The Long History of Russian Empire Behind Putin's Territorial GoalsRoundup
tags: imperialism, Soviet Union, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, Russian history
Lynne Hartnett is associate professor of Russian history at Villanova University and the author of Understanding Russia: A Cultural History (The Great Courses, 2018).
The world is trying to make sense of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s violent invasion of Ukraine. But his attack is not rooted in any rational calculation of costs and benefits.
Instead, Putin is making an ill-conceived gambit to reclaim his nation’s stature as an imperial power and assert Russia’s prestige, authority and will on the world stage. Putin has positioned himself as a frustrated representative of an aggrieved fallen empire — for example, lamenting “the paralysis of power and will” that led to the complete “degradation and oblivion” of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though this grievance seems situated within what Putin has called the tragedy of the Soviet collapse, his imperial inspiration extends even deeper into the country’s past. As Putin described it in a 2012 speech, the revival of Russian national consciousness necessitates that Russians connect to their past and realize that they have “a common, continuous history spanning over 1,000 years.”
Putin understands the post-Soviet global order through the prism of Russia’s long history. And that history is inextricably tied to Russia’s dynamic imperial mission both in the past and today.
The first “Russian” state was established in present-day Kyiv in the 9th century. But Kievan Rus’ fell into ruin with the Mongol conquest of the 13th century, becoming a decentralized group of principalities that each owed fealty and tribute to the Mongol khans.
By the late 15th century, though, the principality of Moscow, led by Grand Prince Ivan III, turned the tables of fortune on the Mongols. Ivan, known to history as Ivan the Great, renounced his land’s subordination to the Mongols and declared the sovereignty of Russia. Ivan then subdued his neighbors, annexed their territory and centralized Moscow’s authority.
Ivan the Great came to power less than a decade after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Cultivating his imperial standing with his marriage to the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, Ivan claimed Byzantium’s legacy for Muscovite Russia and adopted the title of czar for himself. As czar, he asserted Russia’s international influence and stature by establishing diplomatic relations with foreign powers and building the Kremlin to serve as an architectural manifestation of Russia’s new imperial power.