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Russia’s bloody road to Ukraine

This extract from Martin Sixsmith’s new book explores how Putinism emerged from the country’s brutal history

A Ukrainian soldier near Bakhmut, March 2023. Photo: John Moore/Getty

“What does all this mean? Why did it happen? What made those people burn houses and slay their fellow men? What force made men act so? These are the instinctive, plain, and most legitimate questions that humanity asks itself… For a reply to these questions the common sense of mankind turns to the science of history, whose aim is to enable nations and humanity to know themselves.”
Leo Tolstoy,
Second Epilogue to War and Peace, 1869

That agonised question, posed by Tolstoy in War and Peace, was about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. It could equally apply to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Tolstoy concluded that history is driven by the myriad actions of seemingly insignificant individuals, the “little men”, whose wills combine to push the world forward. It makes history unpredictable. The commands of politicians and the predictions of commentators bear only a contingent relationship to the direction of history, Tolstoy writes, but they often pretend that the relationship is causative. In 1991, I was the BBC’s Moscow correspondent and witnessed the chaotic collapse of Soviet communism after 70 years of the world’s greatest social experiment. I knew it was an epoch-making event that would change the world and I felt it was my job to say how. I wrote in my reports that Russia would re-enter the community of nations after seven decades of self-imposed exile and become a responsible member of the international order. From now on, I suggested, Russia would be like us.

I got it wrong. And so did George Bush Senior. Addressing the American people on 25 December 1991, just hours after Mikhail Gorbachev had resigned and the USSR had been consigned to history’s wastebasket, he crowed: “This is a victory for democracy and freedom. It’s a victory for the moral force of our values… Our enemies have become our partners, committed to building democratic and civil societies… God bless America.”

In 1992, running for re-election, Bush claimed that America under his leadership had “won the Cold War”. “Because we stood firm, America stands alone as the undisputed leader of the world.” The US, declared his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, “is in a unique position, standing alone at the height of its power… in an unparalleled situation in history, which presents us with the rarest opportunity to shape the world.”

As we know, that’s not how it worked out. But in 1992, the unipolar world looked entrenched and, if the US was shaping it, there would henceforth be only one viable system of government. Francis Fukuyama called it “the end of history”, which he characterised as “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Subsequent events proved that it is unwise to make predictions. I got it wrong, but it didn’t matter because I was a here-today-gone-tomorrow journalist, exercising power without responsibility. George Bush got it wrong and it did matter, because US triumphalism determined how the west would treat Russia for the next two decades. And Francis Fukuyama was also wrong. History wasn’t over. Offended by all the gloating, Vladimir Putin took great delight in proving it.

The trouble goes back a long way. Poignantly, given the events of 2022, the first seeds of the Russian identity were planted in ninth-century Kyiv, when marauding Vikings from the north stumbled across an attractive, strategically placed settlement on the river Dnieper and decided to make it their base. Because the men who occupied Kyiv belonged to a clan whose founder was Prince Rurik of Rus’, the lands they administered became known as Rus’.

Rus’ grew into a prosperous assemblage of princely fiefdoms with its centre in Kyiv, expanding into the territory we now know as Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. It was Kyiv, not Moscow, founded more than 200 years later, that stood at the centre of the lands of Rus’ and it marked the beginning of a dispute over how the roots of shared identity may be untangled. It led to contention in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and contributed to an explosive confrontation in the twenty-first.

The fate of Kievan Rus’ helped determine the form of government that would take hold in Russia. The tenth century was a time of rule by coercion and military might; democracy was not on the cards. But in 988, Prince Vladimir of Kyiv adopted Christianity as the state religion and it softened the way Kievan Rus’ was ruled. Contact with the west blossomed; merchants travelled abroad and traders came in from Germany, Denmark, Armenia and Greece. Vladimir reduced military aggression against his foreign neighbours and at home there was a new emphasis on the rule of law, with elements of democratic participation. Through popular consultations known as veches, property-owning male heads of households had a say in appointing officials, ratifying treaties and setting taxes. In 1136, the citizens of the city of Novgorod were able to dismiss their prince and run their own affairs.

But Kievan Rus’ didn’t get the chance to develop its proto-democracy. In 1237, it was overrun by the Mongols, who would rule for the next two and a half centuries, implanting their own highly militarised, repressive model of governance. When the Mongols left in 1480, the autocratic system they had introduced remained in force, adopted by the native princes who replaced the civic participation and respect for the law, glimpsed before the Mongol invasion, with the absolute, unchallengeable diktat of an all-powerful state.

The two models – the European-oriented proto-democracy of Kievan Rus’ and the isolationist autocracy bequeathed by the Mongols – would become opposing poles in Russian political thought, each of them attracting followers who would promote their rival templates for Russia’s future.

When power shifted from Kyiv to Moscow in the 14th century, the princes of Muscovy showed little interest in democratic participation; Muscovite Russia’s model of governance would be autocracy. In 1325, Prince Ivan Kalita persuaded the head of the Russian Orthodox Church to move his seat to Moscow, boosting Muscovy’s status and influence. Kalita and his successors were able to invoke God as the justification for their authority; and when Christian Byzantium was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Muscovy gained in importance. Now the sole remaining bastion of the Orthodox faith, exposed directly to the expanding forces of Islam, Moscow claimed a God-given role as defender of Christianity. “The Russian land will be elevated by God above all nations,” proclaimed a mystical text known as The Legend of the White Cowl. Rome and Constantinople had fallen to the Muslim sons of Hagar, ran the prophecy, “but in the Third Rome, which is the Russian land, the grace of the Holy Spirit will triumph… and the crown of the imperial city shall be bestowed upon the Russian Tsar.”

The Muscovite princes entrenched the model of militarised autocracy, with the added dimension of Russian exceptionalism and a self-appointed mission to export its values to the world. It would mean the subjugation of the individual to the cause of the collective and an acceptance that civil rights must take second place to safeguarding the state. The very word for “state”, gosudarstvo, has different connotations from its English equivalent: it suggests not an impartial, representative government run by consent, with guaranteed rights and the rule of law, but something closer to a kingdom – literally, a “lord-dom”, dependent solely on the whim of its autocratic ruler. It is the model that endures in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

But the old Kievan values were not forgotten. Large numbers of educated Russians have traditionally looked to the west. The intelligentsia of the nineteenth century were repelled by the authoritarian nature of what Russians refer to as the silnaya ruka, the iron fist of centralised power. They argued for a decisive turn towards western values of law and social justice, coalescing into a powerful school of so-called westernisers. But an equally vigorous movement emerged, in stark disagreement, championing the supreme “Russian values” of Orthodoxy, collectivism and nationalism. The Slavophiles were conservative supporters of tsarism and autocracy, who saw Russia’s strength in its unique historical mission and communal institutions that gave it an advantage over the decadent, individualistic west. They proclaimed Russia’s moral superiority and its divine mission to teach the rest of humanity how to live.

Vladimir Putin is promoting something similar. For many Russians, his claim that his invasion of Ukraine was to protect Russia from the west is a recognisable trope: “the west” is the source of the decadent values that Russia must oppose if it is to remain safe. Today’s Ukraine, with its desire to join the European Union and embrace western ideals of openness, freedom and democracy, has positioned itself as the inheritor of the old Kievan values; while Putin’s Russia proclaims itself to be fighting for the Slavophile ideals of nationalism, social conservatism and statist autocracy.

The first references to “Ukraine” appear in the twelfth century. Kievan Rus’ was struggling to protect its lands and its southern frontier was under threat from nomadic heathen tribes, the Pechenegs and Polovtsians, making border raids, pillaging, murdering and kidnapping. “Ukraina”, literally “the land on the edge”, was the region most at risk. The Mongols would enter Rus’ through its porous borders, swallowing it up with the rest of the princedoms to the north. In 1569, when another invasion, this time from the west, brought its territory under the control of the Polish crown, the name Ukraine was used to designate a specific region on either side of the Dnieper, with inhabitants known as Ukrainians. By the eighteenth century, it was part of the Russian empire, referred to now as Malaya Rossiya, Malorossiya or “Little Russia”, to differentiate it from the Great Russia to its north. Some found the name disrespectful and wanted to replace it with “Ukraine”.

A desire for a distinct Ukrainian identity was emerging, separate from Russia; both remained Orthodox Christian, but culturally and linguistically distinct. Ukrainian and Russian are Slavonic languages that developed from a common root and share a lot of grammar and vocabulary; but, just as German and Dutch speakers struggle to understand each other, so do Russians and Ukrainians. The names of Ukrainian cities long familiar to English speakers in their Russian forms are different in Ukrainian – Kyiv rather than Kiev, Kharkiv instead of Kharkov, Lviv not Lvov – and have only recently become accepted in the west. Disputes arose over cultural allegiances: the nineteenth-century writer Nikolai Gogol was born in Poltava, now part of Ukraine, but wrote in Russian, leading Moscow and Kyiv to squabble over his “true” nationality. The Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, exiled because of the nationalism of his verse, wrote in 1845:

When I am dead, then bury me
In my beloved Ukraine […]
Oh bury me, then ye rise up
And break your heavy chains
And water with the tyrant’s blood
The freedom you have gained.

In World War I, the majority of inhabitants fought with the tsarist army, but some sided with Germany, hoping to break away from Russian rule. The Russian Civil War of 1917–22 opened the way for national liberation movements and the Ukrainian War of Independence was bloody. Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, The White Guard, depicts Kyiv being captured and recaptured by the warring factions. The triumph of Bolshevism put an end to a short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic and a return to the domination of Moscow. Vladimir Lenin’s creation of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922 marked the first time the name Ukraine had been attributed to a formally defined, stable geographical entity, but still part of an overbearing empire.

The Tsars had repressed the nationalities in their empire, but the Bolsheviks passed a resolution guaranteeing the right to national self-determination, with linguistic, cultural and administrative freedoms, and a theoretical right to secede from the Union. Fifteen Union Republics – beginning with Russia, Ukraine and Belorussia – were created within the USSR, all supposedly co-equal, but with the Russian Republic dominant, occupying three-quarters of Soviet territory and containing two-thirds of its population. When Ukraine and others tried to exercise their “right to secede”, the Bolsheviks changed their minds. Independence movements were now denounced as bourgeois and counter-revolutionary. Great-Russian dominance and an unrelenting drive to subsume minority cultures into a collective Soviet identity would underpin the USSR for the seven decades of its existence. Ukrainian resentment would continue, erupting in sporadic attempts to break free, but largely shackled to the triumphs and defeats of the Soviet Union.

The collectivisation of Soviet agriculture between 1928 and 1940 caused human misery on an unprecedented scale and nowhere suffered more than Ukraine. The decision to eliminate the “bourgeois” farmers who had fed the country for centuries in favour of untried collective farms with unrealistic goals resulted in years of failed harvests. In 1932 and 1933, famine caused between two and four million deaths in Ukraine. Remembered by Ukrainians as the Holodomor, it entered the national consciousness as a crime inflicted by Moscow. There is evidence that Joseph Stalin chose to punish anti-Soviet areas by withholding supplies from a starving population. Tonnes of grain requisitioned in Ukraine were sold abroad, while the Ukrainian people died. There is little doubt that hunger was used as a weapon to break nationalist resistance.

By the time the Nazis arrived in 1941, resentment of Russia was widespread. While millions of Ukrainians fought and died in the Red Army, more than a quarter of a million volunteered to fight with Hitler’s forces; tens of thousands served in the German auxiliary police or as concentration camp guards. Nationalists in western Ukraine were enthusiastic collaborators, encouraged by vague German promises of an independent Ukrainian state after the war. Ukrainian volunteers played prominent roles in the extermination of the Jews. When Vladimir Putin justifies his 2022 invasion of Ukraine by saying Russia must fight the neo-Nazis there, it seems outlandish to people in the west; but for many Russians brought up on tales of Ukrainian treachery, it sounds plausible.

When the Germans were expelled in 1944, Stalin used the evidence of Ukrainian collaboration to fuel his paranoia about anti-Soviet agitation. Hundreds of thousands of so-called “bourgeois nationalists” were sent to labour camps in Siberia. A Russification drive ordered by Stalin sought to wipe out “decadent” western influences and suppress native Ukrainian culture. Writers, artists and academics who had expressed patriotic sentiments in the struggle against the Nazis were accused of Ukrainian chauvinism and banned from publication. The Jewish community, already devastated during the German occupation, was targeted by a campaign against “cosmopolitanism”, a Soviet codeword for the antisemitism of the state.

The repressions deepened the resentment. Ukrainian partisans continued to fight against the Red Army long after the war had ended. But the Soviet victory had emboldened Stalin. Bolshevik control was tighter than ever.

In his New Year broadcast on 31 December 2022, Vladimir Putin explained that the invasion of Ukraine had been done to defend the Motherland and preserve Russia’s freedom. He left no doubt who was threatening them.

“For years, western elites hypocritically assured us of their peaceful intentions… But in reality they were encouraging the [Ukrainian] neo-Nazis in every possible way… The west lied to us about peace while preparing for aggression, and today they no longer hesitate to openly admit it and to cynically use Ukraine and its people as a means to weaken and divide Russia. Moral and historical truth is on our side. We will never allow anyone to do this.”

Putin resents and mistrusts the west; many Russians resent and mistrust the west; and to the west, that seems puzzling. An objective assessment might conclude that the two camps have more in common than they have differences; that they could be allies, working together to tackle the big international challenges such as climate change, global pandemics, migration and terrorism. But geopolitical hatreds are rarely objective; most of them come from shared history and visceral resentments that accumulate over many years.

Vladimir Putin attends a concert marking the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, March 18, 2022. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP/Getty

The October Revolution of 1917, in which Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power, horrified western governments, who feared similar uprisings in their own countries. Britain, France and the US sent thousands of troops and large quantities of weapons to support the anti-Bolshevik White forces, hoping to strangle the new socialist state in its infancy. Lenin expressed his fury against the western enemy in language identical to that of Putin:

“The capitalists of England, America and France are waging war against Russia. They are taking revenge on the Soviet Peasants and Workers’ Republic because she overthrew the power of the landlords and capitalists and set an example for the peoples of the rest of the world to follow. With money and munitions, the capitalists of England, France and America are helping the Russian landlords lead their armies against the Soviets, seeking to restore the power of the Tsar, of the landlords, of the capitalists!”

Moscow’s resentment of London, and Washington’s attempts to destroy the Bolshevik state, did not go away. In August 1939, Stalin signed an alliance with Hitler, partly because he believed the western allies were deliberately stalling on negotiations with him in the hope that Nazis and communists would fight each other into the ground. When Moscow did join the Allies two years later, Stalin was convinced that Churchill’s delay in opening a second front in western Europe to take the pressure off Soviet forces in the east was a deliberate ploy to weaken the USSR. And when victory was won in 1945, he suspected – not completely without reason – that Britain was contemplating a pre-emptive attack on the Soviet Union.

Mistrust was not confined to Moscow. George Kennan, the post-war deputy head of the US Mission in Moscow, wrote a diplomatic briefing, later known as “the long telegram”, that set the parameters for the paranoia of the Cold War years and now of Putin’s Russia. “We have here a [Soviet] political force committed fanatically to the belief,” Kennan wrote, “that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed and the international authority of our state be broken.” But Kennan understood that Moscow’s aggression was, at least in part, the result of fear. “Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively fragile and artificial, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of western countries… they have learned to seek security in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it.”

Stalin’s threats and bluster in the post-war years were the product of a deep inferiority complex. “Right up to Stalin’s death,” Nikita Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs, “we believed that America would invade the Soviet Union and we would go to war. Stalin trembled at this prospect. How he quivered. He was afraid of war. He knew that we were weaker than the United States… Even our victory in the war did not stop him from trembling inside.”

Vladimir Putin might have had similar thoughts in February 2022. The Russian economy had been on the slide for a decade, public discontent with his leadership had been rising and Russia was being condemned for its repression at home and murders abroad. If Putin was also “trembling inside”, it made good sense to scapegoat the west. A short, victorious war against Ukraine may have seemed a useful way of uniting the nation.

Just as Lenin’s Bolsheviks came to power immediately after one of Russia’s most daring experiments with democracy, so Vladimir Putin entered the Kremlin on the heels of two liberal reforming leaders. Lenin seized power from the well-intentioned but hapless Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky; Putin inherited it from the west-friendly, democratic-minded, but disaster-prone Boris Yeltsin and – before him – the radical reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Russia’s periodic flirtations with liberalisation have all come at times of national crisis and all have been followed by a reversion to the default position of autocratic rule. The eight-month interlude of the Provisional Government in 1917 was the result of tsarism imploding in the course of World War I and Kerensky’s tentative liberal reforms were reversed by Lenin. Gorbachev’s political reforms in the late 1980s were necessitated by the acuteness of the Soviet Union’s economic troubles and they were reversed by Putin.

The Yeltsin years, from December 1991 to December 1999, were a time of openness towards the west. The US secretary of state, James Baker, marvelled at what he called “the uniform, intense desire to satisfy the United States.” After decades of misery under communism, the Russian people were willing to do almost anything to share in western freedoms and western economic success. There was a rush to shake off the remaining trappings of communism to make way for the new capitalist society.

Russia tried to turn itself into a western-style market democracy, but instead of prosperity and freedom, the country slid into runaway inflation, ethnic violence, crime and chaos. Boris Yeltsin wanted to dismantle the communist model and replace it with a capitalist economy. He took the advice of American experts, who told him to adopt their recipe of big bang economics – an overnight lifting of state controls that had existed for decades, allowing the market alone to decide prices. The result was economic meltdown; people’s savings were wiped out, salaries and pensions went unpaid and living standards crashed. Deputies in the Russian parliament seethed with discontent. Yeltsin’s shock therapy was portrayed as a western imposition. In October 1993, parliament rebelled. Deputies barricaded themselves in the parliament building and defended it with weapons. Yeltsin sent in the tanks: Russian tanks shelling the Russian parliament.

It was a low point, the first indication that Russia’s latest flawed flirtation with democracy had failed.

The liberal experiment ended with the arrival of Vladimir Putin in 2000. On this occasion, the reassertion of autocracy was carried out with the approval of the people, not imposed on them. Vladimir Putin was genuinely popular. No one in Russia was hurrying to return to the Yeltsin era. Russia’s liberal opposition enjoyed little influence or following. Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin might have been heroes in the west, but for Russians they were incompetents or, worse, traitors who had sold out the motherland to foreign enemies. Gorbachev’s popularity rating slumped to 4 per cent, Yeltsin’s even lower. Vladimir Putin’s most effective claim to popularity was simply that he was not either of them. The silnaya ruka – the iron fist of the strong ruler – was back, and Russians were happy about it.

Putin and the Return of History: How the Kremlin Rekindled the Cold War by Martin Sixsmith with Daniel Sixsmith is published by Bloomsbury Continuum

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