Among my, rather eclectic, set of history interests is a fascination with modern Russia. Back in my undergraduate days, one of the ‘special papers’ I studied was ‘The Development of the Soviet State, 1917-41’.
Then, during my 35 years teaching in comprehensive schools, I taught Soviet history (1917-91) to GCSE and A-Level for many years; and wrote an A-Level textbook, and then a GCSE one, on ‘Stalin’s Russia’.
Part of my fascination was rooted in the epic scale of the drama, tragedy, achievements, and then disintegration, that characterised the place and period. The other reason for my fascination was the realisation that this turbulent history was far from closed and that much of the modern experience of Russia (the USSR having disintegrated in 1991) could only be understood by recognising the long shadow cast by its history.
I was last in Russia in 2007. In St Petersburg, our guide was young, western-orientated, and optimistic about the eventual direction of travel of the country. It seemed that, despite bumps on the road, a working relationship with the West might yet be salvaged from an increasingly frosty situation. In Moscow, our guide was older, looked back with nostalgia to the apparent certainties and securities of the late-Soviet era, and vividly recalled how ‘gangster capitalism’ had ravaged the post-Soviet nation in the 1990s.
For her, Vladimir Putin (president of the Russian Federation since 2000) was the bringer of order and stability. A few oligarchs tossed into prison after trials of dubious legality (they had it coming, in her view), and the erosion of political liberties, seemed a small price to pay.
Touring a theme park, I came across uniformed members of a paramilitary youth group who were also doing the tour. Somehow, they did not look like scouts or guides out on a trip. I had read about these groups, affiliated to United Russia, the party that backs Putin. And how it was best not to tangle with them. I turned my camera in a different direction. The problem was that this was what most of us did at the time – we looked in a different direction.
Since then, I have kept up my study of developments in Russia. With a particular interest in the Stalinist secret police, I eventually wrote a book on the subject and on its legacy. In modern times the successors to the Stalinist security organs have restricted freedoms at home, and secretly encouraged events abroad as varied as the election of Trump and Brexit, which they consider weaken and distract the target states (USA and UK in these cases) and sow disunity in the West. At the same time, money of dubious origins has fed into the UK’s financial system and political funding, earning our capital the nicknames of ‘Londongrad’ and ‘Moscow on Thames.’
That repressive legacy once more seemed all too apparent as I watched the news of the build-up of military forces on the borders of Ukraine. Along with other Russia-watchers, I too have begun to ask: is this for real? Are war clouds gathering over Eastern Europe?
The legacy of history
If you ever conclude that some people in the UK are rather obsessed with the Second World War, then you have clearly not discussed history with a Russian! In the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45 (remember that the USSR was an ally of Nazi Germany from 1939-41) its military losses alone reached at least 8.7 million people, according to a Soviet General Staff Commission in 1990, and have been estimated (including those who died as POWs) as reaching as high as 13.6 million. Soviet civilian losses have been estimated as being as high as 7.7 million.
To give some sense of scale, the total losses (military and civilian) of the UK and USA combined (on all fronts), amounted to 683,000. These latter losses are terrible, but the losses suffered by the citizens of the USSR were on a totally different scale. They were staggeringly high. The USSR lost perhaps as much as 11% of its pre-war population, compared with a British loss of 0.8% and a US loss of 0.4%. In addition, of every 10 German soldiers killed in the Second World War, nine died on the Eastern Front. This is why the Russians think it was them who won the Second World War – assisted by the Western Allies.
As well as harbouring feelings that the West rather overlooks their massive contribution to victory, is the historic observation that war and devastation comes from the West. And, between 1812 (Napoleon) and 1941 (Hitler) that has largely been true. Trust of the West can be in short supply.
Add to that a legacy of communist dictatorial rule – that finally ended in disintegration and humiliation after 1989 (leading to turbulence which lasted a decade) – and the modern authoritarianism, quick resort to violence, sensitivity to perceived slights, desire to regain lost territory, suddenly becomes easier to read. That is not the same as approving of it.
All of this is why nations that once formed part of the USSR (from Georgia to Ukraine) have found themselves coming under increasing pressure from a Russian state that is determined that too much independent action (let alone Western influence) will not be tolerated in what it perceives as its ‘back yard’.
Cometh the hour cometh the man…
Vladimir Putin is a former KGB (secret police) lieutenant colonel who resigned from the KGB in 1991, entered St Petersburg politics and eventually became deputy mayor of St Petersburg in 1994.
From that position his rise was meteoric. In 1996 he moved to Moscow, joining the administration of President Boris Yeltsin. In 2000, he became president of the Russian Federation, replacing Yeltsin who had resigned in late December 1999. To avoid constitutional limits on the number of terms he could consecutively occupy this peak position, he switched jobs in 2008 and, for four years, served as prime minister. After that he returned as president in 2012. A constitutional change in 2020 means that he can now rule Russia until 2036.
Russia has become a state built around Putin and those closest to him. These constitute the siloviki (persons of force), a term used to describe holders of political power who were once members of the military or (like Putin himself) the secret police.
While Putin has enjoyed considerable support in the past, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this is not as solid as it once was. The economy has slowed. The coalition of the disaffected and dissatisfied has grown. Parties (such as the Communist Party) which were once allowed to function as (an ineffective) opposition, are now being curtailed. The ‘management’ of the electoral process has become even more heavy-handed. The lives of those perceived as critics (from investigative-journalists, to political opponents such as Alexei Navalny) have come under increasing threat. Navalny only narrowly escaped the Novichok nerve-agent attack on him and is now incarcerated in a ‘corrective labour colony’. Nationalism is increasingly being ramped up, as a way of shoring up support for the regime. Putin is both insecure and aggressive. That is a volatile and dangerous combination.
Which brings us to Ukraine…
The crisis over Ukraine
Ukraine is one of those former-republics of the USSR where increasing signs of independent action and overtures to the West (particularly to the EU and NATO) have led to escalating acts of aggression by Russia.
In 2014, Russian special forces (often termed ‘the little green men’ or ‘the polite people’) spearheaded the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. Following this, in 2014 and 2015, Russian military support (always denied) was provided to pro-Russian groups in the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine, leading to it falling out of the control of Kyiv. These groups remain dependent on Russian military assistance and ‘volunteers’.
In September 2021, Ukraine conducted joint military exercises with NATO forces (Ukraine is not a member of NATO). On 30 November 2021, Putin made it clear that any possibility of a NATO expansion into Ukraine or the deployment of missiles there (such as those placed in Poland and Romania), with the capability of threatening Russian cities or missile systems, would not be tolerated.
He has also demanded that President Biden provide legally-binding guarantees that there be no further eastward expansion of NATO. All the while, the build-up of Russian military forces on the borders of Ukraine has continued.
The mere possibility of another NATO state in Russia’s backyard crosses a Kremlin redline in ways that are hard to exaggerate. This is particularly so with regard to a nation (Ukraine) which was historically the heartland of the original medieval ‘Rus’ state, and which Putin is on record as describing as “little Russia”. In July 2021, he published a lengthy article entitled ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’. From the perspective of Kyiv, that is not a reassuring title.
Will there be war?
The ongoing Russian military build-up may well be a very dangerous game of ‘diplomatic high-stakes poker’. Making demands too extreme to be accepted may well be designed as the opening moves, aiming to achieve slightly less-extreme outcomes down the line. Many commentors think this would likely be implementation of the ‘Minsk agreements’ of 2014-15 (as interpreted by Russia) which would create constitutional change in Ukraine in a way which guaranteed Russia a virtual veto on future Ukrainian foreign policy, via its Donbas proxies.
It certainly sends a chilling message to Kyiv about overtures towards the West regarding relationships with NATO and the EU. And it warns NATO that any careless actions regarding Ukraine will likely have serious consequences. Plus, it gets Russia attention from the West; and being taken seriously is a constant demand of the Putin regime. The danger is that Russian aggression is actually increasing support in Ukraine for the very things Russia opposes.
But surely, one reflects, no rational formulator of Russian policy is going to launch a war that will result in crippling international sanctions, although the West will not fight over Ukraine; disruption to the operation of the ‘Nord Stream 2’ gas pipeline linking Russia to Germany; and Russian expenditure of blood and treasure; even if eventual victory over Ukraine is considered to be assured.
On the other hand, these things can come to possess a dangerous logic and momentum of their own. At a time of economic slowdown in Russia – with the ‘coalition of the unhappy’ growing – the Kremlin hawks may well be playing that well-tried diversionist card: the patriotic nationalist adventure. There is a Russian-nationalist fixation on Ukraine, along with hyper-sensitivity about the relationship of the West with ex-republics of the defunct USSR.
Finally, never underestimate the risks that aging autocrats are willing to take, in order to secure their place in history. Especially if circumstances make them think that the window of opportunity for imposing their will is closing. In moments of historical reflection, Kremlin-thoughts may be turning towards the idea of ‘Vladimir the Great, restorer of the lost lands, and unifier of the Russian people(s)’. That would be a worrying thought as we look into 2022.
Martyn Whittock is an evangelical and a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. As an historian and author, or co-author, of fifty-four books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. In addition, as a commentator and columnist, he has written for a number of print and online news platforms; has been interviewed on radio shows exploring the interaction of faith and politics; and appeared on Sky News discussing political events in the USA. His most recent books include: Trump and the Puritans (2020), Daughters of Eve (2021), Jesus the Unauthorized Biography (2021), The End Times, Again? (2021) and The Story of the Cross (2021). His exploration of the history of repression in the USSR, and its continued legacy, is: The Secret History of Soviet Russia’s Police State (2020).