The underlying imagined history in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

Peace & security

The entire world has been left in shock after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the underlying reasons for the invasion are hotly debated. Many observers point to Putin’s historical grievance, geopolitical responses to the NATO enlargement, and many more. However, since Putin took office, he has consistently pushed a narrative based on an imagined history that Ukraine belongs to Russia. What does this narrative entail, how does it manifest itself in today’s Russian politics and what does this mean for the measures imposed by the West against Russia?

by Carla Müller

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shocked the international community and has put the West and especially the former states belonging to the Soviet Union, on high alert. One can hear many explanations for Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine: Some point to the NATO encroachment, Ukraine’s increasingly close relationship with the West, Putin’s historical grievances, geopolitics and some commentators have even brought up speculations on Putin’s current state of mind due to severe isolation since the beginning of the pandemic. However, if one looks closely at Putin’s statements since he took office at the beginning of this century, the one dominating topic in his remarks is the imagined historical narrative that Ukraine is part of Russia. What does this narrative entail, how has it manifested itself in recent Russian politics and how does it implicate the Western response to Putin’s invasion? 

A recognizable influence on Putin’s historical perception with regards to Russia’s role in the world and his mission has been the Russian philosopher, Ivan Ilyin. Ilyin was coined “Putin’s philosopher” by Foreign Policy which implies his profound impact on Putin’s thinking and actions. In a nutshell, Ilyin’s conception of the world is that it was created by God accidentally. According to Ilyin, God then left the world in shatters. The only remedy to this depraved world is a united Russia – in terms of the united ethnic Russian people – that brings the world back together if needed also by the means of violence. 

Putin also falls back on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn, the famous author of The Gulag Archipelago and a celebrated Soviet dissident, published an essay “Rebuilding Russia” in 1990 in which he put forward his perception of Russian history and a mission to rebuild Russia in accordance with it. He stated that around 1100 AD a people consisting of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians – the so-called Kievan Rus’ – had built the Russian empire, which was eventually, artificially torn apart into separate states. Therefore, the primary mission for Solzhenitsyn is the national reunification of these people and the rebuilding of “Rossija”. 

Solzhenitsyn’s perception of history and commitment to reunification was incorporated into the Russian Federation’s 2020 constitutional amendments. The majority of political observers paid most of the attention to the article which removed the law regarding the Russian Federation’s president’s term limits and thus, paved the way for Putin to complete his mission. However, there was also an addition made to the Constitution in the form of a preamble: it clearly states Putin’s primary political priority namely that Russia recognizes the historically developed unity, which includes the Ukrainian people as well as that Russian is “the language of the state-forming nation, being a part of multi-national union of equal nations of Russia

Furthermore, since his second term in office (2004-2008) Putin has made it his goal to reinstall Great Russia, basically an imagined historical continuity of the Russian empire in line with Ilyin’s philosophy and Solzhenitsyn’s mission. In July of last year, Putin penned a lengthy essay that largely implied the step of further escalating the relationship with Ukraine in the future. In “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” Putin put forward the historical narrative, and one must emphasize that it is an imagined history, that the Russian empire consists of the Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian people. Thereby, Putin aimed at delegitimizing the Ukrainian government and at ceasing Ukraine’s political existence as a sovereign state.  

Assuming that these philosophical insights of Ilyin and as well as Solzhenitsyn’s mission are indeed the driver for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, this would imply that the West should change its tactics and response to the invasion. Sanctions and similar measures imposed assume that Putin’s belligerence is to some extent geopolitically motivated. Moreover, they imply that Putin can be stopped in his mission due to Russia’s economic pain from the imposed sanctions. The often-heard argument that Russian casualties and dead Russian soldiers will put domestic pressure on Putin to end the conflict stands in stark contrast to Ilyin’s perception of Russia’s role in the world. If Putin’s thinking and mission in Ukraine are indeed influenced by Ilyin’s philosophy, whereby only a united Russia by means of violence can save the spoilt world according to God’s will, then further measures, especially economic ones, will not stop the atrocities committed in Ukraine. Therefore, further investigation on this subject of imagined history, its role in the Russian state narrative and how the West can counter it becomes more important than ever.



Image credits: Joa70 on pixabay