Imperialism in the 21st century: "What Putin says about Peter the Great should be taken seriously"

The Russian dictator sees himself "on a historic mission to make Ukraine Russian again," says Eastern Europe historian Franziska Davies in an interview with ntv.

Imperialism in the 21st century: "What Putin says about Peter the Great should be taken seriously"

The Russian dictator sees himself "on a historic mission to make Ukraine Russian again," says Eastern Europe historian Franziska Davies in an interview with ntv.de. "It follows logically from this that from Putin's point of view it shouldn't be part of NATO either. That has less to do with Russia's often assumed 'security interests' and more to do with Putin's neo-imperial claims."

According to Davies, Germany lacks a certain empathy for the historical perspective of the East Central European countries. "That's also noticeable in the discussions about arms deliveries: people in this country ask whether it wouldn't be better not to deliver arms, whether Ukraine shouldn't give up because any peace is better than war. You can do that with history, too explain: In Germany there is no reminder that you can, maybe even have to, fight against an enemy who wants to destroy you."

ntv.de: Putin has given a number of reasons for the attack on Ukraine - the eastward expansion of NATO, the alleged oppression of Russian speakers in Ukraine, a "denazification" that is necessary. Do you think he meant any of those reasons seriously?

Franziska Davies: His claim that he is concerned with protecting Russian-speaking Ukrainians is absurd. After all, they are the ones who suffer most from his war of aggression. The goal of "denazification" is also ridiculous. Putin said several times, immediately before the attack and a year ago in an essay "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians," that Ukraine's existence was a historic mistake by the Bolsheviks. In his view, Ukraine belongs to Russia. That is the decisive reason for the war, which also explains the actions of the Russian army: the targeted persecution of the elite, the Russification of the education system, the destruction of Ukrainian cultural assets. Putin sees himself on a historic mission to make Ukraine Russian again. From this it follows logically that, from Putin's point of view, it should not belong to NATO either. This has less to do with Russia's often imputed "security interests" and more to do with Putin's neo-imperial claims.

What role does history play for Putin? Does he really think he's some kind of revenant of Peter the Great?

Putin has been a historian for a number of years. With a view to the beginning of the Second World War, he absurdly accused Poland of all people of complicity. The importance of his idiosyncratic interpretation of history for his politics is often underestimated, because from a western point of view it is completely anachronistic that there are still politicians in Europe who start a war because of an ideology. Because of this, many are trying to rationalize Putin's war. But Putin actually sees himself as the executor of a historic mission. I would therefore take seriously what he says about Peter the Great: he measures himself against the imperial greatness of 18th and 19th century Russia. His much-quoted statement that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century" has nothing to do with the fact that he is a committed communist. He never was. For him, the catastrophe lies in the fact that Russia lost its imperial greatness with the end of the Soviet Union.

How to classify what Putin is doing? Is his regime imperialist, fascist, or both? Or is the term fascism devalued because Putin uses it in such an inflationary way?

It is an imperialist regime. I would call it a folkish national-imperialist dictatorship. Putin's regime certainly also has fascist elements. But the problem with the term fascism is that it is relatively unspecific.

What elements of his dictatorship are fascist?

For example the Führer cult. However, one difference from classic fascism is that Putin is still concerned with keeping part of the population in apathy. There's this staging of mass support, like the event at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium in March. But a significant section of Russian society remains politically apathetic, and Putin apparently wants it to stay that way. A fascist system does not condone apathy on such a scale. And finally, it is actually the case that "fascism" has become a combat term. This makes its use as an analytical term difficult.

Before the war began, Olaf Scholz said, "If we go back long enough in the history books, then we have reason for wars that can last a few hundred years and destroy our entire continent". Why doesn't Putin understand this?

Because he rejects the European security order based on international law. Putin is striving for an order that is based on the 19th century or the Cold War of the 20th century - epochs in which there were empires that had a comprehensive claim to power and were able to assert themselves, if necessary with war.

On the basis of such an ideology, can Putin settle for less than all of Ukraine?

I think his aim is still to destroy Ukraine as a state and as a nation. It is quite possible that at some point Putin will be militarily forced to take a break. Then he would probably pretend to be satisfied with a certain territory expansion. But there will always be the danger that he will only use a truce to gather forces and attack again. Basically, this war is not a new war, but the extension of a war that started in 2014.

Putin's constant assertion that Ukraine is being dominated by neo-Nazis has been adopted many times in Germany as well. What's it all about?

Nothing. There are far more right-wing extremists in the Bundestag than in the Ukrainian parliament. The right-wing extremist party Svoboda clearly failed at the five percent hurdle in the Ukrainian parliamentary elections in 2019 and was only able to win one mandate directly. It is true that right-wing extremist volunteer groups, including the Azov regiment, were also involved in the defense of Ukraine in 2014. Because the Ukrainian army was still very poorly positioned at the time, such units played an important role, and their positions were legitimized to some extent in the political public sphere. In a way, this is repeating itself now. For obvious reasons, people in Ukraine are less interested at the moment in the original ideology of a regiment like Azov. The regiment is now part of the National Guard and many right-wing extremists have left, so it's a heterogeneous entity. And ironically, far-right soldiers are now defending things they ideologically oppose, such as pluralistic democracy and LGBTQI rights.

What role does Stepan Bandera play in the culture of remembrance in Ukraine?

Stepan Bandera is a very controversial figure in Ukraine. He was one of the most important leaders of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which was founded in Vienna in 1929 and wanted to fight for an independent Ukrainian state. The ideology of this organization was fascist, anti-Semitic, anti-Russian and anti-Polish. Militias close to Bandera participated in the extermination of Jews in western Ukraine during World War II. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the military arm of Bandera's organization, is also responsible for the murder of 70,000 Poles in Volhynia in 1943 and 1944. Bandera himself was interned by the Germans in July 1941, shortly after the invasion of the Soviet Union.

At the beginning of the war, the Ukrainian nationalists had promised help from Germany in establishing a Ukrainian state - although it quickly became clear that this would not happen. As a result, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army fought against both Germany and the Soviet Union. In western Ukraine in particular there is still a minority that still sees itself in the tradition of this extreme nationalism. For most Ukrainians, however, Bandera is simply a symbol of the anti-Soviet struggle for freedom. They either ignore the crimes against Jews and Poles or know nothing about them. So it's not to say that everyone who thinks Bandera is a hero is automatically an extreme nationalist. And, as I said, Bandera is also highly controversial in Ukraine. For Jewish Ukrainians, of course, it's a slap in the face when someone like that is revered.

It sounds as if this debate in Ukraine is not over yet.

This debate has been going on for a long time, but at the moment Ukraine has other things to do than come to an agreement about the past. In the Soviet Union Bandera was an enemy. At the same time, the memory of the Holocaust was suppressed. The specific suffering of the Jews in Ukraine has only been recognized since the 1990s - for example through monuments and exhibitions in museums. Many Ukrainian historians have made a valuable contribution to researching the Holocaust in Ukraine. That's why I don't think it's expedient for Germany to point to Ukraine in a gesture of moral superiority. A debate with Ukraine seems more sensible to me.

It is often said that Ukraine only discovered its identity during the war. Is that true, before February 24th there was no real Ukrainian identity?

This is definitely wrong. The Ukrainian national movement, like almost all national movements, gained momentum in the 19th century. As with all national movements, it was initially an elite project. This movement was fought by the Russian Empire, in the Habsburg Empire the Ukrainians had significantly more freedom. After a brief phase in the 1920s in which Ukrainian culture was promoted in the Soviet Union, there were also genocidal intentions with the Holodomor to break the backbone of Ukraine as a nation. Many members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia were shot as nationalists; the Russian enemy image of the Ukrainian nationalist thus goes back much further than to the Second World War. And despite the marginalization of everything Ukrainian in the Soviet Union, the consciousness of a Ukrainian identity has persisted, which was also seen in the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Euromaidan of 2014. Of course, even after 2014, there were Ukrainians who felt connected to Russia. This has been over since February 24th. The overwhelming majority no longer has any sympathy for Russia; Putin bombed them out. Huge numbers of Ukrainians are now even stopping speaking Russian, a phenomenon that began in 2014 and has now intensified.

You and a colleague wrote a book commemorating the Second World War in Eastern Europe. Are there differences between Russian and other Eastern European memories of World War II?

There are big differences. In Russia, the notion that Stalinism and Nazism were related systems that both committed crimes is forbidden by law. In the East-Central European countries this is mainstream. In Poland, in the Baltic States, but also in western Ukraine, which belonged to Poland at the beginning of the Second World War, people remember the double occupation: the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the subsequent occupation by Germany or the Soviet Union. This memory also includes the fact that the war did not end with real liberation, but with renewed occupation under different auspices. The Ukraine is an interesting case in that there are two cultures of remembrance there: on the one hand, the East-Central European one in the west of the country, but also the Soviet one, which includes pride in having contributed to the victory over fascism. After the beginning of the war, President Zelensky made it very clear that he would not let the anti-fascist legacy of the Soviet Union, which Russia alone claims for itself, be taken away from him. In addition, Soviet Ukraine fell victim to the Holodomor in the early 1930s. The crimes of Stalinism are now firmly entrenched in Ukraine's cultural memory. It's different in Russia.

Do you see an understanding in Germany for the double culture of remembrance in the Central and Eastern European states?

No, in Germany there is a lack of knowledge and a certain empathy for the perspective of these countries. This is also noticeable in the discussions about arms deliveries: people in this country are asking whether it might not be better not to deliver arms, whether Ukraine shouldn't give up because any peace is better than war. This, too, can be explained with history: in Germany there is no memory that you can, maybe even have to, fight an enemy who wants to destroy you. Unlike Eastern Europe, Germany has never experienced years of occupation by a criminal regime. Using the example of Ukraine in particular, historical research has shown that the notion that occupation is better than war is incorrect. During the German occupation of Ukraine, the death toll after the end of hostilities was far higher than at the time of the military conflict. The Ukrainians also know very well what is happening in the areas that are now being occupied - not just by Bucha and other places where war crimes were committed, but already from the so-called people's republics in the Donbass, which are actually terror pseudo-states.

Hubertus Volmer spoke to Franziska Davies

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