Putin and his Courtiers: a Cavalier Relationship With History

In an interview with the Financial Times on June 20, Vladislav Surkov, the architect of Putin’s regime, compared the Russian president to Octavius, who ended the civil war in Rome and established the principate while restoring the Senate and preserving the appearances of the old Republic. Like Octavius (later called Augustus), Putin allegedly set up a monarchy disguised as a “democracy”.

The implication of this comparison is that Putin’s state, like the Roman Empire, will outlive its creator and last for centuries (the thesis of the “long state” developed previously by Surkov). This analogy, flattering for Putin but insulting to Augustus, is worth examining for the facts. First of all, the Yeltsin period bears no resemblance to the bloody civil wars that marked the agony of the republic in Rome (88 to 30 BC). And if true that Octavius, like Putin, employed thuggish methods to rise to power, once master of the empire, he sought to conform to the ideal of the optimus princeps taught by the Stoics whose pupil he had been. According to the Stoic conception, the city whose laws are in conformity with reason and in harmony with nature has a universal vocation. The princeps must possess the virtues of the wise, he must be intelligent, prudent, courageous, and just; exercise self-control and the “rule of reason” (Pierre Grimal, Ciceron, PUF, 1984). Augustus “never went to war with any nation without a legitimate reason and without necessity because he never wanted to extend the empire at all costs in order to increase his military glory […] Thus the fame of his virtue and moderation even led the Indians and the Scythians to send him spontaneously ambassadors to solicit his friendship and that of the Roman people,” writes Suetonius, who is known for his ferocious pen: “He sought the public good rather than popularity. […] There are many striking proofs of his clemency and his simplicity worthy of a citizen […] Usually, to leave a city or a town, or to make his entrance somewhere, he waited until the evening or the night, so that no one would bother to greet him […] As for his friends, he made sure that no matter their rank and power in the State, they were, like everyone else, subject to common and criminal laws”. He lived “in the modest house of Hortensius, which was distinguished neither by its size nor its luxury, and its apartments had neither marble nor precious mosaic […] He hated immense and luxurious country houses […] His domestic tools and his furniture were of the simplest.”

Those who have seen Alexei Navalny’s film, Putin’s Palace, will recognize the difference. Augustus knew how to surround himself with gifted people. Whatever Surkov may say, Prilepin [an ultranationalist writer] will never be Virgil. Prigozhin [a businessman, linked to the mercenary group Wagner and the Internet Research Agency, a Russian propaganda agency] is nothing like the talented Maecenas. Nor can Shoigu [the Minister of Defense] be compared to the inspired city planner Agrippa. Before his death, Augustus recommended to his successor Tiberius that he not extend the borders of the empire.

Now let’s consider Vladimir Putin’s article published in Die Zeit. As expected, Putin refers to the Second World War and the feats of the Red Army. “The Soviet soldier came to Germany not to take revenge on the Germans, but with the noble and great mission of a liberator.” Playing on Germany’s feelings of guilt, Putin neglects to mention the mass rapes in the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany. According to the historian Antony Beevor, 1,400,000 women were raped in East Prussia, Pomerania, and Silesia. Sometimes murder followed rape. Let’s also not forget the looting that took place of the “liberated” regions by overfilled trains.

The rest of Putin’s opus contains even more glaring omissions and falsifications: “The people of Europe have overcome alienation and restored mutual trust and respect, have embarked on a path of integration in order to draw a definitive line under the European tragedies of the first half of the last century. And I especially want to emphasize that the historical reconciliation of our people and the Germans who lived in the east and west of the modern united Germany played an enormous role in the formation of such a Europe.” Putin ignores that European integration and reconciliation were the work of the United States, the creation of NATO having reassured France and made possible the establishment of the first mechanisms of Franco-German cooperation. The Stalinist USSR did everything it could to torpedo these developments… in the name of the “sovereignty” of the European states allegedly threatened by the Marshall Plan.

Contrary to what Putin claims, Ostpolitik had nothing to do with European integration. “We hoped that the end of the Cold War would be a common victory for Europe. It seemed that a little more — and the dream of Charles de Gaulle of a single continent, not only geographical, ‘from the Atlantic to the Urals’, but cultural, civilizational — from Lisbon to Vladivostok, would become a reality. Russia has tried to develop its relations with Europeans in this frame of mind – wanting to build a Greater Europe united by common values and interests. The European Union and we ourselves have done a lot along this path.” Putin ignores that the Europe Charles de Gaulle aspired to was a Europe of nations. He conceals the fact that he and his propagandists, when they are not talking to Western suckers, never stop proclaiming that Russia is a civilization apart, far from the deviations of Europe”. Putin claims further, “But a different approach prevailed. It was based on the expansion of the North Atlantic Alliance, which was itself a relic of the Cold War. It was the bloc’s movement eastward, […] which became the main reason for the rapid growth of mutual distrust in Europe.”

Putin overlooks the fact that NATO’s eastward expansion was carried out at the request of Central and Eastern European countries frightened by the rise of outrageous nationalism in Russia (see the success of Zhirinovsky’s party in the elections of autumn 1993), by the growing inability of Yeltsin’s government to resist these increasingly strident revisionist pressures, and by the war in Chechnya. The distrust is caused primarily by Russian behavior, to which the West responded only reluctantly and belatedly. “Moreover, many countries were faced with an artificial choice, in reality, an ultimatum: either be with the collective West or with Russia. The consequences of such an aggressive policy can be seen in the example of the Ukrainian tragedy of 2014.”

Here Putin attributes to others what he did himself: It was indeed he who put President Yanukovych to the wall, ordering him to renounce signing the association pact with the EU, forcing Ukraine to join the Eurasian Union, and thus triggering the uprising of Ukrainians. “Europe actively supported the unconstitutional armed coup in Ukraine. Why did you need to do that? […] Why did the United States organize a coup, and why did the countries of Europe lack the will to support it,leading to a split in Ukraine itself and the secession of Crimea?” In these sentences the core of the Putin worldview is revealed, leaving no room for freedom: Small states have no will of their own, they are the toys of those who pull the strings. Neither the Ukrainians nor the Europeans acted of their own accord, they were manipulated by the United States. The Kremlin’s obsession with conspiracies and its war on historians stem directly from this denial of freedom. And when President Putin says that, “We feel our indestructible cultural and historical link with Europe”, he is telling his biggest lie.

Finally, a note about a recent interview with Zakhar Prilepin, the co—chairman of the newly formed party, Just Russia — Patriots — For Truth, which combines social demands with unbridled imperialism. Prilepin explains why he defends the heritage of Sovietism tooth and nail: “Stalin, Dzerzhinsky [creator of the Soviet secret police], Soviet literature, Frunze [Bolshevik commander], Soviet marshals, cosmonauts — all this forms a coherent whole. This world is extremely important to me because the countries of the former Warsaw bloc, the Western powers, the former Soviet republics, Ukraine and the Baltic states — all of them have sunk into total anti—Sovietism, and this destroys our geopolitical and especially cultural positions.If we tolerate blatant and harmful anti—Sovietism in the neighboring territories, we lose our political positions, and consequently our cultural and economic positions. If we renounce the Soviet heritage, it implies that we have no rights over the neighboring Ukraine, which means that we are not the heirs of the Soviet political project. If it were up to me, I would have erected monuments to Stalin everywhere.” This revealing text explains the infatuation of contemporary Russian ideologists, and of President Putin himself, with the Soviet period: only loyalty to a watered—down Sovietism seems to justify their ambition to reconstitute the USSR. Neither the search for truth nor the judgment of the crimes committed in the past interest them. Only the will to dominate and the instrumentalization of historical myths for these purposes count.

She has a degree in classical literature and spent 4 years in the USSR from 1973 to 1978. She is an agrégée in Russian and teaches Soviet history and international relations at Paris Sorbonne.

See also

After the Hardened Criminals Engaged in the Russian Army, who is Next?

For months, Evgueni Prigojine, the boss of the Wagner mercenaries, has been crisscrossing Russian penal colonies in search...

Most read

The Great Russian Pretence

The Russian propaganda discourse resonates with certain conservatives. Our author looks at the way in which, far from defending a European “civilization”, the Putin regime has transformed into an “eschatological sect”.

When Soft Power Turns Hard

The Ukrainian political scientist calls on the West to be lucid, because Russian propagandists are using culture to give a more “humane” image to the genocidal barbarity of the Putin regime.