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Civilisation and Security: The Historical Antecedents of the Kremlin's Confrontation with the West

March 3, 2022

Speaker: Daniel Beer, Head of the History Department at the Royal Holloway, University of LondonChair: Mark Gilbert, C. Grove Haines Professor, Professor of History and International StudiesFollowing a brief introduction by Professor Mark Gilbert, historian Daniel Beer of Royal Holloway University in London preceded to outline the historical antecedents of the Kremlin’s confrontations with the West in light of current developments in Ukraine.
As a social, cultural, and intellectual historian of Tsarist Russia, Beer was well equipped to shed light on the historical context necessary to understand Vladimir Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine. Despite the rapid developments and changing circumstances in Ukraine, Daniel Beer acknowledged the difficulty of maintaining a sense of analytical objectivity considering the immense suffering of civilians. He began by citing what are usually identified as the two key reasons for Russian aggression, namely: the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) eastward expansion and the emergence of the European Union (EU) as a democratic alternative to Russia’s authoritarianism.
Beer argued that these contemporary geo-political goals need to be contextualised in a much longer historical frame of Russia’s centuries-long conflict with the West. Beer drew on evidence from Putin’s July 2021 essay titled ‘On the Historical Unity of Ukrainians and Russians’. According to this essay, Putin argues that Russians and Ukrainians belong to one people, a historic pan-Russian nation, sharing both a common cultural heritage and future. He views the Ukraine as an inalienable part of Russia, lacking any distinct culture or language. Denying the existence of Ukraine as a sovereign nation, Putin questions the legitimacy of Ukraine’s territorial borders and even suggests the country represents an acute threat to Russia. Moreover, Putin suggests that the Ukrainian government, supposedly motivated by an anti-Russian conspiracy from the West, is intent on showing aggression towards Russia. Although Beer acknowledges that these are not necessarily new claims, and in fact date back to the 19th century, they are nonetheless relevant today. Putin’s historical revisionism and understanding of Russian “victimhood” thus expresses an immense nostalgia for the country’s pre-revolutionary imperial past. As Beer argues, ‘in order to liberate themselves from their own history of subjection’ at the hands of both tsarist and soviet regimes, Putin is encouraging contemporary Russians to reassert an imperial power understood not as российский (rossiyskiy), the state-based version, but as русский (russkiy), the ethnic-based version, over the enemies of the former Tsarist empire.
Furthermore, Daniel Beer highlighted the manner in which policies of “Russification” in the late nineteenth century only delayed the development of a Ukrainian national consciousness so that even by 1920, when the Bolsheviks regained control, the ‘idea of independence could not simply be dismissed.’ As such, the Soviet Union emerged as a ‘pseudo-federalist state, as opposed to a unitary one’ in order to include and accommodate Ukraine and Georgia and stem the rising tide of nationalist sentiments. It is thus a ‘revanchist, imperialist nostalgia’ which is shaping the Kremlin’s contemporary view of the former territories of the Soviet Union. According to this view, Russians were never simply colonisers, but themselves lived under harsh and repressive regimes, be they Tsarist or Marxist. Beer argued that it is precisely this historical context which can help to explain why Russians view themselves as victims of repression and exploitation, helping to shape contemporary resentment at perceived threats by foreign powers. Rising to prominence after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the increased nostalgia for a liberated past consistently invokes the idea of a unified “Russian world” that, according to a pro-Kremlin historian is heralded by a ‘new era’ which may ‘restore national unity and overcome the tragedy of the early 1990s’. Supplemented by a warped history of the Second World War, commemorations of victory are represented as validations of the Soviet Union as narratives of heroism and self-sacrifice continue to rely on the demonisation of all Soviet opponents during the war. In this view, these countries are not mere ‘by-products of the war,’ but in fact ‘eternal enemies that the war and occupation had uncovered’ – they are ‘beyond redemption’. As such, Putin is framing the current situation in Ukraine as an anti-fascist mission, conflating the defence of Russians with the victory over fascism.
To conclude, Daniel Beer recognised that the eastward expansion of NATO and EU enlargement were only part of the narrative. Putin is thinking ‘not only geopolitically, but also historically,’ Beer argued. While many commentators may have assumed that the Kremlin’s forays into historical narratives served as mere ‘window dressing of geopolitical objectives,’ Beer contended that the current invasion of the Ukraine and the accompanied brutality suggest that the ‘historical agenda needs to be taken far more seriously.’ After all, ‘Putin may be a true believer,’ pursuing an ‘entire geopolitical strategy rooted in a historical understanding of Russia’s victimhood.’ And, as Daniel Beer remarked: ‘If Russian history teaches us anything, it is to beware of the true believers.’