As Putin appeals to the distant past to justify his invasion of Ukraine, militant nostalgia is on the march around the world
by Simon Schama
Bad history can kill. Those who butcher the truth may end up butchering people. Every day, the news from Ukraine says as much. You would think, what with existential calamities — ecological and biological — bearing down hard and fast on the world, that even the most empire-addicted, power-ravening despot would have better things to do than wage war in the name of historical myths and fables.
But no, somewhere within the mind of tyrants lies the strange urge to be a professor; to cloak Machiavellian brutality with the gravitas of scholarly authority.
Posing thus, autocrats can persuade themselves — and those to whom they feed their deluded claptrap — that their belligerence is at the service of some higher mission: the recovery of national self-respect, the righting of grievous wrongs and humiliations inflicted by wicked foreigners. Invariably it’s history, or rather, their mangled version of it, that gets wheeled out to vindicate those obsessions. Should actual, factual history, with all its complexity and nuances, resist being nailed to the Procrustean bed of grievance, then the inconveniences of truth can always be trimmed away.
So it was in July of 2021 that Vladimir Putin, in his own wannabe professor mode, published a lengthy screed, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, which manages to be stupefyingly dull while also exhaustively untrue. Putin is not the first autocrat to weaponise ancient history for armoured rage. In 1935, the same year that Hitler’s Reich enacted the Nuremberg Laws, Heinrich Himmler created the Ahnenerbe (“Ancestral Heritage”), a scholarly department of the SS devoted to hunting and publishing archaeological evidence of the purity and superiority of the Aryan race and its settlement in much of central and eastern Europe.
Much poring over the runes followed, along with excavations and expeditions inside Germany and far beyond. In 1938-39 the Ahnenerbe conducted an expedition to Tibet on the assumption that it was the racial cradle of Aryans but as it turned out, Hitler was not much interested. Ancient bodies preserved in bogs were said to be homosexuals subjected to Aryan extermination. A round-up of 15,000 gay men duly followed. Most died in the camps.
Putin’s tediously admonishing lecture strives to demonstrate that, more than righteous indignation at Nato’s eastward expansion, more than the ambition to “absorb” the eastern industrial heartland of Donbas, the purpose of his “special military operation” is to restore the indivisible unity of Russia and Ukraine. That indivisibility, he insists, is in the first place linguistic. Anyone in any doubt about the organic existence of Ukrainian as an independent tongue should read Timothy Snyder’s brilliantly illuminating essay on the two languages, published last month in The New York Times.
“Should actual, factual history resist being nailed to the Procrustean bed of grievance, then the inconveniences of truth can always be trimmed away.”
But the existence of a kindred yet not identical language has long been a sore point for the champions of imperial Russia. Nineteenth-century autocrats were sufficiently threatened by the flourishing of Ukrainian writing to pay it the backhanded compliment of a ban issued by Tsar Alexander II in 1876 on all Ukrainian-language publications and performances of stage plays and songs. Needless to say, decreeing away the reality of Ukrainian culture only had the effect of strengthening and radicalising it, as the Harvard scholar Serhii Plokhy shows in his magisterial history of Ukraine, The Gates of Europe. The futility of imagining that you can shoot Ukrainian culture into non-existence has been most fatuously exemplified by Russian troops who recently “executed” a statue of the great 19th-century Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in Borodyanka, with a bullet to its skull, as though the life of literature was made of metal.
None of this is to say that Russian and Ukrainian histories have not been braided and knotted together over the centuries, but simply to acknowledge that they have been, perennially, two distinct strands. Putin’s essay makes the medieval Kyivan Rus the original Russian state, but its founding rulers in the 9th and 10th centuries were Vikings, not Slavs. The word Rus means “men who row” and its etymology is Scandinavian.
Following the Mongol conquest in the 13th century, Rus was divided into different tribute states, the orientation of which cast a long shadow over the subsequent centuries. A north-eastern Muscovy was inevitably more Asian, while a Galician-Volhynian state in what is now western Ukraine had its ruling prince Danylo blessed by the Pope and, while still paying tribute to the Mongol khans, enjoyed freedom of government within its borders.
The migration of Crimean steppe Cossacks into regions south of Kyiv in the 16th and 17th centuries would strengthen this sense of self-government to the point where perceived suppression of its autonomy triggered insurrection. The 1648 revolt led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the most violent of those uprisings. When Tsar Peter I failed to defend Ukraine from the Swedes during the Second Northern War, the Cossack Hetman Ivan Mazepa switched sides, and duly paid the price following the crushing Russian victory at Poltava. Ukraine was re-baptised as “Little Russia”; an ethnic Russian was made commander of Cossack troops, the independent Kyivan Church abolished and the “indivisibility” of the two nations achieved by force rather than consent. But Voltaire, an admirer of Mazepa, nonetheless noticed, in 1731, that “Ukraine has always aspired to be free.”
Putin’s fable of Ukrainian-Russian harmony was always a unity of imperial convenience that could be brutally withdrawn as and when circumstances required. Writing of the horrific 1932-33 famine in which the catastrophic failures of rural collectivisation were visited on Ukraine through the confiscation of grain and other foodstuffs, directly causing the deaths of four million from starvation, Putin claims disingenuously that it was a “common tragedy”. But the holodomor, as it is known in Ukrainian, was an integral part of a broader political and cultural programme of obliteration designed by Stalin and Lazar Kaganovich. The very idea of Ukraine was meant to perish along with its people. Just in case the memory of that horror might have faded, the Russians are currently doing a good job of refreshing it, accused by the Ukrainians of ferrying hundreds of thousands of tonnes of grain back east across the border.
History resists the deletions of tyrants; but right now, in much of the world, it has a fight on its hands. The Russian Supreme Court’s closure of Memorial International, which for decades has been committed to documenting Soviet atrocities, was a backhanded compliment to the threat posed by the obstinate temerity of historical truth. But it was yet another demonstration of the truism uttered by the sinister obliterator of memory, O’Brien, in George Orwell’s 1984, reminding Winston Smith that “who controls the past, controls the future, who controls the present, controls the past”.
Perhaps it is the confidence that his autocracy has a stranglehold on what is and what is not history that allows Putin to attach the label of “Nazi” to anyone with the gall to resist his invasion. Among the casualties of this monstrous war, then, is the actual reality of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. Could the perversion of history get any worse? Yes, when Sergei Lavrov says Jews can be Nazis too.
But then history has never been just an escapist exercise in time travel; it has always been entangled in the toils of power. From the outset, its dominant subject was war: the measure of sovereign success or failure. Herodotus began his Histories by stating that his purpose was to prevent the deeds of those who fought in the Greek-Persian wars from slipping into oblivion (though much of the attractiveness of his work lies in its insatiable curiosity about the manners and mores of non-Greeks). But when an actual general, Thucydides, turned historian of the Peloponnesian Wars, his writing, perhaps sobered by direct experience, banished triumphalism and turned history into a critical discipline.
The principal protagonist of Thucydides’ book is not a mythic hero but a classical ideal. Athenian democracy, which, while most honoured in the breach, was nonetheless deemed worthy of ultimate sacrifice. Read History of the Peloponnesian War and you will find things forbidden by the likes of Vladimir Putin: debates about the ethics of killing prisoners and civilians; disputes over whether expeditionary warfare was the instrument of opportunistic self-promotion; and, most shocking of all, the graphically unsparing report of disastrous Athenian defeat in Sicily that is the monumental narrative climax of Thucydides’ masterwork.
Openness to self-criticism, the mark of strong, honest history, is not, as is sometimes said by flag-waggers and drumbeaters, a sign of national self-hatred. On the contrary, it represents an optimistic patriotic faith that, in free societies, the cohesion of national community is better served by the examination of truth than by otiose flattery.
Our postwar generation had inspiring models of citizen-historians prepared to make sacrifices of their own lives for the sake of history’s integrity: Marc Bloch, the great medieval historian who wrote Strange Defeat, about the roots of French collapse in 1940, joined the Resistance and was shot by the Gestapo in 1944; or Benedetto Croce, who went from flirting with fascism to becoming one of its most adamant and ethically uncompromising enemies.
They were our heroes and paragons. In their memory, we thought our job was to be gadflies for truth; the discomfiters of the powerful, not the service industry of their feel-good fables. We also believed — and most of us still do — that history fashioned as self-admiration will always yield to the hard force of fact. But maybe we have been kidding ourselves; maybe when the loss of something or other — territory, empire, a fantasy past of unclouded grandeur — triggers paroxysms of indignation, seeing red will always blind populists to the clarity of truth.
Booster histories are pumped with grievance: the ressentiment that Nietzsche identified as a condition of impotent but unassuageable rage at some sort of imagined, unjust loss; and the projection of that anger towards those cast as the agents of humiliation. Putin mourns for the empire lost by the collapse of the Soviet Union and attributes the debacle to the designers of what he calls an “anti-Russia project”, salivating to inflict yet another humiliation. In his view, post-Maidan Ukraine after 2014 allowed itself to be co-opted into that nefarious Euro-American strategy and so must now be punished for presuming to control its own destiny.
None of this, of course, began (or will end) with Putin. Victimhood and the need to avenge the “stab in the back” that robbed Germany of victory in the first world war runs through Hitler’s Mein Kampf like a slow-burning fuse. When Viktor Orbán rants about Hungary’s role as defender of Christian civilisation, he is feeding on the bitterness left by the Treaty of Trianon of 1920 imposed by the victorious allies, which reduced the country to a third of its prewar territories and a third of the population of the Kingdom of St Stephen that had ruled coevally with Austria over an immense empire.
Ironically, the state against which Hungary had historically defined itself — Ottoman Turkey — is now governed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is himself gripped by neo-Sultanate fantasies, embodied in his 1,100-room presidential palace, albeit more Albert Speer in looks than anything that would have passed architectural muster with Suleiman the Magnificent.
For some time now, backward-looking history has become the future, most obviously for authoritarian nationalists. The first weaponiser of militant nostalgia in the modern period was Slobodan Milošević, who in the late 1980s discovered that it might be possible to emerge from the debris of bureaucratic communism by tuning up the endless dirge of Serbian victimisation.
On June 28, 1989, Milošević summoned a crowd estimated at 600,000 to a million to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo at Gazimestan, near Pristina, where a monumental tower, built in 1953, is inscribed with a “curse” attributed to the Serbian Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović on the eve of the battle and allegedly “discovered” by the 19th-century poet and philologist Vuk Karadžić. “Whoever is a Serb or of Serbian birth,” the lines go, “and fails to come to fight at Kosovo, may he never have a son or daughter . . . may nothing grow that is sown from his hand,” and so on. Both Lazar and the Ottoman Sultan Murad I died on the Field of Blackbirds a few kilometers away. But resurgent nationalism demanded a romance of defeat so that Kosovo could become a sacred site of martyrdom and feed the deep well of inherited resentment, just as the waving of Confederate flags conjures up the self-pitying pathos of the Lost Cause of the Old South.
“Bad history sells books and, as politicians wanting to ride the populist wave well know, has the rally crowds upstanding in hooting delirium.”
On the day of the anniversary, Milošević descended in a helicopter and addressed the immense crowd. “Six centuries later”, Milošević said, the battle had to be fought again, not in arms perhaps, “but that too cannot be ruled out”. Politika, the newspaper voice of the government, headlined that “we are living again in the time of Kosovo”. Shortly afterwards Kosovo’s autonomy was suppressed; a decade of terror, akin to an enemy occupation, was inaugurated and Albanian was forbidden as a language of education. The ferocious repression ended only with Nato’s bombing campaign on Serbia and the collapse of Milošević’s rule.
It would be better for the world if Thucydides’ fearlessly self-scrutinising history were also to be the most popular form of its literature. Unhappily, this is not the case and perhaps never has been. It is bad, cheerleading history that stirs the blood, makes the pulse race and fogs the brain with sentimental consolations. That bad history sells books and, as politicians wanting to ride the populist wave well know, has the rally crowds upstanding in hooting delirium. Why ditch it merely because it’s cheaply tendentious or even transparently untrue?
Is it possible, then, for a modern nation to free itself from the relentless revisiting of ancient tribal grievance and still feel part of a patriotic community? Two examples, at least, tell us that it can be. From the denial and conspiracy of silence that lay heavily on postwar Germany, the late 20th century saw an extraordinary national accounting and an unflinching education in the horrors of the Third Reich. And Ireland, which for so long seemed doomed to be trapped in bad history, has over the past few decades become liberated from the blood sacrifices demanded by remembrance. Modernity, in its most inescapable form — the need to make a life, day to day, year to year, family to family — has been the redeemer.
By the time you read this, Sinn Féin, once wedded to the perpetuation of historical grievance, may well have become the majority party in Northern Ireland’s Stormont assembly, and done so with a promise that its responsibilities are first and foremost to the social wellbeing of all the people of the territory. Should they mean it, and should that come to pass, the moment will, in the best way possible, turn out to be historic.
This essay by the British historian Simon Schama appeared in the Weekend edition of the Financial Times.