From the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, justifications offered for Moscow’s aggression must have struck most non-Russian observers as unrealistic, to say the least. Many observers were incredulous that any educated Russian could possibly believe Putin’s claim that Ukraine required “denazification and demilitarization,” or that the country housed multiple biological weapons laboratories and planned to build a nuclear bomb. Russia, however, is one of the top 10 countries with the largest share of people with completed tertiary education. In the age cohort of 55–64, they rank first—as many as 50.3 percent of Russians have completed tertiary education.
Russian propaganda is not successful because the population is uneducated, but because citizens have been efficiently indoctrinated by lifelong exposure to Russian and Soviet myths through the education system, state media, and prevailing culture. The original source of these myths and their shameless propagation lies in Russia’s failure to confront the poisonous legacy of Soviet politics. Instead, after the messy collapse of the USSR, the Russian state simply adopted Soviet propaganda and repurposed it to its own ends.
The myth of the Great Patriotic War became an instrument of Soviet self-legitimization in the 1960s under Leonid Brezhnev, supplanting the myth of the October Revolution that was supposed to lead to the global embrace of communism and the Marxist “end of history.” When the power of Marxist theory collided with economic reality, and Soviet elites discovered that they no longer believed communism would triumph over capitalism, they resorted instead to a myth of national glory forged in the fight against history’s greatest evil—Nazi Germany. The “fraternal” peoples of the Soviet Union certainly suffered the war’s most appalling military casualties, and for this blood sacrifice made on behalf of all mankind, Soviet leaders determined that humanity owed the Soviet Union eternal gratitude. Opposition to the Soviet Union and its agenda became synonymous with national betrayal and, ultimately, with Nazism itself.
This myth would eventually be adopted by the Russian satellite Belarus under Alexander Lukashenko, and its operationalization is illustrated by Lukashenko’s interview with BBC journalist Steve Rosenberg at the end of 2021. Invited to respond to the claim that the Belarusian authorities are expelling migrants to the EU to destabilize Europe, Lukashenko replied, “We should still be celebrated. You should celebrate us because we fought against fascism.” When Rosenberg objected that his question had nothing to do with World War II, Lukashenko was undeterred: “Steve, I’ll tell you. Because you have not yet repaid the debts to the Belarusian people for World War II, for the losses we have suffered. Only 80 years have passed, not even a hundred years since the beginning of the war, and you have again tried to break into our home and start a new one.”
In June 2020, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin wrote an important article about Word War II for the National Interest, in which he emphasized the continuing importance of the Soviet state myth in global politics. “At the summit of CIS leaders held at the end of last year,” he wrote, “we all agreed on one thing: it is essential to pass on to future generations the memory of the fact that the Nazis were defeated first and foremost by the Soviet people and that representatives of all republics of the Soviet Union fought side by side together in that heroic battle, both on the frontlines and in the rear.”
Putin’s words are reflected in repressive Russian legislation—equating the role of the Soviet Union and the Third Reich in the Second World War is now punishable by a fine of up to 5,000 rubles and 15 days in prison for individuals, and up to 100,000 rubles for an entity. Legislation like this, and the atmosphere of intimidation it creates, also permits the persecution of organizations dedicated to the investigation of communist crimes. At the end of 2021, a Moscow court shut down the human rights organization Memorial International, which had already been declared a foreign agent. The Supreme Court’s prosecutor accused the organization, whose first chairman was the Soviet dissident and Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov, of creating “a false image of the Soviet Union as a terrorist state by speculating on the topic of political repression of the 20th century.” He added that the list of Stalin’s victims included “Nazi offenders with blood of Soviet citizens on their hands,” and accused Memorial of attempting “to rehabilitate traitors to the motherland and Nazi collaborators.”
The centrality of this national myth has important implications for Russian foreign policy, and for the attitude towards Ukrainians, in particular. An essential component is the neglect or relativization of Soviet aggression between the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact in August 1939 and the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. On September 17th, 1939, Soviet forces invaded Poland from the east, just 16 days after the Nazis invaded from the west, and the country was cleaved in two. Stalin justified this aggression by arguing that the Polish state had ceased to exist, and that the Soviet Union was therefore compelled to liberate its Ukrainian and Belarusian brothers from what he called Polish “bourgeois fascism.”
Two and a half months later, the Soviet Union invaded Finland. As with the invasion of Poland, there was no formal declaration of war—instead, Stalin claimed that he was helping rescuing the Finnish people by installing communist expatriate Otto Kuusinen as head of a new socialist Finnish Democratic Republic. The Soviet Union would go on to mete out the same treatment to Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. Soviet military bases were established in the three Baltic states, elections were rigged to exclude any candidate who was not a Stalinist, and the new puppet regimes then agreed the farcical “accession” of all three states to the USSR. Then, on June 28th, 1941, the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Bessarabia and Bukovina in order to liberate these regions from their Romanian “oppressor.” All these territories would remain part of the USSR until its collapse.
We are now watching this pattern of justification and aggression being repeated in Ukraine, and it is as cynical today as it was in 1939–40. Putin has claimed that Russia was “forced to invade Ukraine” and has refused to formally declare war, preferring instead to describe the attack as a “special military operation.” The plan seems to have been to capture Kyiv within days, decapitate the elected government there, and install a compliant regime that would do as it was told. This, it was hoped, would all occur before the Ukrainians or the wider world could organize any kind of response. That plan has been a catastrophic failure because it was based on the faulty assumptions of the Russian state myth.
In his lengthy programmatic essay, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin denied the distinct identity of the Ukrainian nation. At first glance, this seems to be a classic Great Russian imperialist myth that has nothing to do with the legacy of the Soviet Union. However, closer inspection reveals a toxic combination of the Great Russian ideology and a Russian version of the Soviet myth of brotherhood and unity. Central to this myth was the fraternal struggle of all Soviet peoples against the Nazi occupier, according to which, opponents of Ukrainian-Russian fraternity are denied any autonomy or will—they are merely servants of the United States, “Anglo-Saxons,” Poland, the Vatican, and so on.
Although the Bolsheviks ostensibly organized the ethnic republics of the Soviet Union with an emphasis on the right to self-determination, a Ukrainian—or any other—national identity could only tolerably coexist within the Soviet supranational construct. Even though the USSR secured special seats at the UN for Ukraine and Belarus to strengthen its own position, self-determination only really existed on paper, and no one actually got to exercise that right. Today’s Russian elites may reproach the Bolsheviks for “inventing” the Ukrainian nation, but the Soviet elites never completely abandoned Great Russian ideology. Which is why even the Soviet Union’s final leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, a man considered a traitor in Russia today, privately asked US President Bush to prevent Ukraine’s independence. Ukraine, he claimed, was merely a Bolshevik invention that independence would doom to permanent ruin.
Putin is said to have suggested to Poland’s then-Prime Minister Donald Tusk that their two countries ought to divide Ukraine. But dismemberment of the nation is not an ideal outcome of this war for Russia’s elites, and only became an objective once it was clear that pro-Russian forces are unable to conquer the country. Putin maintains that Russia had nothing to do with the war in the east which he has been fomenting since 2014, and now seeks to incorporate the “people’s republics” in the Donbas region into Russia’s constitution through the Minsk Agreement for their own good. So long as Ukraine is pro-Russian, it not only exists, it is also a centuries-old fraternal nation. But the moment it starts to pursue an independent policy, it becomes fictional.
A great and glorious empire is important to Russian imperialists, and it does not especially matter whether it is called the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. This is why smaller nations, perceived as an essential part of Russia’s imperial space or its supposed “sphere of influence,” cannot be permitted to enjoy any real autonomy. And it is why Putin’s court singer Oleg Gazmanov appeared at the rally in support of the invasion at the Luzhniki Stadium and performed the song “Made in the USSR” (Сделан в СССР) which includes the lyric: “Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova—this is my country.”
Performance and justification are remarkably similar, and require a similar dose of cynicism, lies, self-pity, and denial—and the horrifying consequences of Russia’s refusal to reckon with its Stalinist legacy are now on display in Ukraine. “All things considered,” complained Russian general Rustam Minnikayev last week, “we are now at war with the whole world, like we were in the Great Patriotic War. All of Europe, the whole world was against us, and it’s the same now. They never liked Russia.”