This magisterial book by a leading historian explains how long-held Russian imperial delusions lay behind the attack on Ukraine.
Review by David Patrikarakos
May 08 2023
This year, I spent some time in the ruined city centre of Bakhmut, just a few hundred metres from the Russian army, listening to artillery go off all around me while I darted between burnt-out vehicles and shell craters trying to find a place to tweet. It struck me then that this was the last 12 months of the war in miniature: the return of 20th-century industrial conflict to 21st-century Europe — brutality and atavism in equal measure.
How we got here is the question that Serhii Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, tries to answer in his important and magisterial book The Russo-Ukrainian War. He finds the answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, in a longue durée approach to things. As he tells us, wryly rephrasing Churchill, “Historians are the worst interpreters of current events except everyone else.”
The book opens with Plokhy in Vienna at the start of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. He could scarcely believe it. In the preceding weeks he watched Russian troops massing on the border and concluded it was a ploy. “I believed that the troop movement was part of Russian blackmail,” he writes. “My colleague argued that it could be for real.”
It was an egregious error, but one made by so many who had spent years reporting on, writing about and analysing Russia — including me — and we made it because, quite simply, Putin’s invasion made no sense, militarily or politically. It still doesn’t. But, mea culpa, I now understand that, equally simply, we underestimated the ability of madness and hubris to move history.
Or perhaps more correctly, we didn’t fully internalise the lessons of that history, and the madness and hubris that it created in the Kremlin. And this is what Plokhy does so magnificently. He sees “the roots of the current war in the history of imperial collapse in the 19th and 20th centuries, which also produced the key ideas that have fuelled the current conflict”.
But if the conflict is several centuries old, its origins stretch back over a millennium. Most Russians believe that their nation originated in “Kyivan Rus”, the polity that emerged in the 10th century that encompasses Kyiv and a good part of what is now Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. It is here that Russians find the origins of their “religion, written language, literature, arts, law code and — extremely important in the premodern era — their ruling dynasty”.
At a primordial level, then, Ukraine is fundamental not only to Russian imperialism, but to Russia’s sense of itself. It didn’t matter that travellers from Moscow and St Petersburg found that the locals in Kyiv and the surrounding areas spoke a different language, sang different songs and had a distinct culture. The myth of Russia’s Kyivan origins, Plokhy tells us, had by the 15th century, “already embedded itself in the consciousness of the Russian elites”.
This myth would drive the violence of tsar after tsar against Ukrainians, who fought back as best they could, often with some successes before the inevitable defeat to a much larger enemy. Even when imperial myth was abandoned (at least superficially) in favour of communism, Ukraine remained existential. Now to help maintain Slavic dominance of a new empire: a Soviet Union filled with Moldovans, Kazakhs and Georgians.
Plokhy argues convincingly that slow disintegration of the Soviet Union finally became irreversible on December 1, 1991, when the citizens of Ukraine (the Union’s second-largest state after Russia) went to the polls. From a turnout of more than 84 per cent, 92 per cent voted for independence. Mikhail Gorbachev had argued for an all-Union referendum on the USSR’s fate, but with Ukraine now out, he simply accepted that result as a verdict on the wider question.
If there were to be any more imperial dreams, Ukraine would need to be retaken. As the former US diplomat Zbigniew Brzezinski once remarked: “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” For a time, Russia was either too chaotic or too distracted to think about empire. Then came Vladimir Putin.
The televised security council briefing Putin gave in February 2022, just before he launched his all-out invasion, made two things clear: first, that we are watching a modern-day tsar surrounded by a herd of lickspittles too terrified to openly contradict him (although their body language is garrulous); second, that we are watching a man who does not even accept the principle of Ukraine as a separate entity to Russia.
When Plokhy moves from history to an analysis of the present war — which began when Russian troops invaded Crimea on February 20, 2014 — he makes clear the full meaning of the book’s title. “The Russo-Ukrainian War” of course refers to the present day, but also to something else. A simple and near-perennial historical dialectic: on the one hand, a Russia pathologically driven by imperial mission; on the other, a Ukraine determined to carve out independence. This is why talk of Nato expansion and so on as a cause of the war is all hokum, and why the service Plokhy performs in forensically laying out the reality is so valuable.
All nationalisms are built on the fetishisation of history. Putin’s, though, is of a particularly egregious kind. It is the fetishisation of a warped history, fuelled by myth and born from a personal monomania that swelled throughout the Covid lockdown, large parts of which he spent self-isolating and reading propagandist works on Ukraine that masqueraded as fact. History has become the nightmare from which Putin cannot awake.
On the front lines and in the ruined cities you see the cost of this madness everywhere. You see it in the eyes of people in the formerly occupied territories who have had family members deported
to Russia. You hear it in the voices of those who saw children disappeared, and those who were forced to dig the graves that their fellow citizens were dumped into.
Bakhmut once had a population of more than 70,000. When I was there, I saw no life beyond the handfuls of civilians who refuse to leave because they have nowhere else to go and the Ukrainian special forces I was travelling with. Surrounding us all were thousands of Russians trying to kill anything left living in the service of a tsar’s delusion.
Moving around the city, it was sometimes hard to see properly amid the shattered glass and tendrils of smoke that billowed from entire blocks of ruined buildings. But my understanding was clear enough. The fight here is, in the end, a simple one – empire versus nation; the lies of the past versus the realities of the present; madness versus a simple desire to live free and in peace.
Plokhy is a historian and he brilliantly outlines the dangers of perverse history; as a correspondent, I try my best to illustrate its most immediate effects. On the page, you laugh at historical absurdity; on the ground, you count its cost in bodies.
The Russo-Ukrainian War by Serhii Plokhy; Allen Lane, 400pp; £25.