Politics & Policy

Putin’s Mythscape

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

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.

Bear with me on this. True, the Putin who couldn’t imagine that Ukraine and Russia could be two states is the former (and unrepentant) servant of a regime that insisted in 1945 that Ukraine have a separate seat and a separate vote at the United Nations (albeit a vote completely controlled by Moscow). Yes, Putin has the gall to criticize the Soviet regime he served for transferring Crimea in the 1950s to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, deploring that this was done by a “totalitarian state” that did not consult “the citizens of Crimea and Sevastopol.” And yes, Putin just helped rig a “consultation” with those same citizens in which only two options — join Russia immediately or join Russia later — were on the ballot. But beneath those obvious prevarications and that shameless rewriting of history (including his own complicity with the Soviet regime) lies the myth of Moscow as the sole legitimate civilizational heir of the baptism of the eastern Slavs in 988 and the emergence of a Christian civilization in Kyiv, the early relics of which one can still visit in Kyiv’s Monastery of the Caves. And if Moscow is the rightful heir of that cultural patrimony, then Moscow should rule wherever that patrimony’s contemporary embodiments may be found. For those of Putin’s cast of mind, this imperative applies in an especially urgent way to Ukraine, which has an entirely plausible claim to be, at the very least, the co-heir of the baptism of Prince Vladimir, the world-historical event Putin cited at the very outset of his speech.

That claim to be the heir of the baptism of Rus’, and the authority that claim confers, is the facade behind which Putin dares to depict the leaders of the Maidan movement in Ukraine as “the ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice in World War II.” That claim underwrites Putin’s lie that “there is no legitimate executive authority in Ukraine now, nobody to talk to.” That claim is the basis of Putin’s insistence, ominous for the Baltic states as well as for Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, that the regime in Moscow has a special, culturally warranted responsibility for the well-being of all Russians, no matter under what sovereignty they live. That claim, in brief, is one reason why Putin is thumbing his nose at the very idea of “sovereignty,” while stating baldly that “our Western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun.”

A further reason for such a brazen falsification of reality is, of course, the fact that it is, thus far, cost-free, given Western fecklessness and timidity in the face of the Big Lie and the aggression the Big Lie seeks to justify. The sight of the president of the United States filling out his NCAA tournament brackets on ESPN as Russia completed the dismembering of a sovereign state will, when the history of this period is written, remain etched in memory as an image of an astonishing indifference to reality — and to danger. Yet just as disturbing, it now seems, was German chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent comment wondering whether Putin was in touch with reality. To which one would like to respond, yes, he most certainly is: his own reality, the reality within which he makes his decisions.

That reality is shaped by the cold geopolitical and strategic calculations of a former KGB officer with a lot of blood on his hands. And it is shaped, too, by Putin’s astonishing cupidity. But Putin’s reality is also shaped by what Cambridge historian Christopher Clark, in his fine history of the origins of World War I, has dubbed a “mythscape”: a mental map composed of often-potted history, ethnic passions, resentments over past defeats, and aspirations for future glory, all flavored by religiously warranted convictions about national destiny. Competing and incommensurable mythscapes, Clark suggests, played no small part in bringing about the cataclysm that was the Great War — the Serbian mythscape vs. the Austro-Hungarian mythscape; the German mythscape vs. the Russian mythscape; and so forth. Why? Because statesmen did not take sufficient account of the mental maps on which their potential adversaries were plotting the future.

That is a mistake Western leaders, if they ever manage to gather themselves, must not make in taking the measure of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. The mental map on which he plots his moves was laid out in the clearest possible terms in his March 18 speech. Only fools would fail to take him at his word, when he makes his project as transparent as he did in addressing his rubber-stamp parliament.

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His 27th book, The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission, has just been published by Ignatius Press.


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