The Cultural Battlefield

Never one for modesty, the Russian President Vladimir Putin likened himself to an old czar in a speech in June 2022. “Peter the Great waged the great northern war for 21 years. It would seem that he was at war with Sweden, that he took something from them,” Putin said of the early eighteenth century war that resulted in the Russian Empire gaining territory in present day Estonia, Latvia, Finland and Sweden. “But he seized nothing, he reclaimed it!”

Rus — Ukraine — Russia: Scenes from the Cultural History of Russian Religiosity
Martin C. Putna
Karolinum Press
406 pp

Never one for modesty, the Russian President Vladimir Putin likened himself to an old czar in a speech in June 2022. “Peter the Great waged the great northern war for 21 years. It would seem that he was at war with Sweden, that he took something from them,” Putin said of the early eighteenth century war that resulted in the Russian Empire gaining territory in present day Estonia, Latvia, Finland and Sweden. “But he seized nothing, he reclaimed it!”

In Putin’s reasoning, Slavs had lived in those territories for centuries and as the purported leader of global Slavs, Russia was merely absorbing land that had always been its own. Without explicitly speaking of Ukraine in that speech, Putin went on to conclude that, ”It seems it has fallen to us, too, to reclaim and strengthen.”

As scholar Martin C. Putna notes in his latest book, Putin might do better to compare himself to another eighteenth century Russian leader — Catherine the Great. Reigning about a half-century after Peter, Catherine had a Putin-like penchant for saying one thing while doing the opposite. At one point, she insisted that Russia had no interest in lording over the Crimean peninsula. “It is not at all Our intention to have the peninsula and the Tatar hordes that belong to it in Our servitude,” the Czarina said. “We wish only to see it torn away from Turkish subjugation and remain forever independent.” A few years later, in 1783, Catherine the Great annexed the Crimean peninsula.

The Czech language version of Putna’s “Obrazy z kulturních dějin ruské religiozity” came out in 2015, just a year after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea yet again. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, the new English translation, entitled “Rus — Ukraine — Russia, Scenes from the Cultural History of Russian Religiosity” finds itself inextricably linked with current events.

Combining history, cultural analysis and anthropology, Putna’s writing celebrates the rich complexity of Russian culture while deconstructing the Putin regime’s selective distortion of that culture. Putna disdains this caricature of Russian culture — one that functions “in the interest of Russian nationalism” with the intent of “dislodging ‘western’ liberalism and democratic openness” and “constructing society along authoritarian lines” to create “a Russian imperium.” Damaging as it is in Russia proper, it also drives Russian behavior in the international arena.

In lieu of surveying all of Russian cultural and religious history, an impossible task, Putna smartly divides his books into 19 ‘scenes’. These are snapshots in time that allow him to discuss thematic pivot points in Russian cultural development. He looks at the Viking myth, the Orthodox Church, the Mongols, Communists and even the punk band Pussy Riot. There are quotes from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Gogol, and an analysis of a composition by Stravinsky. Overall, his scenes span more than 2,000 years.

Taken together, the research is so all-encompassing that it feels as if Putna has been working on this book for his whole life.

Putna uses these various scenes to make five central observations: that Russia has never had a single immutable identity, that Russianness is not synonymous with the Orthodox church, that Russia has never been ethnically homogenous, that Russian cultural development did not necessarily follow the same artistic movements that we tend to associate with the rest of Europe and, finally, that many of the most revered Russian cultural figures should be thought of as part of their own Orthodox Romantic movement. He calls this latter development, “Russia’s one original and truly valuable contribution to world culture.”

The discussion is detailed and nuanced. In one section, where Putna talks of Germanic influences on Russian culture he makes a distinction between “Germans without” and “Germans within”. Germans without have frequently done battle with the various incarnations of the Russian state (Nazi Germany to take one example), but Putna contends that Germans within Russia proper “played a more fundamental role” in the country’s cultural history. Germans had their own quarter in Moscow starting in the seventeenth century. The aforementioned Peter the Great imported German experts to help modernize his country. Our old friend Catherine the Great — birth name Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst — was actually born in Prussia. 

As Putna writes: “Ethnic difference was not central to the self-perception of Kievan Rus” — the diverse state whose founding in the ninth century is to provide the foundation for modern Russia. “For the self-perception of the modern Russian Empire, however, it was.”

Keeping Score

Putna’s precise argumentation necessarily makes for dense reading, but the history is fascinating and he orders it in a creative way. The original Czech book was translated by Michael Dean, now working in the History Department at Seattle University in the United States. Even in English, one detects Putna’s skepticism about the intellectual rigor that has contributed to developing Russia’s cultural myths about itself.

“In effort to come up with a desirable (which is to say, patriotic) solution, Russian historiography demonstrated its commitment to ‘romantic science,’ a science which confuses passionate bias with virtue,” he writes. “In this respect, the ‘patriotic’ historians of the imperial era differ little from their Soviet-era colleagues.” Putna feels the same about historical narratives propagated during Putin’s two decades in power. So-called pan-Slavism has “played a deleterious role” as a “central part of Russian imperialism’s ideological apparatus” and the country’s “transformation under Putin’s Rus,” Putna writes elsewhere.

As a historical survey, a compendium of facts or cultural critique, this book is already successful, but colorful asides such as these add personality to what might otherwise feel like purely academic reading. They also shed light on Putna’s larger ambitions.

While Putna is definitively focused on cultural and religious history, in a not so subtle way he is also looking to root those phenomena in a place — on certain territories. Contemporary conflict between Ukraine and Russia is impossible to ignore. Of Russia’s continued assertion of a historical claim to the Crimean peninsula, for example, Putna writes that, “[i]f one were to follow this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, then Crimea and the entire northern Black Sea would have to belong, ‘by historical right,’ to Greece.”

By examining the varied strands of Russian religious and cultural identity, Putna accumulates evidence to argue that there are various cultural successors to the Kievan Rus. Not only is Putin’s version just one such offshoot, but it is perhaps less authentically representative of Russian culture. Reading between the lines, Putna is exposing the cultural narratives Putin uses to assert territorial claims — first in Crimea in 2014, now in other parts of Ukraine and, perhaps, in the future, on former Soviet lands like Latvia or Lithuania — as ridiculous. 

Putna’s case is convincing. A jury would unanimously rule in his favor and he leaves little room for reasonable doubt. In summary, his 19 scenes serve as a kind of cultural scorecard, pointing where a purportedly Russian cultural or religious artifact actually has more complicated roots. By my count, the score ends up 19-0 in favor of complexity.

In simple terms, Putna’s central argument seems to be that Russian culture is not purely, or even predominantly, Russian. Put another way, there is no single Russia, but rather multiple Russias. 

Again, Putna succeeds in making this point. And yet, this would seemingly be the case that most, if not, all cultures are an amalgam of other cultures. Russia’s cultural claims to Crimea and Ukraine are dubious, but, as an abstraction, what if Putna’s cultural accounting tilted 20 percent further in Russia’s favor? Would that suffice to prove that Crimea should be part of Russia? What if we reversed Putna’s methods and tried to definitively link Crimea to Ukrainian cultural traditions? Could we demonstrate that Crimea is inherently Ukrainian? In fact, Putna’s accounting methods make it difficult for Putin to claim legitimate Russian dominion over Moscow itself. 

Indeed, it is hard to imagine many nation-states that might pass a test like this in 2022. Last I checked, there were still people who filled out their Czech census documents claiming to be Moravian (some also claim to be Jedi). What might we find if we took a similar deep dive into the cultural and religious history of a place like Southern California? It has only been 200 years since that was part of Spain.

The main difference here, of course, is that Moravians and San Diegans tend to be happy where they are, whereas the vast majority of Ukrainians do not wish to be part of Russia. But in the midst of an argument like Putna’s, one is tempted to go through the intellectual exercise of wondering what constitutes sufficient cultural impact to claim or reclaim a given territory? Is there any quantifiable threshold?

An Asymmetric Struggle

Without disagreeing with Putna’s central premises, this more general question — one that impacts pretty much every ongoing global territorial dispute: Nagorno-Karabakh, Western Sahara, the Falkland Islands, Taiwan, Palestine, Kosovo — is harder to answer. As a specialist in cultural and religious history, Putna steers clear of international relations theory, but he does take readers right up to the edge. 

All told, Putna’s book is a masterwork of cultural history, and sufficiently interesting as to make me want to hear him extend those cultural observations more explicitly into contemporary geopolitics.

Culture is its own battleground and amid contemporary Russian authoritarianism, Putna notes the difficulty of resisting the Putin regime politically. It instead makes more sense to start out by resisting in the “cultural and spiritual” realms, he argues. 

Although I suspect Putna does not find much in common politically with the early twentieth century Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, this echoes Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony. Gramsci defined culture as impacting, if not controlling, “exercise of thought, acquisition of general ideas, habit of connecting causes and effects.” Even in democratic systems, culture is mobilized to manufacture consent. Authoritarian regimes, like Putin’s Russia, enforce cultural dogma with physical violence. So long as Putin’s distorted culture holds sway, it will remain difficult to change the political system. 

As Putna brings the reader up to the present, he ultimately divides Russian culture into two main branches, one that is ‘eastern’ and one that is ‘western’. These two branches are clashing in contemporary Ukraine, which Putnas sees as representing the western oriented “heir to the European state known as Kievan Rus.” Putna asserts that Ukraine has its own cultural identity, and in doing so hopes to refute any claim Russia might make on Ukraine being part of its own cultural sphere. Russia itself cannot be considered purely Russian, and Ukraine much less so. The Ukrainian offspring of the Kievan Rus, Putna contends, has been more entwined with European cultural and political trends for centuries. Maidan was not a sudden or spontaneous uprising, but a natural end result to 2,000 years of history.

And yet, it is still hard to ignore authoritarian and imperialist commitments to imposing cultural orthodoxy by any means necessary. One is reminded of that old story about Josef Stalin and Pope Pius XII. When it was suggested to Stalin at the 1945 Yalta Conference that the Pope might deserve to have a say in Europe’s post-World War II configuration, Stalin was said to reply, “How many divisions does he have?”

Put another way, the Catholic Church had no army, and thus no means of enforcing any of its claims. Ultimately, Pius did outlive Stalin and the Catholic church has outlasted the Soviet Union. Religion and culture operate on longer timelines — ones that do not fully overlap with the need to overcome tanks in the short term.


Benjamin Cunningham

Benjamin Cunningham is the author of “The Liar: How a Double Agent in the CIA Became the Cold War’s Last Honest Man”. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Barcelona.

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