Why Putin Needs Peter the Great

June 23, 2022
Andrei Zorin

Putin’s attitude toward history may at first glance seem contradictory. On one hand, he is a diehard traditionalist who gives historical justifications for his decisions, appeals to the national past as a key source of popular mobilization and is deeply engaged in the restoration of Russia’s remote and not so remote imperial grandeur. At the same time, his approach to history is deeply postmodern. His adviser and former minister of culture Vladimir Medinsky—whom Putin appointed to head Russia’s delegation to the now suspended talks with Ukraine—once claimed that historical truth is a spurious concept and one has to believe in facts and interpretations that are beneficial to Russia. Putin is clearly an adherent of this theory, which is fully compatible with his obsession with the past. According to him, history provides answers to all political questions and he—as a direct successor of powerful monarchs who extended Russian borders and military glory—is entitled to interpret it and to explain its meaning.      

Putin’s reference this month to Peter the Great is to be read along these lines. The image of the emperor in Russian culture is twofold. Peter was a passionate Westernizer, shaving the beards of his boyars, introducing European clothing, calendar and lifestyle and, by the same token, a warrior who greatly expanded the borders of his country. Both sides of his persona and rule merge in the creation of Saint Petersburg—a new and splendid European capital fully built on conquered land.

Putin hails from this city, whose founder is something of a local cult figure. Having become president, Putin aspired to emulate Peter. Russian elites eagerly appropriated Western fashions, technologies and lifestyles, if not the respect for democratic institutions and rule of law, which were also, to put it mildly, not appreciated by the reforming tsar. Following the same model, Putin always believed his mission is to restore if not the historical dimensions of the former empire then at least its status as a great power and its global sphere of influence.

Now the Petrine Europeanism of Putin’s early days is dead and the West is perceived as a metaphysical evil threatening the very existence of Russia. Petrine expansionism, on the contrary, is alive and well. Interpreting Peter’s conquests as the return of ancient Russian lands, Putin not only directly threatens Baltic states that were annexed by Russia in the first quarter of the 18th century, but also implicitly formulates a doctrine under which Russia can “claim back” all the territories that sometime belonged it or were included in its sphere of influence. That claim definitely includes Berlin, which was occupied by the Russian army in 1760 and belonged to the Soviet sphere of influence before the fall of the wall, and arguably  Paris, which fell to the Russian army in 1814.           

Perceiving himself as one of the Russian emperors, Putin enjoys surrounding himself with regal paraphernalia including busts and portraits of his predecessors. Reportedly, Kremlin chambers are adorned by likenesses of Nicholas I and Alexander II. However, neither of these tsars can be a viable candidate for emulation: One miserably lost the Crimean War, while the other ceded Alaska to the United States. Even Alexander III with all his conservatism does not fully qualify, as his foreign policy was demonstratively not expansionist. The rulers that serve for Putin as objects of emulation are those who extended the borders of the empire.  

In addition to checking this box, Peter the Great was also one of the two Russian tsars praised by Stalin, the other being Ivan the Terrible, who was mostly glorified for his terror against the boyars. In the first half of his reign Ivan also greatly expanded the borders of Muscovy to the east, even while his later wars were mostly a failure. Putin resurrected this narrative. He tried to absolve Ivan the Terrible of the accusations of infanticide and of the killing of Metropolitan Philip II, later canonized by the Orthodox Church. Unlike Stalin, Putin could not claim that the murders of your own son and heir to the throne as well as of a leading Orthodox cleric were justifiable and had to deny the facts supported by overwhelming historical evidence. At the same time, at least up to the present day, Putin has shied away from directly endorsing mass terror inside the country. Once he mentioned Catherine the Great as his favorite Russian ruler, arguing that she managed to achieve no less than Peter I with much less bloodshed.

Catherine, of course, was no humanist herself. The empress managed to introduce some reasonably successful reforms, but, more importantly to the current president, she made substantial territorial gains in the south and west, partitioning Poland, annexing Crimea and the mouth of the Dnieper and integrating former Cossack heartlands into the empire. Tellingly, her acquisitions constituted big parts of contemporary Ukraine and Belarus.

Invading Ukraine, Putin planned to take revenge for what he perceived as the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War, which he famously sees as one of the greatest, if not as the greatest, “geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Putin models his historical vision on the stories of great Russian victories over Western powers—the Poles in the beginning of the 17th century, the Swedes in the beginning of the 18th, the French in the beginning of the 19th and, most importantly, the Germans in the mid-20th. All these wars began for Russia with a string of defeats and ended in triumph.

However, Russian history knows military conflicts of a different type—the Crimean war of 1853-1856, the Japanese of 1904-1905, the Afghan of 1979-1989. Started by disoriented autocrats and their clientele to bring new dynamism to a stagnant and decaying empire with a “short and victorious war,” they turned out to be protracted and bloody and were eventually lost, leading the country to deep existential crisis and sometimes to utter ruin.

Political rulers tend to select role models in history. History, however, often rejects these claims and constructs lines of succession totally different from the ones envisaged. Contrary to what President Putin seems to believe, history does not have the answers to all questions. But it never fails to deconstruct faked genealogies constructed by impostors.   


Andrei Zorin

Andrei Zorin is a professor of Russian and a fellow of New College at the University of Oxford.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Photo by Kremlin.ru shared under a Creative Commons license.