The Long History of Russia and War

Understanding how deeply embedded war is in Russia’s view of itself may help us understand the invasion of Ukraine, says the Tufts author of “Russia: The Story of War”

To understand what’s driving Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it helps to be familiar with Russia’s history of war, says Greg Carleton, a professor of Russian studies.

“Russia has always been a militarized country—it has done this, in fact, for its own survival,” he says.

More than a decade ago, as Carleton was spending his summers in Russia doing research, he was struck by the frequent references to war he saw on billboards and TV and in bookstores. “It was just this constant presence that one can’t escape,” he says.

Wondering what was going on, he made it a new focus of his research—he’s a professor of Russian studies in the Department of International Literary and Cultural Studies. The result was his book Russia: The Story of War, which came out five years ago and provides perspective for the current war.

Flanked by Europe and Asia, Russia has experienced three major invasions in its history: by the Mongols in the 13th century, Napoleon in 1812, and Hitler in 1941. “In Russia, survival of the state itself has been a primary concern historically,” Carleton says.

War permeates the broader culture, he says. Take the biggest holiday in Russia, Victory Day on May 9, which commemorates the end of World War II. In ceremonies throughout the country—across its 11 time zones—millions of people parade with photos of their relatives who fought in that war, in which Russia suffered an estimated 14 million military and civilian deaths. It’s more than a veterans day ceremony—television stations play war movies throughout the week—it takes over the popular consciousness.

This focus on the national consciousness of war has been used by political leaders for their own ends, particularly since the 19th century, with the rise of nationalism. “This pattern is too frequent to ignore,” says Carleton, who teaches Russian literature and the courses Warrior Nations, about U.S. and Russian exceptionalism, and War Stories, about the rise of modern war. Putin is no exception. “He is following a pattern that has been established for centuries now.”

“This ritual on Victory Day is kind of like a civic religion,” says Carleton. “It’s a way to never let the Second World War go. But even more than that, it’s almost that war itself is never seen as being over.”

The Best Defense Is Offense

While the culture of war has deep roots in Russian history, “it’s a very cherry-picked history,” Carleton says. Even though the wars are cast as defensive ones in Russian telling of history, they have certainly not all been fought for defensive reasons.

“Putin has been scrambling to try and find the right story—that’s usually a sign that something’s going wrong in the war,” says Greg Carleton.“Putin has been scrambling to try and find the right story—that’s usually a sign that something’s going wrong in the war,” says Greg Carleton.

Take an early case—the war against neighboring Kazan in 1552 led by Ivan the Terrible, who was a Russian tsar. Kazan was a Muslim state some 450 miles east of Moscow, a successor of the Mongol empire. Russia started and won the war, which set the stage for its imperial expansion all the way to the Pacific.

It was the first example of Russia’s “defensive expansionism,” says Carleton. “The thinking is like this: We’ve got a hostile neighbor—or a potentially hostile neighbor—so the best thing to do to protect ourselves is to cross our border and squash that neighbor. And then the next thing is, well, now we’ve got a new border, with a new hostile neighbor. And so we attack—ad infinitum. That’s defensive expansion.”

Ivan the Terrible justified the invasion of Kazan by claiming that Orthodox Christians there were being persecuted. Russia “said it was ‘defending our brethren from essentially a genocidal threat,’” Carleton notes.

Fast forward to 2022 and substitute Russian-speaking Ukrainians for Kazan’s Orthodox Christians and this “is exactly what Putin is saying,” Carleton says. In late February, Putin described the invasion of Ukraine as a military operation to protect people facing genocide perpetrated by the government in Kyiv, a claim that independent scholars dismiss as distorting history. Russia continues to say it is “de-Nazifying” Ukraine, invoking World War II in its rhetoric, even though Ukraine’s democratically elected president is Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust.

Trying to Plug into the Russian War Myth

On March 16, at a video conference, Putin gave a long speech “going through this litany of complaints about the West, this run-through of Russian history, these things they all have faced,” says Carleton. “To an outsider that doesn’t make sense. It sounds like he’s rambling and ranting.”

For the domestic audience in Russia, Putin “might be hyper-emotional, but it’s not a rant,” he says. “It all makes sense and comes together if you put it into a framework of the Russian war myth”—the selective stories the nation tells about itself.

This context can “help to understand what’s going on in Russia,” says Carleton. “We can’t just dismiss it as something ludicrous or fantastical—it has deep roots in Russian history. It’s a very cherry-picked history, though, of course. It’s kind of like if you took American history and ignored slavery and the genocidal policies against Native Americans.”

What’s really striking now, Carleton says, is the lukewarm reception in Russia for the war in Ukraine, despite Putin’s propaganda efforts, crackdown on independent sources of information, and suppression of dissent.

Putin’s attempts to link the current war to Russian history don’t seem to be resonating with the Russian public, Carleton says. “I think a key sign is just the deafening lack of support for the war in Russia,” he says. “I was in Russia when the annexation of Crimea happened in March 2014, and the domestic response was quite different then.”

Part of the reason for the difference, Carleson says, is that Crimea had long been both administratively and culturally part of Russia. “Only in 1954 was it abruptly handed over to the Ukrainian Republic by Khrushchev which, at that time, didn’t mean much in real terms since it was all under the umbrella of the Soviet Union,” he says. “So its ‘return home’ in 2014 made sense to many Russians. Plus, the scale of that invasion, the rapidity of the operation, and that there was relatively little bloodshed helped.”

Still, he says, “it’s the absence of domestic support now that is so profoundly stunning.”

Tell Enough Lies, and You Start Believing Them, Too

Why is the mythmaking not working this time around? Carleton thinks the issue may be how isolated Putin has become. Carleton cites the Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels’s line—that if you tell a lie long enough, people will believe it. “I think with Putin, it might be true that if you tell a lie long enough, you come to believe it,” Carleton says.

“I had a sense in the early 2000s that Putin was a cold realist and knew precisely that what he was saying was propaganda,” he says. “Some 20 years later, he’s surrounded by yes men—power will do that to a person—and he has now come to believe these lies.”

On February 21, on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine, Putin gave a speech filled with vitriol, and Carleton doesn’t think he was just performing a part. “It seems like he’s actually believing this now—he’s believing his own myth. It’s not unheard of. The Soviet leaders believed their own propaganda.”

Take Putin’s story about the “Nazification” of the Ukrainian government. “It is just such a blatant lie that he’s asking his population at home today to swallow,” Carleton says.

As far as the Russian public buying that lie, some certainly are, “primarily because they have no other source of information given state control of television—a prime source for many Russians—and of the internet inside Russia,” he says. “One can also assume that some Russians refuse to believe what is going on simply because that’s not what they think their country stands for.”

The Seeds of Putin’s Demise?

As a longtime observer of Russia, Carleton thinks Putin “overreached completely with the Ukraine invasion—he made a colossal mistake. He’s destroyed two countries, Ukraine and Russia. It breaks my heart that one person in one day can do this.”

If Putin had died a year ago, “he would’ve gone down in Russian mythic history as one of the great figures of that history, as someone who brought Russia back from when it was on its knees in the 1990s and made it into a nation that had some kind of authority in the world,” Carleton says.

With the invasion, though, “I don’t know where this is going to end, but it probably will end with him not in the Kremlin anymore.”

That guess is based on history. Russia’s “wars of choice”—unprovoked offensive wars—that ended in quagmires or defeat have tended to have catastrophic results, he says. The Russian loss in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, for example, led to the 1905 revolution, a wave of political and social unrest that forced constitutional reforms and set the stage for the 1917 Russian Revolution, in which the monarchy was abolished and the tsar executed.

More recently, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and subsequent decade of fighting there contributed to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Soviet leaders initially said their troops were requested by the Afghan government, which was fighting a civil war. That story “fell apart within a couple years,” says Carleton.

It’s a “good rule of thumb for any country that goes into a war of choice, that if your story begins to change, it’s not a good sign,” he says. Likewise today in Ukraine, he notes, “Putin has been scrambling to try and find the right story—that’s usually a sign that something’s going wrong in the war.”

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