In the picture
Cover of Orlando Figes' book 'The Story of Russia' (Dublin: Bloomsbury, 2022) 348 pages.
What motivations could have prompted Vladimir Putin to dare to break the taboo according to which war has been banished from Europe as an instrument of conflict resolution? Are there explanatory causes for his behavior, or is Putin a case for psychologists? A year and a half after the beginning of the Ukrainian war, many observers are still asking about his reasons, if there are reasons to speak of in a case like this.
Probing the reasons that may have led to the present war scenario is not a trivial exercise; much less does it mean justifying a decision as opposed as this one to international norms - the first of which is respect for international borders and the sovereignty of states. Understanding does not mean approve; doing so is important if one aspires to reach at some point a stable and satisfactory peace for the parties involved; one that avoids the recurrence of a new armed outbreak between Russia and Ukraine in the future.
Few wars are fought for a single cause; more often, several reasons concur to precipitate an episode of war violence. In these scenarios of multi-causality, history almost always appears as one of the wells in which to find interpretations and past grievances that the actors in the system use as arguments to justify their decision to go to war.
Ukraine is no exception to this rule, and there are several historical reasons Putin has put forward to justify it. In 'The Story of Russia', the latest work by British-German historian Orlando Figes, the author delves into Russian history to help the reader distill arguments that help to understand the war and the Russian attitude towards it. His intention does not seem to be to make a mere descriptive tour through the main milestones of Russian history. Rather, based on them, he would be making an analysis of the 'soul' of the country and of what, today, we call its 'narrative' or, in other words, the way Russia sees itself as a nation, and in its relations with the rest of the world. It is not by chance that the degree scroll of the book incorporates the word 'story' which, in addition to its translation as 'history', also has the meaning of 'narrative' or 'story'.
That is what the author tries to highlight throughout the pages of this interesting volume, in which he balances his erudition with the effort to reach a non-specialist public interested in understanding a country that Churchill -always so handy at the time of quotations- defined as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma", as well as some of the keys that can help to understand the reason for the war.
Throughout the text, and in different historical periods, many of the Russian founding myths emerge one by one, common in many cases to Ukrainian ones, but interpreted differently in both countries, which is in the very essence of the myths.
The first is that of the foundation of Russia with the appearance of Kievan Rus and, very importantly, with the conversion to Christianity and the baptism of the Great Prince Vladimir. From this root, common to Russians, Belarusians and Russians, stems the idea expressed by Putin that Russia and Ukraine are one and the same people, and that there is no question of a distinct and autonomous Ukrainian identity. Ukraine, of course, interprets the myth differently, arguing Vladimir's conversion as test of the Western vocation of Rus and, hence, of Ukraine.
Another sign of Russian identity considered, in view of its historical development, is the autocratic nature of power in Russia, which is not due to chance or whim, but has to do with the geopolitical reality and history of the country. Regarding the former, the work makes reference letter to the vastness of the Russian geographic space, the difficulty of maintaining control of its immense territory and the need to do so in order to guarantee the security of Russia's heart. As far as history is concerned, Figes refers to the legacy of the Mongol occupation of Rus, which lasted more than two hundred years. The authoritarian ways of Genghis Khan and his successors would have permeated the Slavic concept of authority, which identified the tsar with the state - unlike in the West, where a distinction was made between the mortal person and the sacred king official document - uniting the two in a single mortal being who, as man and ruler, was an instrument of God.
The various Russian tsars justified their right to empire both on their spiritual descent from Byzantium and on the territorial one received from Genghis Khan. Along with the despotic power of the tsar came the idea of the patrimonial principle of princely power that made the monarch the de facto owner of the entire Russian national territory.
Meanwhile, the subjects, also imbued with this vision, and with the invaluable cooperation of the Orthodox Church, began to see the tsar as a sort of "father of all Russians", just and beneficent, looking out for the good of all and quasi-infallible; if something went wrong, it was not the tsar's fault, but that of the administrators. This vision was historically maintained until the tragic end of the Romanovs during the Revolution of 1917. Far from dying with the monarchy, however, the idea remained in the Russian imagination, even during the years of communism, as sample the image Stalin cultivated of himself as the "little father" of all Soviets, who saved the country - and the West - from the scourge of Nazi power in the Great Patriotic War.
Putin, Figes notes, considers Russia to be strong when its people have stood united behind a strong state, and weak when the population has been divided and the country has ceased to observe the fundamental 'Russian principles' - patriotism, collectivism, and submission to the state - that unite and distinguish it.
Russian resentment towards the West for not recognizing Russia's stature as an international actor, nor the sacrifices it has made for the West to save it, first from the Mongols, later from Napoleon and, even more recently, from Hitler's Germany, is presented as another feature of the Russian 'soul'. Russia is a great power, endowed with a significant nuclear arsenal, and should be treated and regarded as such. NATO's post-Cold War expansion, and Georgia's and Ukraine's flirtations with the Atlantic Alliance would be but the latest episode of this disregard.
This national pride would have one of its foundations in the idea of Moscow as the "third Rome" that kept intact the heritage of Byzantium after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. This character should give Russia the consideration of a great power internationally, in addition to assuring it the control of other territories such as Ukraine or Lithuania or, beyond, the Slavic world.
Basically, the recent history of Russia, one can conclude, is one of unresolved tensions between the Westernists - who would have their epitome in Tsars Peter and Catherine - and the Slavophiles, who consider that the isolation of the West under the Mongols made it possible to preserve the Byzantine heritage, the old Slavic culture and Orthodox beliefs, which were thus protected from the individualistic and secular tendencies of Renaissance humanism in Europe. Two souls: the Westernists and the Slavophiles - isn't this, in a way, one of the dramas being played out in Ukraine today?
These and other myths constitute the essence of the entertaining and enriching journey through Russian history that 'The Story of Russia' offers the reader. The history of a country whose future the author ventures to conclude is uncertain and remains open. One thing he does consider certain, and that is that history will be reinterpreted and reinterpreted again, regardless of who governs the country, to steer the helm of agreement with their interests in mind.