ARGUMENT: MISUSING HISTORYThe Triumphs and Tribulations of Peter the Great: What Putin’s View of 18th-Century Warfare Can Tell Us About Ukraine

Published 24 January 2023

As is the case with most heads of state, Putin is fairly upbeat when discussing his country’s heroes in public. In his speeches, Putin primarily focuses on two eras: the portion of the reign of Peter the Great that lasted from 1700 to 1721 and Catherine the Great’s reign between 1768 and 1783. “In the long arc of 18th-century Russian history, this would be a bit like talking about the American Revolutionary War by mentioning Lexington and Concord and then skipping to Yorktown,” Alexander Burns writes. “The progression may be correct, but a lot of the nuances and complexities are lost.”

Several months before the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin played history teacher for a class of Russian schoolchildren. He asked the students:

Why did Peter the Great wage the Seven Years War? Why did he fight the Swedes for seven years? And the Battle of Poltava, do you know where it is? Where are Sweden and Poltava? The decisive battle of the armies of Peter the Great and Charles XII took place near Poltava: Why were they there?

Alexander Burns writes in War on the Rockas:

For Putin, the answers were obvious. Peter’s armies were in Poltava, now located in northeast Ukraine, waging a great power struggle with the West, represented at the time by Swedish King Charles XII. Unfortunately for Putin, one student in the classroom was more hung up on details than grand narratives and replied: “Speaking generally, it wasn’t called the Seven Years War, it was called the Great Northern War.”

Putin of course, is famously obsessed with this history. But Putin’s comments on 18th-century history reveal that he doesn’t even always get the details right. His allusions to the era of Peter I and Catherine II are shallow, upbeat, and focused on what academics call the great man history. He likes kings, generals, and heroes who successfully turned the wheel of Russian history. He wants to highlight Peter’s early victories in 1709 and Catherine’s conquest of Crimea in 1783, rather than the many defeats that marked the intervening years. Up to this point, Putin has publicly ignored the long, painful, and grinding process of 18th-century Russian imperialism.

It’s easy to see how Putin’s greatest hits version of Russian history — all the victories, none of the brutal setbacks — might have led to the false confidence with which he ordered his forces into Ukraine last February. But despite his public rhetoric and occasional errors, Putin undoubtedly knows the real history behind Russia’s long, difficult 18th century struggles. As Russia prepares for a longer conflict in Ukraine, this history also offers examples he can draw on where Russian armies overcame significant setbacks, reconstituted their forces, and fought on to victory. As a result, looking back at how Putin uses and distorts the story of Russia’s 18th century wars can help us anticipate what he envisions for his own war today.