Skip to main content

What view of history drives Putin?

Europe in focus: Researchers from various disciplines have been invited to examine the political, historical and cultural dynamics. For our benefit, they will be contextualising current developments and the background circumstances of the Ukraine war. Part 2: Professor Thomas Wünsch, a scholar of Eastern European history, assesses how Putin's view of history could explain his action.

Statue of the medieval Grand Prince Vladimir of Kyiv, which Russia's President Vladimir Putin had erected in Moscow in 2016. Photograph: Adobe Stock

Prof. Dr. Thomas Wünsch

Prof. Dr. Thomas Wünsch

Professor Thomas Wünsch holds the Chair of Modern and Contemporary History of Eastern Europe and its Cultures. In his research he focuses on the history and culture of Poland, Czechia, Ukraine, Russia, Central Asia and the Balkan. His chair maintains close relations with Ukrainian universities, with Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv and with Yuriy Fedkovych Chernivtsi National University. Together with Professor Daniel Göler, he is part of a

 Jean Monnet Network

, which brings together EU universities and the Eurasian Economic Union.

On the whole, I am delighted as a historian when politicians are interested in history. However, Russia's President Vladimir Putin offers an unduly one-sided and biased interpretation, engaging in a politics of history similar to that of the former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević ahead of the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s.

In his line of arguments, he specifically refers to two layers that date far back. He starts with Kyivan Rus' – which is spelled with a single "s" mind you – which was an East Slavic state that is only partly linked with the Russia of today, but to which both Russia and Ukraine trace their historical roots. Putin turns to the early period when Prince Vladimir founded the tradition of the Orthodox Church with his baptism in the year 988. The fact that he and Putin share the same name makes this all the more compelling.

A second historical layer is what Putin considers the policy of containment that Western powers have been pursuing towards Russia. This policy basically began with Peter the Great, tsar and imperator in the 18th century, who emerged as a rival to the Habsburg emperors. Historians agree that this monarch turned the Russian empire into a major European power. Ever since, Russia has always sought to be regarded as a major power, and it wanted to be considered as such not just anywhere but in Europe. It is precisely this perception that explains why Putin reacted so allergically to the altered designation used by former US President Barack Obama when he called Russia a regional power.

There are strong indications that Putin was essentially alluding to the Russian empire of the tsarist era, which consisted of many different nations, not only the Russian one. From this he derives the putative right to determine what becomes of Ukraine. Behind this lies the notion of the state as a "patrimonial state" which is the ruler's personal property – and that too is reminiscent of the tsarist era. To Putin, the perfectly normal political processes of the modern era, as well as the fact that democratic structures have developed in Ukraine, are simply a source of nuisance.

Putin's intention is obvious: he wants to discredit the Orange Revolution, strip it of its legitimacy. To Putin's mind, a democratic state in his immediate proximity is a provocation of sorts.

Professor Thomas Wünsch, East Europe Historian

Ukraine, for its part, is no homogenous state but consists of different, historically grown regions. Following the Orange Revolution of 2004, former President Viktor Yushchenko tried to find a unifying identity and implement the nationalist leader Stepan Bandera as a unifying figurehead. Bandera had collaborated with the Hitler regime and espoused anti-Semitic and anti-Polish beliefs. In so doing, Yushchenko inadvertently gave ammunition to Putin's propaganda machine according to which the country was ruled by neo-Nazis.

But this claim falls flat. There is, in fact, a right sector in Ukraine that consists of right-wing extremist organisations, but there are nationalist and right-wing groups in Russia as well. Putin's intention is obvious: he wants to discredit the Orange Revolution, strip it of its legitimacy. To Putin's mind, a democratic state in his immediate proximity is a provocation of sorts. And for Putin, Ukraine is not just any neighbour but part of what he defines as "historical territory", which entails the continuation of Kyivan Rus‘.

There was no lack of intimations on the part of Putin of his plans to reclaim this territory, and thus Ukraine. In the speech shortly before annexing Crimea in 2014 he used a metaphor that may seem strange at first glance. He compared Russia with a spring that had been compressed to its limit. According to the Russian president, this spring would one day snap back hard. It sounded strangely defensive, offended and threatening at the same time – despite this being a moment of triumph. Perhaps Putin was already hinting at his intention of not stopping at Crimea and aiming to take Ukraine as a whole along with Kyiv, the "mother of all Rus(s)ian cities", as the city is called in Nestor's Chronicle which dates back to the Middle Ages.

Why attack now of all times? In 1922 – that's one hundred years ago – the Soviet Union incorporated Ukraine, which had briefly attempted to build its own statehood after the fall of the tsarist monarchy. This parallelism will certainly not have caused Putin any worry in his current confrontation."

Do you have any questions about the attack on Ukraine? Contact us at: - we will forward your questions and publish answers from researchers here in a timely manner.

More assessments

Unabhängigkeitsdenkmal der Ukraine auf dem Majdan Nesaleschnosti in Kiew. Foto: Adobe Stock

Digital propaganda, Putin's view of history, fake news: All assessments by Passau researchers on the background and current developments in the Ukraine war.

Statement of the President

In a video message, President Ulrich Bartosch is outlining the University's response to the war and explains the aid initiatives and options for action the University Executive is currently exploring.

Playing the video will send your IP address to an external server.

Show video