Peter the Great: Putin clarifies his imperial claims

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Last September, Russian President Vladimir Putin received a history lesson from a schoolboy. Putin was lecturing a gathering of students in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok on the merits of possessing “knowledge of the past” to have a “better understanding of today”. In an exchange, he invoked the great legacy of Russian Tsar Peter the Great, who he said defeated the Swedes at the Battle of Poltava in the Seven Years’ War against Sweden in 1709.

Except that wasn’t entirely accurate, as Russian President Nikanor Tolstykh, a student from the Arctic Circle town of Vorkuta, reminded. Russia fought Sweden in what is known as the Great Northern War, which lasted over two decades from 1700 to 1721. The Seven Years’ War was a sprawling global conflict later in that same century in in which Russia and Sweden were actually on the same side. .

The day after this light fact-checking, the headmistress of Tolstykh’s school denounced her student’s “arrogance” in the local media. In a separate interview, Tolstykh’s teacher admitted that she wouldn’t have had the temerity to contradict Putin. A Kremlin spokesman insisted that Putin had an “absolutely phenomenal knowledge of history”, but that “he is always ready to listen to such corrections, whether they come from a child or from a a specialist”.

Last Thursday, Putin showed that he had not forgotten this correction. At an event commemorating the 350th anniversary of Peter’s birth, he explicitly compared himself to the expanding tsar of the empire and celebrated his years of conquests.

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Peter the Great fought the Great Northern War for 21 yearsPutin said. after visiting an exhibition honoring Peter. “It looks like he was at war with Sweden, he took something from them. He didn’t take anything from them, he came back [what was Russia’s].”

The Russian president then alluded to the ongoing “special operation” in Ukraine, which he and his state’s propaganda arms also presented as a war of restoration and return – no matter that the invasion violating sovereignty marks a serious violation of international law and has led to billions of dollars in damage to Ukrainian cities, the deaths of thousands of people and disruptions to the global economy that put millions more at risk.

“What was that [Peter] Do?” Putin said. “Take back and strengthen. That’s what he did.

Peter’s wars and territorial expansion helped shape the contours of the later Russian empire, pushing its borders to areas of Finland to the north and the Black Sea to the south. The Battle of Poltava cited by Putin saw Russian forces deliver a historic blow to Sweden’s continental ambitions in Europe. A few years earlier, Peter established his west-facing capital of St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea, built on the site of a captured Swedish fortress.

Soviet flags continue to fly over Russian-occupied Ukraine

Putin has for years worshiped the 18th century monarch and keeps a bronze statue of the Tsar above his ceremonial desk in the Kremlin’s Cabinet Room. In a 2019 interview with the Financial Times, he said Peter “will live as long as his cause lives”. At the time, the British newspaper interpreted this “cause” as preserving Moscow’s “sphere influence” along the borders of an expanding NATO bloc.

But the ongoing war has revealed something deeper in Putin’s psyche: a narrative of a mythical fate that supersedes any geopolitical imperative and has set Russia on a bloody collision course with the West. Ukraine for Putin is an inseparable part of Russian history; this is where Orthodox Christianity entered Russian culture more than a millennium ago and thus a kind of cradle of Russian civilization. He preceded the invasion of Ukraine with a discourse fueled by historical animosity, raging against Bolshevik divisions of Russian lands while rejecting Ukraine’s de facto right to sovereignty.

“Although this grievance appears to be situated in what Putin called the tragedy of the Soviet collapse, its imperial inspiration extends even deeper into the country’s past,” wrote Lynne Hartnett, a historian of Russia at the University. Villanova, in the Washington Post. “As Putin described in a 2012 speech, the rebirth of Russian national consciousness requires Russians to connect with their past and realize that they have ‘a common and continuous history spanning over 1,000 years. “. ”

Others pointed to historical legacies that Putin might not welcome. “Like Putin, Peter wanted to build Russian military might, and not only reformed his army, but built his navy, just as Putin spent 20 years modernizing his army,” Mark Galeotti wrote in the Spectator. “In the process, although he started the slide of the Russian state towards insolvency and ensured that he would wage wars not only in the northwest but also in the south, against the Ottomans.”

Russia, of course, is not the only country where nationalists in power get carried away by such a grievance. The illiberal Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban complains about the borders demarcated by the World War I Treaty of Trianon and the loss of a “greater Hungary” in the surrounding Balkans. Turkish nationalists, meanwhile, lament the Treaty of Sèvres, which tore apart the defeated Ottoman Empire and reduced the Turkish footprint in the Middle East. Hindu nationalists in India raise the idea of ​​”Akhand Bharat”, a united Indian subcontinent defined by the historical scope of Hindu culture.

Political scientists would label these impulses as “revengeful” or “irredentist,” with politicians stoking their supporters with rhetoric about lost lands and communities of brethren separated by unjust borders. But Putin’s revanchism, unlike that of most other right-wing nationalists elsewhere, has now caused a geopolitical conflagration and has a growing body of undercurrents.

Putin’s critics point to his explicit adherence to Peter the Great’s conquests as evidence of the temerity to offer concessions to the Kremlin now. The war, they argue, was not about NATO expansion or a ludicrous belief in the need to “denazify” Kyiv, but the uncompromising zeal of a 21st century imperialist.

“Putin’s confessions of land seizures and his comparison with Peter the Great prove that there was no ‘conflict’, only the bloody seizure of the country under contrived pretexts of popular genocide”, tweeted Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the Ukrainian government. “We shouldn’t be talking about [Russia] “saving face”, but on its immediate de-imperialization.

There is no need to look further than Poltava, site of Peter’s famous victory over Sweden, but now a place that is in Ukraine. Local authorities did not welcome Putin’s invasion. Instead, a court in the Poltava region last month found two detained Russian soldiers guilty of war crimes.

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