By Serhii Plokhy
Allen Lane, 2017
Though all nations are founded on fantasy and falsehood, you have to concede that Russia has had it bad.
Their foundational myth is of a great Russian nation torn asunder by marauding invaders (Genghis Khan and the Mongols), then put together again (though incompletely) by the Tsars. It is a myth with a grain of truth and it explains, perhaps, why Russians feel constantly under threat, beset on all sides by enemies. Why they have a suspicious stance towards the world that seems out of kilter with reality. Why their outward aggression is so often explained (excused?) as a prophylactic and pre-emptive response to outside enemies.
Serhii Plokhy’s fine book traces how the notion of Russia as a lost kingdom has played itself out over five centuries, from Ivan the Great to Catherine the Second, from the Romanovs to Lenin and Stalin, ending with the current President, a certain Vladimir Putin. His thesis is twofold:
- The notion of a Great Russia, a lost kingdom in need of reunification and redemption, continues to exert a pull on those in power in Russia today; and on ordinary Russian citizens as well. It has shaped Russian identity and saturated Russian culture.
- In part because of the corrosive power of this founding myth, Russia has itself become a bewildered and lost kingdom. You think of Keats’ knight-at-arms, ‘alone and palely loitering’, although Russia, a nuclear power still if no longer a superpower, and with a hankering for expansion (the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine was indicative of that), is more dragon than knight: the veneration of St George notwithstanding. And Russia’s newly minted capacity for waging cyber-war means it can make much mischief far beyond its borders, if it so wants.
As evidence of Plokhy’s second point, consider for a moment Putin’s notion of ‘the Russian World’, which he first introduced in a talk given to an audience of writers and artists. This sounded at first sight (and was originally meant to be, perhaps) something like the British Council: a projection of soft power, an encouragement to people to read Pushkin and see Swan Lake, to take an interest in Russian language and culture generally. So far, all sweet reason: who could possibly object? But then Putin used it (a pan-Russian, pan-Slavic orientation) as a pretext to invade Ukraine. There was, apparently, an urgent need to protect the ethnic Russian speakers there. The Russian world was not limited to the borders of the Russian Federation. Putin’s was a Nazi move. Hitler used the same sort of pretext to invade Czechoslovakia: a need to protect the Sudeten Germans. And it was a bit mad as well: as though Austria were to set out to recreate the Habsburg empire by invading its neighbours and so recovering a Golden Age…
There is a slogan that the current crop of Russian nationalists use to sum up their project: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus / There you have it: Holy Rus’. The problem with this is that Ukraine and Belarus and Poland too (some of the primordial Russian lands are in present-day Poland) are all sovereign states. Poland is, as well, a member of NATO. So to achieve Holy Rus’ will entail military conflict, probably with the West. Russian nationalism – beguiled by a vision of a lost kingdom – is a danger to its neighbours, to the world and to Russia itself.
The publisher’s description of the book is here.