Putin’s Mythscape
The unrepentant KGB man is determined to reverse the verdicts of 1989 and ’91.


George Weigel

On the afternoon of December 7, 1941, Secretary of State Cordell Hull had an appointment with the Japanese ambassador to the United States, Kichisaburo Nomura, and a Japanese special envoy, Saburo Kurusu, in the old State, War, and Navy building adjacent to the White House. Thanks to an inept typist at the Japanese Embassy, Nomura and Kurusu were late for the meeting, at which they were to deliver an ultimatum just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. By the time the two envoys arrived, Hull knew that Pearl Harbor was being bombed by Japanese naval air forces.

Receiving Nomura and Kurusu with frigid formality, Hull took the message they were to have delivered earlier, read it, put down his pince-nez, and said, memorably, “In all my 50 years of public service, I have never seen a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions . . . on a scale so huge that I never imagined until this day that any government on this planet was capable of uttering them.”

That dramatic scene, neatly captured in the film Tora! Tora! Tora!, came immediately to mind when I read Russian president Vladimir Putin’s March 18 speech to the Russian parliament. Alas, we have, today, no Cordell Hull to respond to Putin as Hull spontaneously responded to Japanese prevarications and distortions of history 72 years ago. Instead, we have the imposition of “sanctions” at which those sanctioned publicly scoff, and much furrowing of brows as to why Moscow hadn’t satisfactorily responded to the “messages” that had been sent by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry.

The temptation to dismiss Putin’s astonishing rewriting of history on March 18 as the rodomontade of a kleptocrat masking his determination to keep, and indeed expand, his ill-gotten gains by an appeal to Russian pride should be firmly resisted. Putin, the teenager who dreamed of the glories of a KGB career, is certainly capable of such cynicism; and the hard task facing the West in the wake of Putin’s ingestion of Crimea would certainly be simpler if he were just another thuggish dictator cynically deploying tried-and-true patriotic themes to bolster his “managed democracy.” Such regimes generally have little popular appeal, and when the clock runs out on the dictator’s ability to deliver the goods, popular dissatisfaction can create situations where real change is possible.

This, Putin is aware, is what just happened in Ukraine, for the evidence is right at hand in an unwanted house guest, his quondam Kyiv lapdog, the deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Given Russia’s increasingly ramshackle economy, Putin must be concerned that what happened to Yanukovych might, just might, happen to him. So the Crimean Anschluss is, among many other things, part of Putin’s strategy to forestall a Ukrainian-style Maidan movement in Russia by appealing to Russian patriotism and Russian ethnic solidarity. The surge in his popularity ratings over the past week suggests that, for the moment, that strategy is paying dividends.

A close reading of Putin’s March 18 speech, however, suggests that more is going on here than strategically adept cynicism aimed at shoring up the Russian president’s domestic position. As I read it, Putin is making clear that he is determined to reverse the verdicts of 1989 and 1991, not to vindicate his former Communist masters, but in the name of a Great Russian nationalism and irredentism that claims to be validated by a certain divine warrant. For just beneath the surface of Putin’s rhetoric about “Russian military glory and outstanding valor,” his bitter complaint that post-1991 Russia “was not simply robbed . . . [but] plundered,” and his insistence that, when he was a young man, “it was impossible to imagine that Ukraine and Russia may split up and become two states,” is something far more ominous: the idea that Moscow is the “third Rome,” successor to “Old Rome” (that city on the Tiber) and Constantinople (the “New Rome” that fell to the forces of Islam in 1453) — and thus the center of what ought to be the lead society of world civilization.