Putin Certainly Won't Stop

Russian national identity is based on pride in its armed forces and its ability to defeat an enemy, albeit an enemy largely invented, like the Ukrainians – says Prof. Orlando Figes in an interview with Aleksander Kaczorowski.

Aleksander Kaczorowski: Prof. Figes, have you ever met Vladimir Putin?

Orlando Figes: Yes, at a reception. It was just a very brief interchange of words. The one thing that struck me was he had a very soft handshake. I was expecting a man with a firm grip and he had a very limp sort of soft, pudgy hand. It surprised me at the time.

Where was it?

At the Valdai Conference in 2015. Perhaps I shouldn’t confess to having gone there after the annexation of Crimea, but lots of people at that time were still prepared to talk with the Russians.

It’s pretty obvious that as a historian you were just interested in going there to see how the system works. But what was the lesson for you from this Valdai event? Were the Russians trying to communicate with the West or was it just a Potemkin village?

I think it was a Potemkin village, as you call it. And the one thing that really struck me at the time, the one sort of depressing lesson I really took from it, was when Putin turned up four hours late for his speech.

We all kept waiting in the hall, unable to leave because of security. I didn’t go with the intention of asking a question. I went just as an observer, really. I went along with some reservations, mainly out of curiosity. But the one thing that I took away from it was that, although they allowed several questions from international journalists, none of them really hit home hard with any critical questions.

Like what?

There were no questions on Crimea.

There was a fair representation of Western journalists asking questions, but I think that was a time when somehow they were sort of overwhelmed by the four-hour wait to hear Putin speak. They were cowered into an element of almost submission, really. That was my one takeaway, that this power play by Putin was still effective.

Russia had just intervened in Syria, so that dominated the discussion. The questions were around Syria. There was quite a lot of questioning on the domestic front, about the need to diversify the economy and stuff, but it wasn’t really anything very hard hitting.

In the same year, I was at the German-Russian forum in Berlin. There was a panel with Chatham House, NGO type people. The Putin acolyte, Fyodor Lukyanov, was there. And I remember on that occasion asking a question about Crimea. And I think I pitched it on the question of the Tartar population and the atrocities being committed against them and the rest of their leaders and stuff. And I was told by both Russian and Western sides of the panel that Crimea was a fait accompli. That there was nothing to be done about it now. It was off-limits. It was out of bounds. It just had to be accepted.

I was quite shocked by that. But now looking back, it does remind me how the West went along. What did we do in reaction to the Crimean annexation? Not a lot, really. The sanctions were very weak. Business went on as usual, etc.

So, what were the reasons that Putin started the war?

I think he’s firmly ideologically committed to his vision of Russia, not being Russia without Ukraine as he mapped out in that essay of 2021. And I think he firmly believes, and it’s a long line of thought in Soviet history really, that if Ukraine comes under the influence of Western ideas, it will become anti-Russia. Stalin said much the same. Putin fits firmly into that ideological way of thinking about Ukraine.

What would be your advice to Putin then?

There’s not very much advice that could be given. One would have to sit him down for a historical seminar and try and just persuade him that this view is irrelevant, because Ukraine has been independent since 1991 and Russia has recognized that many times. And also that the old Russian fear of encirclement by the West, as a hostile anti-Russian force, is a fundamentally mistaken set of ideas. So it would take a whole series of seminars.

Your latest book The Story of Russia was just published in Poland. You say how mythology warms the battle with history in Russian minds, at least in Putin’s mind, and how that created the circumstances in which such an act of horror, like the aggression towards Ukraine, was possible. But would you explain to me why mythology won over history in Russia after 1991?

Firstly, I’d say that the mythologies involved in Putin’s view of history, particularly the history of Russia and Ukraine, are not new post-1991. The ideas he put forward in that essay of 2021, you can find in any nineteenth century Russian imperial history, Solovyov, Karamzin, etc.

So this is basic to the way the Russians have been taught their history since the nineteenth century. And although there was a very short period after 1991, when schools, for example, were allowed to decide their own approach to history, it didn’t last long. One of the first things Putin did, on coming to power, was to reclaim the Ministry of Education’s control of the school and university curriculum. They set very strict guidelines for textbooks, and then ultimately took control of the dissemination of textbooks.

The second point is that history has long been subject to mythologization in Russia, partly because of the power of myths in Russian culture, which I rehearsed in the introduction. But more importantly, in terms of the modern intellectual context.

History, particularly in the Soviet period, became so politicized that it became a fundamental part of the ideological system.

In Russia we have an absence of a normal political agreed discourse over the meaning of such basic terms as freedom, rights, independence, etc. The whole gamut of ideas that we use in our own political discourse has never really had free reign to develop in Russia. History has always been claimed by states as the basis for building ideological systems. And again, that goes way back into Russian history. The use of the clash between Christian Russia and the Asian people would be just one example.

But it means that political movements, states or rulers, in Russia have used history as the basis to build an ideology about what Russia is and what it should be and what its relationship with the world should be, what its messianic role is and so on. And as soon as rulers do that in Russia, it means that history is put outside the realms of free debate and discourse in Russia. As soon as Putin says Peter the Great reclaimed the Baltic Lands for Russia, not conquered them, they become Russian and that’s it.

That locks in a whole set of ideological precepts about the origins of the Rus’, the ethnic background of the Baltic peoples, the cold war geopolitics of Kaliningrad and all the rest of it. It locks in a whole series of historical issues that can no longer be discussed. So it’s not just a phenomenon of post 1991 or post 2000 under Putin. It’s a fundamental problem that in Russia ideology is constructed through history.

And that’s why Memorial society is regarded as a foreign agent and history completely disappeared from books, from TV, from the media?

This is a slightly different question and much more complicated. You ask what Putin’s reclamation of history for the state entailed and why it gained such traction. Why was there no more free development of historical research?


Perhaps because the Russians, as opposed to other Soviet peoples, were really ill-equipped and found it very difficult to come to terms with what had happened under Stalin and the Soviet experience generally. It was very uncomfortable for people in the 1990s to face up to the state violence and its consequences and the collaboration of so many people in that violence. In contrast, Ukrainian national identity is based on being not Russian. It’s based largely on the Holodomor, right? So the Holodomor was done to us by the Russians, that’s the story.

Do you agree with the view that the Holodomor was a kind of genocide planned against Ukrainians as a nation by Stalin? Or is it just an interpretation?

I think it’s largely an interpretation. I can see why the Ukrainians feel and argue that, particularly given the strength of the Soviet campaign against any Ukrainian political elites that accompanied the Holodomor. But I think I’ve yet to be convinced by any of the historical evidence presented by the Ukrainians to suggest that ethnically Ukrainian areas were targeted as opposed to other ethnic areas. Much of North and East Ukraine is highly variegated ethnically. And there’s no evidence that there were requisitioning brigades or terror units of one sort or another picking on Ukrainian as opposed to mixed areas. So I think it’s more problematic. But the point I wanted to make about this is that the Russians also had a Holodomor, but it was called collectivization.

And collectivization is more problematic for the Russians, because I cite, for example, that television series, Sud vremeni, a historical debate over collectivization. Despite it having killed so many people, despite it having ruined so many families and exiled so many people and destroyed so much in terms of village life, families and so on, about 90% of the Russians watching that program were prepared to say it was a necessary measure.

And this is a problem, because collectivization is built into this historical ideology arguing that Stalinism was somehow a step forward, albeit with mistakes, that it industrialized the country. Thanks to it they beat Nazism, which is the basic historical underpinning of Russian ideology. They beat Hitler and they’re going to go on beating Hitler and his descendants in the Ukraine today. That’s what Putin argues, isn’t it?

The Russians were unable to come up with a story of themselves that was detached from the dominant ideology that collectivization was necessary and good.

It’s largely the problem of the immense discomfort it causes to people to think about what happened under Stalin: what were my grandparents and my parents doing under Stalin. When I was working there in the 1990s and early 2000s, you came across a lot of hostility, because people just didn’t want to confront these questions. In my view, that is the underpinning of why Putin found such a ready audience for his message: we don’t need to beat ourselves up over our own history, we should take pride in our own history.

And indeed, under this ideology of sovereign democracy that Vladislav Surkov and others developed in the 2000s, to be a sovereign country, to be a truly independent state and take pride in ourselves as a people, we need to reclaim all of our history, including what happened in the 1930s and 1940s.

Is it still possible to buy or borrow your book The Whisperers in Russia?

Good question. I don’t know what the answer to that is. I guess until the war it was possible to get it shipped by Amazon or whatever. I don’t think you would have found it in any bookshops.

There was a Russian edition, yeah?

No, there wasn’t a Russian edition.

How come?

It was a long, much publicized and acrimonious issue. There was a contract to publish it, to translate it. And then some people intervened. Stephen Cohen wrote an article stirring up a lot of trouble, claiming that it was dropped because there were too many mistakes in it or too many things that were going to cause offense to the people who were giving the interviews to that project.

There were mistakes as they’re bound to be in a book where you’re drawing on so many interviews. And there are obviously going to be cases where families or some members of the family might think we don’t want this written about our relatives. And in many letters to the publishers, I try to get over all of that by negotiation, by correction, and indeed explaining that a lot of the alleged mistakes weren’t really mistakes at all or were a question of interpretation. But it was dropped by the Russian publisher without even answering my letters. So that begs the question, why?

And what was the real reason?

Cohen was a Putin supporter, a paid Putin supporter in the West. And I’ve actually just now requested the materials of his archive that have been made available at Princeton. And I’ll get to the bottom of this. But my sense is that Cohen, out of vindictiveness or whatever, was trying to prevent this being published in Russia.

But to get back to your original question, it would have been possible to get hold of The Whisperers in Russia. I have Russian colleagues who have done so. But censorship is effective even at that level, because you have to go out and look for that sort of material, which is different from just passively receiving information and ideas given to you by the mass media in Russia. So the system of censorship works, because it doesn’t take much to put pressure on Russian publishers or distributors of books in Russia to just leave something alone, which is I think at the bottom of the story of The Whisperers.

Will Putin win this war?

Putin will win this war if the West buckles under its own internal divisions. And he’ll certainly win if Trump wins the next US election. And I think he was always counting on these likelihoods.

First of all, what he was counting on was the fact that Ukraine means more to Russia than to the West. And he was counting on his notion that the West is a decadent, egotistic materialistic place, which doesn’t really care what happens in the world as long as people can play on their mobile phones and get their takeaways. And I’m afraid it’s beginning to look that way if we consider the polling. So, I’m afraid it doesn’t look good for Ukraine.

What’s the one thing that would be the best realistic scenario for Ukraine? A divided country?

I think at the moment that’s quite possible, unless the Europeans can make up when the Americans are likely to withdraw in terms of support, whether Trump wins or not. Frankly, I can’t see the Americans continuing to finance the Ukrainians at the level they have been for much longer.

Putin isn’t going to stop. Then I think a moment will come for the Ukrainians when they have to think, what is the price of a viable state? What is the price of a viable Ukraine? I say that because it seems to me that what Putin cannot conquer of Ukraine, he will try to destroy, and I don’t believe that the Russian army is capable of conquering the whole of Ukraine.

I never did. In the first version of The Story of Russia, which was completed in November-December 2021, I said it was quite likely that Putin sends in troops for an incursion into East Ukraine as a way of strengthening his negotiating position. But I didn’t think the Russians were capable of conquering the whole of Ukraine. I think whatever he can’t conquer, he will try and destroy. He will destroy the infrastructure, he will destroy the energy supplies, he will do whatever he can to make Ukraine a dysfunctional state.

On the other hand, my view has consolidated since the full-scale war started that no peace or any settlement, even with American security guarantees for whatever they’re worth, is feasible as long as we have Putinism in power. In other words, in one form or another, this war by Russia against Ukraine will continue as long as this regime is in power. If Putin drops dead tomorrow, he’ll be replaced by someone with the same ideology or maybe even worse, who knows? So it requires the defeat of Putinism as an ideology and as a governing or terror system, as we could call it. And that means a very, very long haul, I’m afraid, to salvage what can be salvaged of Ukraine as a viable state.

An idea was put forward recently that Ukrainians cede to Russia what it has taken, but then NATO troops are in Ukraine. Ukraine joins NATO in some form or some sort of NATO force is in Ukraine to defend what remains of it. Who knows? This is all speculation at the moment, but there will come a point where some such decision could be taken, and it’s for the Ukrainians to decide, obviously. It’s not for anyone else, but it’s for the Ukrainians to decide whether they’ve had enough and require some sort of settlement, however fragile and unreliable it may be to preserve what they have and hopefully join the EU and NATO on that basis.

Have you been in Ukraine since the war started?


Have you been invited?

No, I haven’t.

But you would like to go there?

If I was invited I’d go. How can I put this? The debate is very polarized. So any historian of Russia, and basically I’m a historian of Russia, is regarded with great suspicion by Ukrainians. So I’m not on the list of people that the Ukrainians would think about inviting. Because I would probably be accused by Ukrainian nationalists of basically having a Russo-centric view of the Russian Empire, or a Russo-centric view of the Soviet Union.

And I will happily confess that perhaps my perspective on Russian and Soviet history used to be more Russo-centric than I would like it to be now. But the decolonization of Russian history or the shift from the center to the periphery, if you prefer, has only been going on really for the last 10-15 years. So I don’t have any sense of shame of owning up to the fact that perhaps with retrospect, if I was to write now A People’s Tragedy again, for example, I would do so with some more attention to the periphery, if I can put it that way.

The war changed the Ukrainians, redefined Ukrainian national identity. But how will this war change Russian national identity?

Let’s try and pin it down to empirical data, because the polling shows consistently that whenever Russia declares war, whether it’s against Georgia or the Chechens or the Ukrainians, the polling of its leader goes up, and the sense of pride in Russia goes up.

We’re in a situation now, unfortunately, where this war has by and large shown that Russian national identity, if it’s based on anything, it’s based on pride in its armed forces and its ability to defeat an enemy, albeit an enemy largely invented.

This is another illustration of the capture of history by the state, the capture of the story of Russia by the state, which since 1945 has basically defined national identity by the victory over Nazism. And so if Russia is to become a more democratic society in any sense, or at the very least a society at peace with its neighbors, it must have a different story to tell itself. And I’m afraid it is no good to go back to Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy and all the rest of it, to form a national identity. That doesn’t mean very much to Russians anymore. So the Russians will have to find a story about themselves which is not based on its military aggression and its military victories, but which is based on a sense of who they are as a political community.

And here again, this actually was my message at a big conference in Brussels in June 2023 for the Russian opposition. What can the story of Russia be for the Russians who want a more democratic vision of Russia? I went back to the point I made to you about the Holodomor and collectivization. The fundamental issue here is that collectivization destroyed the basic unit of civic governance, the village. And since 1991, if you go into the Russian village, there’s nothing there.

In contrast, if you go to a village in most of Ukraine, most of Poland and most of any of the states that were once under Soviet hegemony, there are community-based forms of self-government with accountability. In Russia, collectivization destroyed the village, destroyed any sense of civic responsibility at the most basic unit of society, that is a small village.

It’s very well described in short stories by Vasily Shukshin, published in the 1960s, during the post-Stalinist thaw. He was one of the most favorite Russian writers at the time.

Yeah, absolutely. And that was very much part of the whole ‘dierievenshchiki’, rural writers phenomenon, as well.

By destroying the villages, collectivization just gutted this basic sense of not just responsibility, but accountability. Because the other thing that we have to bear in mind is that Stalin destroyed accountability, which is one of the most important principles of democracy, and this is one of the main reasons Russia is now in such a mess. Accountability means that if you are corrupt, abuse power, make mistakes, you are accountable as a leader. And what Stalin did was turn that on its head.

So that is the Russian system. Putin has people who will take the blame before him and they have people who will take the blame before them and so on all the way down the line. So there’s no sense of accountability, which is why power is so connected to property, wealth and abuse of power and corruption, and why people feel so powerless and yet feel no need to take responsibility. All they need to do is go along with what they’re told. How do you get out of that mess? I don’t know. That takes a long time.


Orlando Figes is a British historian and author of the books A People’s Tragedy (1996), Natasha’s Dance (2002), The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (2007), The Europeans (2019) and most recently The Story of Russia (2022). He was Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London, consultant for the British historical films “Anna Karenina” (2012) and “War and Peace” (2016). His books have been translated into over thirty languages.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, a Polish bohemist, journalist and author. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Ota Pavel and Isaac Babel. He won the Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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