Skip to content

The Roads Not Taken

A new book by Orlando Figes explores the role of Russian history in the Ukranian war.

· 9 min read
The Roads Not Taken
Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. Photo by Pavel Neznanov on Unsplash

We can learn from history, but we can also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do.
~Margaret MacMillan

History is more important to Russia’s present, and more more important to Russian contemporary politics, than it is in most other states. These historical debates are often bitter and consequential struggles over what Russians call their nation’s “soul” (dusha). In The Story of Russia, Orlando Figes concludes a lucid narrative by explaining that he wrote it to show how a grotesquely oppressive past continues to command the grisly present. Russia’s invasion of neighbouring Ukraine, he writes, “is an unnecessary war, born from myths and Putin’s twisted readings of his country’s history.” The book is a long prelude and fugue, building to the invasion on February 24th, 2022, to which history has led the Russian state.

Cover of The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes (2022)

Still, history is not fate—it did not have to lead the Russian state into an unnecessary war with no apparent conception of what either victory or defeat might look like. Russia’s behaviour starts to become intelligible if its historic movements, its fears and enmities, and its patterns of rule and subjugation are understood not merely as interesting features of bygone centuries, but as living impulses. These impulses have roots over a thousand years old, the effects of which continue to haunt and spread destruction in the present.

Figes has fashioned his book to show that today’s Russian leadership—and the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, most of all—are under the sway of forces they may not fully understand. The historical myths that inform their decision-making held power to be the supreme possession—it could only be shared with a small group (and even they could not be fully trusted), and its use would be, when necessary, merciless. “It did not have to end that way,” Figes writes:

There were chapters in its history when Russia might have taken a more democratic path. It had strong traditions of self-rule in its mediaeval city republics, in the peasant communes and the Cossack hetmanates [regions ruled by a hetman, or top military official] and not least in the zemstvos [local government councils established across the Russian empire, from 1861] which might have laid the basis for a more inclusive form of national government. There were moments when its rulers edged towards a constitutional reform, only for their liberal initiatives to be overturned by the current of events, pushing Russia closer to the tragedy of 1917 [the Bolshevik revolution].

And now, another tragedy unfolds: Russia and Ukraine—united in both the Russian and the Soviet empires, deeply intermingled and intermarried—are seeking, respectively, to annihilate and to avoid annihilation.

The world hasn’t needed to care too much about Russia since the end of the Cold War, except to notice that it was becoming more authoritarian and explicitly allied to China, albeit as a junior partner. In an agreement between the two nations signed in February of this year, the Chinese president Xi Jinping pledged that there would be “no limits” to their cooperation. Now we absolutely do need to care, because Russia’s invasion is damaging to almost everyone in ways large and small. Several times, Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons, which would violate the 77-year taboo that has existed since the US air force dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Such an act would unleash God-knows-what on the world. Grain shipments from the bulging warehouses of Odessa and other Black Sea ports were halted for months. They have now resumed, but fears remain that if they are halted again, hunger and worse could devastate low-income countries.

The West’s democracies have so far been united in sending their most modern weapons to Ukraine at a deepening cost to taxpayers. Worries are growing about possible defections from the line as the war drags on, however, especially from countries like Germany and Italy, both of which are heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas. Ukraine is fighting to protect the independence of their state, which Russia has sworn to end. Should Russia succeed, it will stand as an example to other irredentist powers: China’s claim on Taiwan is the largest threat, and an attack on that small democracy would again bring incalculable consequences.

Russia’s history, Figes shows, is overwhelmingly supportive of autocracy. Russia claims it is the inheritor of the Byzantine empire, which collapsed in the mid-15th century, and which donated its Orthodox Christianity through Prince Vladimir (Volodymyr in Ukrainian), whom both Ukraine and Russia claim as a founder of both their religion and their states. Byzantium’s religious symbols and architecture are of great beauty, but it was a despotic and highly centralised state. So too were the Mongols, whose empire in the 13th and 14th centuries spread from present-day Mongolia west, north, and south. Their conquests included today’s Russia and Ukraine, which were repressed and ruled with great cruelty. This period bequeathed an example to Russia that was even more brutally authoritarian than Byzantium overseen by the Khan (ruler).

The Russian tsars ruled in the same spirit, often with comparable barbarity. Ivan the Terrible (Ivan Grozny), the first Tsar of Russia (1547–84), did not receive his nickname in jest.

Portrait of Ivan IV by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1897 (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

He claimed imperial suzerainty over Russia and Ukraine—his right as the inheritor of Byzantium’s former imperial lands and religion. “By being crowned tsar,” Figes writes, “Ivan would become the equal of the Holy Roman Emperor, the secular head of Western Christianity, rivalling his authority through his leadership of Eastern Christianity.” Traitors—those noblemen who refused to serve under him—were hunted and tortured to death, treatment also meted out to their families. A new cadre of imperial terrorists emerged named the oprichniki, who roamed the land in long black cloaks with dogs’ heads and broom handles attached to their saddles, symbolising their duty to sweep enemies of the state from existence.

The Oprichniki by Nikolai Nevrev (1888). The painting shows the last minutes of Boyarin Feodorov, who was arrested for treason. To mock his alleged ambitions on the tsar's title, the nobleman was given tsar's regalia before his execution.

In this way, supreme power became vested in tsars (and tsarinas) whose word and actions were law. There was no other effective law, no gradual growth of the middle class or the professions able to challenge the domination of the aristocracy in politics, and no progressive emancipation of lower-middle- and working-class men in the 19th century. The two “great” leaders of Russia—Peter (1662–1725) and Catherine (1762–96)—were both modernisers, and in Catherine’s case, would-be liberalisers. But nothing fundamental changed in the relationship between the tsars and the people. The great mass of the Russian population were serfs, owned by the landowners and subject to their whims, whether kindly or brutal. The serfs were “freed” in 1861, but under conditions so harsh in the tribute they were bound to pay to their former owners, that many regretted their liberation.

Through their reforms—including Peter’s move of the Russian capital from Moscow to St Petersburg (the construction of which cost many thousands of serf labourers’ lives)—the two tsar-reformers were intent on shifting their country from backward ignorance to a state of enlightenment and progress. Peter had seen the possibilities on his travels through Europe; Catherine had been born a German princess and knew about them from her youth. She read and learned from some of the most famous thinkers of the French Enlightenment, such as Voltaire and Denis Diderot, both of whom she persuaded to spend time in her court.

Russia was now to be European, boasting an imposing capital with vast squares and broad streets, the foremost architects of which were Italian, leaving behind the onion domes of old Moscow. Russian society was split between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles, the former intent on importing European dress, culture, manners, and technology, the latter cleaving to a largely mythic concept of the Russian national character which, they believed, was “based on higher principles—on the Christian harmony, humility, and willingness to sacrifice which, in their imagination, had animated Muscovite society before Peter’s reign.” Europeanisation did take hold, though largely in the upper and new professional and intellectual classes. In War and Peace (1869), Tolstoy satirizes the use of French in the drawing rooms of St Petersburg and Moscow. The millions of serfs continued to work and suffer just as they had before.

The 1917 revolution deposed Tsar Nicholas II, who had opposed every effort at even the mildest social reform. It was a tragedy even so because it ushered in a regime which, inspired by Lenin and administered until 1953 by Stalin, surpassed all others in mass cruelty; it moulded a population in fear and obeisance to a secular tsar, a mindset which has proven stubbornly resistant to change. Communism retreated from mass incarceration and murder after Stalin’s death, but not from mind control, which persisted until the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev loosened the grip of the Party. After surviving a flaccid putsch in 1991, Gorbachev was forced to recognise that the Soviet Union he had wished to liberalise was collapsing, and he resigned. The flailing presidency of Boris Yeltsin brought sudden access to freedom but also deepening poverty which was widely (and probably wrongly) blamed on the collapse of the Soviet Union. To the horror of the Westernisers, polls taken in the Yeltsin years and 2000s found that a great public nostalgia had developed for the Soviet Union, along with a great admiration for authoritarian figures such as Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and most of all, Stalin.

Changing of the honor guard at Lenin's mausoleum in Red Square, Moscow, c.1985. Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

Figes emphasises that the end of communism was not the result of a liberal revolution but an abdication of power by the Communist Party—and “if this was a victory for democracy, it was not perceived as such for long.” Poverty, the grabbing of the Soviet era’s energy resources and corporations by a new cadre of oligarchs, the breakaway of the southern region of Chechnya and the eruption of two savage wars there, the spread of Chechen terrorism to Moscow—all these developments combined to produce a fevered and fearful society into which Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB lieutenant colonel, stepped as saviour. Putin grew into this role in the people’s perception, even as his rule became more and more despotic, finally culminating in the invasion of Ukraine.

It is to this endgame that the “story” of Russia has led. Putin assumed the presidency in the guise of a liberal reformer, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair was among those impressed. Putin told George Robertson, then the Secretary General of NATO, that he wished to join the organisation and pledged fidelity to the freedoms of speech and publication. He began to change—in his version of events—as the West let him down. He was dismayed most of all that the formerly communist states of Central Europe were admitted to NATO, although it was the new leaderships of these countries, all of which were strongly anti-communist and anti-Russian, who begged to be admitted. The new members included the three former Soviet states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Other Soviet states, such as Georgia, also expressed a desire to join, an aspiration welcomed by NATO in 2008, but quickly followed in August of that year by a Russian invasion. Russian troops advanced on the Georgian capital Tbilisi but then pulled back. Russia then declared two of Georgia’s pro-Russian enclaves, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to be independent states—an early warning of what would happen to other states unwise enough to pursue NATO membership.

2014 saw Russia’s bloodless seizure of Crimea rapidly followed by its sponsorship of anti-Kiev revolts in the eastern areas of Ukraine. The country, Figes writes, had become “the battlefield for the clash of civilisations between Russia and the West. Although the Putin government had many times declared its recognition of Ukrainian sovereignty, it never really came round to accepting it. In Putin’s view, Ukraine had occupied the borderlands of ‘historical’ or ‘greater’ Russia since the times of Kievan Rus … the symbolic home of the ‘Russian soul.’” Throughout history, foreign powers had used Ukraine to attack Russia, sometimes with Ukraine’s assistance. As Putin brooded through the pandemic, isolating himself from advisors and ministers except those who shared his views, he decided that the wound caused by Ukraine’s westward gaze—under the presidency of a mere actor, Volodymyr Zelensky—had to be staunched at any cost.

Nevertheless, destroying the Russian soul to save it is bizarre. What good can come of it? If the Ukrainians fight the Russians to a standstill, will it even be possible to reach an agreement that both sides could realistically observe? If Russia prevails, what will be left of Ukraine but ruins and a population burning with hatred, held down indefinitely by Russian military? Still, Putin has posed a problem to Europe and to the world for which there seems to be no good answer for the time being—only anxiety and foreboding. This “unnecessary war,” Figes concludes, “goes to show how dangerous myths can be when used by dictators to reinvent their country’s past.” We have yet to get the bill for just how dangerous it can be.

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette