of harmonious, “rules based” globalization that many in the West have hoped for. Already, for example, the Clintonian dream of a slowly democratizing China benignly slotting into the American world order looks far more archaic than, say, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s surveillance state, which is modern in the extreme.
How many times do we make this mistake, of misinterpreting malign products of modernity with leftovers from the past? I’m currently reading a book on the Cosa Nostra by the British historian John Dickie that shows that for centuries, the authorities in Italy and elsewhere dismissed the “honored society” as a product of Sicily’s backwardness. The Mafia, it was said, was destined to disappear as soon as the forces of modernity took hold on the island, bringing democracy, liberalism, and prosperity.
In fact, the Cosa Nostra was a product of modernity, born out of the enormous profits Sicily was making selling citrus fruits around the world after the breakdown of the old feudal order. In other words, the Mafia was a modern criminal organization preying on a modern economy. Ever since, it has survived by adapting to the modern world, stealing, for example, European Union investment funds designed to develop the island. To believe that the Mafia can be tackled simply by “development” or progress is to fundamentally misunderstand its nature.
The risk today is that we repeat the same mistake, only on a much bigger scale with Russia and China. Whatever we think of China, the country’s turn toward autocracy and repression under Xi does not mean that it has taken a step backwards that will weaken its economy or its challenge to the American order. Perhaps it has, but believing so is mere faith. In fact, it is not China’s backwardness that makes it so scary, but its modernity. The plight of the Uyghurs is an appalling case in point.
Something similar is true of Russia, which appears to be a kind of anarcho-Mafia state, controlled by its capo di tutti capi in the Kremlin. But just because this system appears to be fundamentally unstable and disastrous for the Russian people does not mean that it is backward or that it cannot achieve its more limited aims. The Russia that is amassing on the Ukrainian border is not that which came before, under the czars or the Soviets, but something altogether new and frightening.
The reemergence of China and Russia, therefore, poses an imaginative challenge. Suddenly, we are forced to confront the prospect that in the future we may not have “progressed” toward some more enlightened, just, and universal order. Instead, the future might be more particular, competitive, national, or perhaps even civilizational. And if that is the case, what happens if we are on the wrong side of history, not because we were necessarily wrong but because we just got beat?
Patrick Porter, an international-security professor at the University of Birmingham, told me that the fallacy at the heart of our thinking is imagining competitive power politics as either modern or premodern. We have begun to think of it as such, he said—somewhat ironically—because of a particular moment in history, the fall of the Soviet Union, after which, for a short time, America had no real rival in world politics. Now it does once again, and it’s facing the prospect of a rival country invading somewhere.
“People say things like ‘You don’t do this in the 21st century,’” Porter said. “But what is this 21st century you speak of?”
A forthcoming book called Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century, by the Cambridge University professor Helen Thompson, charts the geopolitical, economic, and political challenges faced by the West since the end of the Cold War. Thompson told me that the crisis on Ukraine’s border today is part of a wider—and much older—issue of how to manage the nations between Russia and Germany, only now in the new setting of the 21st century, in which the European Union cannot defend itself and a wider Western military alliance is led by a hegemon preoccupied with China. We think of Putin as anachronistic, she said, only because we have convinced ourselves that we have moved beyond his form of power politics, based on raw national interest, to something post-national.
The problem is that while overt displays of nationalism are now viewed as somewhat distasteful, passé, and dangerous in the West, the nation-state itself remains the foundation not just of international relations, but of Western democracies. As Thompson said, for the people to choose their representatives, there has to be a people in the first place, and historically the nation has defined who any particular democratic people is. Democracy and nationalism, in other words, go hand in hand.
But the thing about nations is that they are just groups of people who agree that they are a nation. And people can disagree. In an essay published by Putin last year, the Russian president spent 7,000 somewhat turgid words attempting to establish that Russians and Ukrainians are really one people, occupying the territory of “historical Russia.” In his essay, Putin blames Bolshevik leaders for creating a separate Ukraine, accusing them of treating the Russian people as “inexhaustible material for their social experiments,” including an attempt to wipe out nation-states entirely. “That is why they were so generous in drawing borders and bestowing territorial gifts,” he writes bitterly. This does not seem like a man looking to re-create the Soviet Union, even if he does want its borders back.
In response, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace published his own account, countering that Putin’s claim that “Ukraine is Russia and Russia is Ukraine” is wrong, arguing instead that “Ukraine has been separate from Russia for far longer in its history than it was ever united.” He also rejected Putin’s argument that the people of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine are one people descended from the “Ancient Rus,” dismissing this as a form of ethno-nationalism based on a fabrication of history.
The problem in all of this is that no real history can establish the degree to which Ukraine is or is not separate from Russia.
In a sense, Wallace is engaging Putin on his own terms: that history is the judge here. But nations can and do change (as Americans can attest). Indeed, nations themselves are relatively modern constructs. Taking the long view, people lived in things other than “nations” far before there were German, American, Ukrainian, and Russian nation-states. The Romanovs in Russia ruled over Tatars, Germans, Russians, and Finns. In the 18th century, the court language in St. Petersburg was French and the provincial nobility was German. Not until the reign of Alexander III, in the late 19th century, did Russification become the official dynastic policy, long after the idea of being Ukrainian had emerged, as the historian of nationalism Benedict Anderson shows in his book Imagined Communities.
None of this is to ridicule Putin’s account of Russian history. All nations are, in effect, made up, requiring somewhat mythical narratives. But just because nations are imagined does not make them fake. Far from it. As the philosopher John Gray put it to me: “The whole human experience is imaginary. Money, borders, laws, power—they only work if we all agree that they exist.” The important point is what the people in Russia and Ukraine think and whether one side can impose its will on the other.
Here is where Putin is both strongest and weakest. In the crisis he has created, Putin has an obvious escalatory dominance over the West. He has the means and potentially the will to invade Ukraine. The West will simply not fight a war for Ukrainian independence, though it will exact an extremely high price from Putin for any incursion. Putin’s behavior, then, reflects the world that exists today—one in which the EU cannot defend the nations that want to join it and the United States is psychologically retreating from its imperial borders.
Yet the very nature of Putin’s threats appear to have hardened attitudes in Ukraine against any notion of Russo-Ukrainian kinship. The paradox of Putin is that in threatening Ukraine and the wider European security order, he appears to grasp the consequences of America’s imaginative retreat from the world and the fundamental reality of geopolitical power. But he either underestimates the imaginative lure of the West for Ukrainians or understands it too well and is seeking to crush it through force. There could not be a more modern conflict than this battle between power and imagination.
Karl Marx noted that in moments of revolutionary crisis the spirits of the past are summoned up to present the new scene in a way we can understand. That is what Putin is doing today. The point, as Marx spotted, is not to actually make the old spirits rise again, but to use their memory to glorify the new struggle, magnifying the task in the public imagination.
History matters, then, because it shapes how we think about the world and our place in it. And the principal way we understand history is through the history of nations. As such, national histories are necessarily stories, not scientific studies. Were millions of Ukrainians starved to death under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin? Yes. Were ordinary Russians also the victims of Bolshevism, as Putin argues? Yes. Was the collapse of the Soviet Union a liberation or a tragedy? It depends on who you were. To many, it was probably both.
As the Second World War historian Allan Allport told me, Putin, like everybody else, is both shaped by history and uses it for his own purposes. “We all operate on these two levels,” he said. The point, Allport argues, is not really whether historical narratives are true, but whether they are functional. But who decides what is functional and what is dysfunctional? In Britain, for example, there is the myth of the Blitz spirit, the idea that ordinary Londoners rallied together under German aerial bombardment. Even at the time, Allport said, people knew this was a myth. “It was less a way to describe the present than a model of how to behave.” Even today, Brits like to draw on this myth to keep calm and carry on, which is often positive but can also, depending on your political view, be a form of apathy. Maybe there are times when being less sanguine would be better.
Today Brits like to believe what Allport described as the “self-excoriating myth” that they are uniquely obsessed with the Second World War, when “the reality is everybody is obsessed with the Second World War.” This obsession just plays out in different ways in different places, as we are now seeing with the differing French, German, British, and American reactions to Putin’s threats to Ukraine. In each case, these reactions can be seen as reflections of the lessons drawn from World War II: Germany must pursue peace; France must show its independence; Britain must not appease; America must lead.
The truth is that nations and their ideas matter; we have not consigned them to the past and moved into some kind of post-national or “rational” world. That we thought we had was itself a myth we chose to believe, because it helped make sense of our Western-dominated world, causing us to feel good. We in the West like to ignore the reality that behind this apparently international order sits the enormous and slightly veiled Leviathan of American power. For most of us in the West, this is no bad thing—indeed, our place in this imperial order is enormously beneficial. Ukrainians today would, it seems, very much like to be a part of it. But we have yet to face up to what will replace it.
That moment when we in the West all bathed contentedly under the American sun has gone. The U.S. is and will likely remain the preeminent power in the world, but it is in relative decline because of China’s extraordinary growth. This is the context for Russian revanchism, an expression of the modern world, not of the one that has long since faded from view.
Putin, then, is a modern man, reacting to the modern world, using modern methods in an attempt to make something new. He is conjuring up the spirits of the past in his service, dressing up his aggression in time-honored disguise. Yet we should not be fooled by the old costumes and slogans; the reality is new and real. Putin is trying to bury the old world, not re-create it. And the very fact that he feels he can suggests that we have already arrived somewhere new. The question is who will have the tools—and imagination—to shape it.