.

The Great Patriotic War and Myth

A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, from the Pagans to Putin | Mark Galeotti | Hanover Square Press | July 2020.

This week Russia held its annual Victory Day parade in Moscow. Delayed by the coronavirus and decidedly more muted than parades past, the event nonetheless displayed its usual pomp and circumstance. President Vladimir Putin welcomed the presidents of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia as well as the presidents of Abkhazia, Belarus, Moldova, Serbia, and South Ossetia. He had hoped to host western leaders but whether their absence was covid-related or Crimea-related is open for debate (perhaps a little of both).

The Great Patriotic War, as World War Two is known in Russia, is a central feature of the country’s identity. The heroic sacrifice of over 26 million Russians in the fight against Nazi Germany, including upwards of 10 million military personnel, is a defining feature in the country’s historical memory. By comparison, the United States lost 407,000 service members and the United Kingdom 383,000. From a western perspective, it is hard to fathom that kind of loss and the impact that it had on a country.

It is also hard for the West to understand how the Russians, whether politically prompted or otherwise, grate at the fact that in Western narratives it is the United States and the United Kingdom that saved the world from the tyranny of Nazis. In reality three-quarters of Germany’s losses were at the hands of the Soviet Union.

Of course, with any “myth” there are convenient facts left out, such as the Soviet Union’s signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. The non-aggression treaty is often forgotten or portrayed as nothing more than a tactical measure to delay the onset of the war with Germany—a clever tactical move by Stalin, not a shameless play to seize Polish territory. On the eve of the parade, President Vladimir Putin penned a lengthy essay laying the blame for World War Two at the “Munich Betrayal”, which showed Moscow the West would pursue its aims without considering Russia’s interests.

How We See Ourselves and Others See Us

These myths and stories, this fiction-non-fiction hybrid history, shapes how countries see themselves and how other countries see them. In the United States, we have our own myths, the shining city on a hill, the beacon of freedom and liberty, the immigrant nation. Today we find ourselves grappling with what those myths are and how we should interpret them, too often choosing an either-or analysis, rather than a complex understanding of our country’s past.

While we grapple with these myths at home, we often fail to understand the history and myths of other countries, particularly our adversaries. Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in Russia. For most Americans Russia is personified in Vladimir Putin—idealized or vilified as a strong national leader, pursuing the country’s interests, international opprobrium be damned. It is the former Cold War adversary, the communist menace, now run by organized crime, characterized by slab-faced thugs in track suits, or boorish oligarchs buying up Sloane Square or Mayfair in London. We can thank Hollywood for this unkind typecasting and the pundits in Washington for its buildup of Putin to a ten-foot-tall figure (despite his short stature). For most in the West, Russia appeared first in 1917 as the Soviet menace and all history began after that October revolution. Indeed, in the reviewer’s courses on Russia in college, there was nothing before Lenin.

A More Real and Complex Russia

Author and researcher Mark Galeotti offers a delightful correction to this woefully lacking education. In his newest book A Short History of Russia Galeotti explores the founding of Russia from the pagans through to Putin—as the subtitle notes—but does so by exploring the myths that the Russians tell themselves, correcting the record along the way.

As Galeotti describes the Russians, they are a “palimpsest people, citizens of a patchwork nation that more than most shows these external influences”. Whether it is the language they use, a mix of dialects and legacy words from invaders and those conquered, the religious hodgepodge that makes-up this massive country, or the constant struggle to define itself, Russia is truly vastly more complex and ultimately more fascinating than it is at face value (and it is already very interesting at that).

In attempting to capture the 1,000-plus years of Russian history into a slim volume, as he notes, Galeotti had to make sacrifices and brush through some historical events. But to offset this, he offers a suggested reading list at the end of each chapter.

Our countries are made of myths—those that we tell ourselves and those that we present to the outside world. Understanding the myths that define a country will undoubtedly help better understand that country.

Our countries are made of myths—those that we tell ourselves and those that we present to the outside world. Understanding the myths that define a country will undoubtedly help better understand that country.

History “Free of Internal Contradictions and Double Interpretation”

In 2013, Putin called for Russian textbooks to be “written in proper Russian, free of internal contradictions and double interpretation.” Unfortunately for Putin, history is anything but and Galeotti highlights the internal contradictions and interpretations Russia has had on its own history.

In an attempt to define itself, Russia is constantly reinventing, rewriting its history in light of events with a view to the future it wants. Galeotti notes “time and time again, Russia’s rulers would edit the past in hope of building the future they wanted”. In one of the earliest myths, Russia recounts how it invited Viking leaders to assume leadership of pre-Russia as opposed to being invaded and conquered. A Monty Python-esque twist on historical events. So, too with the myth of the “Mongol Yoke” being thrown off, with the brave Russians beating back the Horde, reclaiming their freedom, which didn’t happen, and they lived under Mongol rule for another two centuries.  

Today we see this historical revisionism and selective application with Putin. His use and timing of the Victory Day parade conveniently coincide with his constitutional referendum that will extend his rule to at least 2036, if not beyond. Putin mobilizes the Great Patriotic War to justify his activities in Crimea and his adventurism beyond as a defense of the status quo and the motherland. Here, Galeotti places the myths in the context of Russia’s history. Putin’s presentation of Russia as a defender is no different than Nicholas I’s suppression of 19th century revolutions in Europe, the crushing of the 1968 Prague spring, or any of the country’s other operations in the defense of geopolitical interests.

His presentation of Russia as a bulwark against the decadent and morally corrupt west is no different than Russia’s presentation of itself as the “third Rome” and the “cradle of true Christendom.” Yet today he uses it to advance his political interests in a cynical effort to retain power by mobilizing an older generation uncomfortable with the LGBT community.

One of the most refreshing, and perhaps unintended outcomes of reading Galeotti’s book is just how much of a historical hiccough the Communist period was. While it looms large in Western imagination, its less than a century of existence is laid bare in the context of Russia’s long history. The same happens with the Putin-era. Putin only came to power in 1999, yet again for Washington, he may as well have been around since Ivan the Terrible (or Ivan the Awesome, which as Galeotti notes “makes him sound like a Californian surfer”).  

It is also fascinating to see the constant tension between the elites in Moscow or St. Petersburg and the rest of the country—the peasants and the serfs as there was no middle class to speak of. The serf system was central to Russia for so long and, despite reform efforts from the top by Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, they were ultimately unsuccessful, leading to bottom-up revolution. Here, though, even this effort was ultimately unsuccessful as the Communist party simply became the new ruling class over homo sovieticus.

The struggle to define Russia as European is also a repeated theme. For as much as its leaders tried to make it European in customs, court, and appearance, old Europe seemed to reject it as Asian, still struggling with the legacy of the Mongol rule. It may have had the trappings of a European court, but it was just enough of the “other” to not be welcomed into the family, as it were.

Palimpsest and Hypertext

As Galeotti notes, the evolution of Russian identity is ongoing and becoming more—not less—complex. From Chinese immigration in the far east to Muslim populations growing in Moscow and elsewhere, what constitutes “Russian-ness” is a growing and morphing construct. In the era of the internet, this is becoming even more fluid as individuals are exposed to more, and are finding their communities and tribes through social media—a rich tapestry of which lives in Russia.

Russians are increasingly exposed to western media, while carrying their own rich history of Russian culture, poetry, film, and literature. Interestingly, contemporary Russian culture seems to be exporting little—how many Russian bands, authors, or directors can the average westerner identify? In the absence of this transfer, the Putin caricature is all many westerners know.

Galeotti’s book is a fantastic read. It is insightful and leaves the reader wanting more in the best of ways. The Russia that comes out of A Short History is vastly more complex and vastly more interesting than the over-simplistic Russia portrayed in the media and that which is often presented to westerners. Our countries are made of myths—those that we tell ourselves and those that we present to the outside world. Understanding the myths that define a country will undoubtedly help better understand that country. It may not lead to better policy—that’s up to the policymakers—but it is a step in the right direction.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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A Short History of Russia

Photo by Astemir Almov via Unsplash.

June 28, 2020

A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, from the Pagans to Putin | Mark Galeotti | Hanover Square Press | July 2020.

The Great Patriotic War and Myth

A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, from the Pagans to Putin | Mark Galeotti | Hanover Square Press | July 2020.

This week Russia held its annual Victory Day parade in Moscow. Delayed by the coronavirus and decidedly more muted than parades past, the event nonetheless displayed its usual pomp and circumstance. President Vladimir Putin welcomed the presidents of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia as well as the presidents of Abkhazia, Belarus, Moldova, Serbia, and South Ossetia. He had hoped to host western leaders but whether their absence was covid-related or Crimea-related is open for debate (perhaps a little of both).

The Great Patriotic War, as World War Two is known in Russia, is a central feature of the country’s identity. The heroic sacrifice of over 26 million Russians in the fight against Nazi Germany, including upwards of 10 million military personnel, is a defining feature in the country’s historical memory. By comparison, the United States lost 407,000 service members and the United Kingdom 383,000. From a western perspective, it is hard to fathom that kind of loss and the impact that it had on a country.

It is also hard for the West to understand how the Russians, whether politically prompted or otherwise, grate at the fact that in Western narratives it is the United States and the United Kingdom that saved the world from the tyranny of Nazis. In reality three-quarters of Germany’s losses were at the hands of the Soviet Union.

Of course, with any “myth” there are convenient facts left out, such as the Soviet Union’s signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. The non-aggression treaty is often forgotten or portrayed as nothing more than a tactical measure to delay the onset of the war with Germany—a clever tactical move by Stalin, not a shameless play to seize Polish territory. On the eve of the parade, President Vladimir Putin penned a lengthy essay laying the blame for World War Two at the “Munich Betrayal”, which showed Moscow the West would pursue its aims without considering Russia’s interests.

How We See Ourselves and Others See Us

These myths and stories, this fiction-non-fiction hybrid history, shapes how countries see themselves and how other countries see them. In the United States, we have our own myths, the shining city on a hill, the beacon of freedom and liberty, the immigrant nation. Today we find ourselves grappling with what those myths are and how we should interpret them, too often choosing an either-or analysis, rather than a complex understanding of our country’s past.

While we grapple with these myths at home, we often fail to understand the history and myths of other countries, particularly our adversaries. Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in Russia. For most Americans Russia is personified in Vladimir Putin—idealized or vilified as a strong national leader, pursuing the country’s interests, international opprobrium be damned. It is the former Cold War adversary, the communist menace, now run by organized crime, characterized by slab-faced thugs in track suits, or boorish oligarchs buying up Sloane Square or Mayfair in London. We can thank Hollywood for this unkind typecasting and the pundits in Washington for its buildup of Putin to a ten-foot-tall figure (despite his short stature). For most in the West, Russia appeared first in 1917 as the Soviet menace and all history began after that October revolution. Indeed, in the reviewer’s courses on Russia in college, there was nothing before Lenin.

A More Real and Complex Russia

Author and researcher Mark Galeotti offers a delightful correction to this woefully lacking education. In his newest book A Short History of Russia Galeotti explores the founding of Russia from the pagans through to Putin—as the subtitle notes—but does so by exploring the myths that the Russians tell themselves, correcting the record along the way.

As Galeotti describes the Russians, they are a “palimpsest people, citizens of a patchwork nation that more than most shows these external influences”. Whether it is the language they use, a mix of dialects and legacy words from invaders and those conquered, the religious hodgepodge that makes-up this massive country, or the constant struggle to define itself, Russia is truly vastly more complex and ultimately more fascinating than it is at face value (and it is already very interesting at that).

In attempting to capture the 1,000-plus years of Russian history into a slim volume, as he notes, Galeotti had to make sacrifices and brush through some historical events. But to offset this, he offers a suggested reading list at the end of each chapter.

Our countries are made of myths—those that we tell ourselves and those that we present to the outside world. Understanding the myths that define a country will undoubtedly help better understand that country.

Our countries are made of myths—those that we tell ourselves and those that we present to the outside world. Understanding the myths that define a country will undoubtedly help better understand that country.

History “Free of Internal Contradictions and Double Interpretation”

In 2013, Putin called for Russian textbooks to be “written in proper Russian, free of internal contradictions and double interpretation.” Unfortunately for Putin, history is anything but and Galeotti highlights the internal contradictions and interpretations Russia has had on its own history.

In an attempt to define itself, Russia is constantly reinventing, rewriting its history in light of events with a view to the future it wants. Galeotti notes “time and time again, Russia’s rulers would edit the past in hope of building the future they wanted”. In one of the earliest myths, Russia recounts how it invited Viking leaders to assume leadership of pre-Russia as opposed to being invaded and conquered. A Monty Python-esque twist on historical events. So, too with the myth of the “Mongol Yoke” being thrown off, with the brave Russians beating back the Horde, reclaiming their freedom, which didn’t happen, and they lived under Mongol rule for another two centuries.  

Today we see this historical revisionism and selective application with Putin. His use and timing of the Victory Day parade conveniently coincide with his constitutional referendum that will extend his rule to at least 2036, if not beyond. Putin mobilizes the Great Patriotic War to justify his activities in Crimea and his adventurism beyond as a defense of the status quo and the motherland. Here, Galeotti places the myths in the context of Russia’s history. Putin’s presentation of Russia as a defender is no different than Nicholas I’s suppression of 19th century revolutions in Europe, the crushing of the 1968 Prague spring, or any of the country’s other operations in the defense of geopolitical interests.

His presentation of Russia as a bulwark against the decadent and morally corrupt west is no different than Russia’s presentation of itself as the “third Rome” and the “cradle of true Christendom.” Yet today he uses it to advance his political interests in a cynical effort to retain power by mobilizing an older generation uncomfortable with the LGBT community.

One of the most refreshing, and perhaps unintended outcomes of reading Galeotti’s book is just how much of a historical hiccough the Communist period was. While it looms large in Western imagination, its less than a century of existence is laid bare in the context of Russia’s long history. The same happens with the Putin-era. Putin only came to power in 1999, yet again for Washington, he may as well have been around since Ivan the Terrible (or Ivan the Awesome, which as Galeotti notes “makes him sound like a Californian surfer”).  

It is also fascinating to see the constant tension between the elites in Moscow or St. Petersburg and the rest of the country—the peasants and the serfs as there was no middle class to speak of. The serf system was central to Russia for so long and, despite reform efforts from the top by Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, they were ultimately unsuccessful, leading to bottom-up revolution. Here, though, even this effort was ultimately unsuccessful as the Communist party simply became the new ruling class over homo sovieticus.

The struggle to define Russia as European is also a repeated theme. For as much as its leaders tried to make it European in customs, court, and appearance, old Europe seemed to reject it as Asian, still struggling with the legacy of the Mongol rule. It may have had the trappings of a European court, but it was just enough of the “other” to not be welcomed into the family, as it were.

Palimpsest and Hypertext

As Galeotti notes, the evolution of Russian identity is ongoing and becoming more—not less—complex. From Chinese immigration in the far east to Muslim populations growing in Moscow and elsewhere, what constitutes “Russian-ness” is a growing and morphing construct. In the era of the internet, this is becoming even more fluid as individuals are exposed to more, and are finding their communities and tribes through social media—a rich tapestry of which lives in Russia.

Russians are increasingly exposed to western media, while carrying their own rich history of Russian culture, poetry, film, and literature. Interestingly, contemporary Russian culture seems to be exporting little—how many Russian bands, authors, or directors can the average westerner identify? In the absence of this transfer, the Putin caricature is all many westerners know.

Galeotti’s book is a fantastic read. It is insightful and leaves the reader wanting more in the best of ways. The Russia that comes out of A Short History is vastly more complex and vastly more interesting than the over-simplistic Russia portrayed in the media and that which is often presented to westerners. Our countries are made of myths—those that we tell ourselves and those that we present to the outside world. Understanding the myths that define a country will undoubtedly help better understand that country. It may not lead to better policy—that’s up to the policymakers—but it is a step in the right direction.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.