When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the first war of invasion in Europe since 1939 began. After decades of convincing themselves that Russia had been pacified and that wars of aggression in Europe would never happen again, people were searching for explanations to what was happening. Journalists, pundits, and arm-chair historians began scrambling for historical parallels and in doing so, they ended up where they usually end up: Hitler and Nazi-Germany.
Whereas I do agree that history is written to answer questions in the present, I disagree with Adolf Hitler and Nazi-Germany becoming the go-to answers for everything when people want to make themselves look more knowledgeable and insightful than they really are.
Because, the answers to Vladimir Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can’t be found by drawing parallels to Nazi-Germany. Putin is his own kind of monster who acts within a decidedly Russian paradigm of how to treat its own population and its neighboring countries.
As historians, we talk about history as the result of continuity and change, that is to say, things change while at the same time, they stay the same. Russia under Vladimir Putin is new, but it is also very old.
Putin is an old kind of Russian leader because he is a despot. But, he is a new kind of Russian leader because he is a despot who is neither royal nor communist. He is also a new kind of leader because the Russian state has become entirely based on him as a person.
The czars and the leaders of the Soviet Union had structures built up around them that survived the death of the individual person, the Romanov dynasty in the case of the former, the Communist Party in the case of the latter. When the Czar or the Secretary General of the Communist Party passed away or was ousted, the institutions survived the person and a new leader was recruited from its ranks, either by birth-right or as the result of political power struggles.
When historians study the development of the state, we make a distinction between the “state” and the “realm.” The realm is the geographical territory held together by customs and kinship. The realm speaks to our identity, which is the reason why the realm is often given a name: The Reich for the Holy Roman Empire and later Germany. Uncle Sam for the United States of America. Blighty for England. And Mother Russia for Russia.
The state is the political structure that governs the realm. For there to be a “state,” these structures need to be separate from the leader, as discussed above with the Romanovs and the Communists.
With Putin, there is reason to believe that when he either dies or is overthrown there is no structure that will survive him, which means that when Putin is gone, Russia the State might collapse. Mother Russia, on the other hand, will prevail.
But isn’t that what happened to Nazi-Germany after Hitler died by suicide? The state died when he died, right? Surely, we can draw a parallel here?
The answer to those questions is no. Hitler died by suicide, yes, but only after he had appointed his successor. He could do that because the state of Nazi-Germany was built on the structures of the Nazi party. Nazi-Germany as a state came crashing down because Nazi-Germany declared itself defeated, which happened after Hitler was gone.
In the case of Germany, the realm also disappeared when The Reich was divided into West and East Germany.
Just like we can’t draw parallels between Putin and Hitler, we can’t draw parallels between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Nazi-Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland or its invasion of Poland either. Because this is not the first time Russia has gone into Ukraine with the intention to annihilate.
Russia as an expansionist force can be traced far back in time, and every country or empire that has ever shared a border with Russia has been forced to contend with this, as seen in the relationship between Russia and Sweden. The earliest known border agreement between Russia (here in the form of one of its predecessors, the Republic of Novgorod) and Sweden is the Treaty of Nöteborg from 1323. The Treaty of Nöteborg marked the end of a series of conflicts during the thirteenth and early fourteenth century over control of the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic. Sweden and Russia would continue to wage wars over the Baltic until 1809, when Russia conquered Finland from Sweden, breaking the Swedish kingdom in half. Their contentious relationship continued during the Cold War, and is ramping up again today as a consequence of what is happening in Ukraine.
As for Ukraine, their complicated relationship with Russia can be traced even further back in time, involving much more suffering and bloodshed than in the case of Sweden. Putin’s argument for invading Ukraine in 2022 is that Ukraine does not exist as a country because of Kievan Rus.
Kievan Rus was a loose federation of geographical and ethnically-based territories that reached from the Black Sea to the Baltic, and which existed in different forms from the ninth century to 1240 when the Mongols invaded from the East. (The Republic of Novgorod, mentioned above, was part of this federation.) Kievan Rus got its name from the city from whence it grew–Kyiv–and the dynasty that is believed to have founded it–the Rus. The Rus belonged to a larger group known as Varangians, who, to make it simple, were Vikings from Sweden. The name “Rus” is believed to be the root of the name “Russia,” and consequently, there is an argument to be made that the roots of Russia are in Ukraine.
Over the centuries, Ukraine has gone back and forth between ruling itself to being cut up and governed by surrounding empires such as Poland, Poland-Lithuania, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Soviet Union. In the 1920s and 1930s, it suffered two mass-starvation disasters, both orchestrated by the Soviet Union with the intention of bringing Ukraine to its knees. During World War II, Nazi-Germany invaded Ukraine with much bloodshed as a result. When the Soviet Union recaptured Ukraine, a purge of real and imagined collaborators began, again with a great toll on human lives. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Ukraine declared itself an independent state based on the principles of democracy. This is the state that Russia now intends to annihilate. Again.
Even though the initial Russian military advance into Ukraine doesn’t seem to have gone as planned, and the reaction from the rest of the world has been a solid condemnation, when French President Emmanuel Macron after speaking to Putin declared that the worst is yet to come, we have every reason to be worried. All we need to do is look to Russian and Soviet history, and this time, we do need to look at what happened during World War II. But again, we need to look at the actions of the Soviet Union, not Nazi-Germany.
During World War II, after a brief stint as an ally to Nazi-Germany, the Soviet Union ended up fighting against them after Nazi-Germany invaded as part of Operation Barbarossa. The back of the up-until-then seemingly invincible Wehrmacht was broken as the German army pushed further into Soviet territory and found itself defeated after the six-month long battle of Stalingrad.
But the Soviet Union didn’t defeat the Wehrmacht because the Red Army was excellent at warfare. Rather, it was the opposite. Shrouded in a cloud of paranoia, Stalin had purged the army of all its generals and taken control of the war himself. The solution to ending the Nazi-German invasion was a tried and tested tactic of Russian warfare: the disregard for human lives, including those of Russians.
One example of how little Russian lives matter is the defense tactic known as scorched earth where people destroy their own homes and farms to break the morale of the enemy. Russian civilians have used this tactic to great success against the armies of Charles XII of Sweden, Napoleon of France, and Nazi-Germany. Unless the war on Ukraine turns and ends up on Russian territory, there is little reason to believe that scorched earth tactics is an option. However, the fact that this tactic exists, and has been used repeatedly, demonstrates that when it comes to winning a war, civilian lives do not matter.
As for the Soviet army during World War II, we feel the non-existent value of the individual soldier on our skins as we read Anthony Beevor’s excellent book Stalingrad, where the letters and diaries of Red Army soldiers give us first-hand accounts of the appalling conditions they were fighting under. In the end, the lives of more than one million Soviet soldiers were spilled to break the Wehrmacht.
Maya Angelou once famously said that when someone tells you who they are, believe them. Putin has made clear that he will not stop until Ukraine no longer exists. When we look at Russian and Soviet history for an explanation of what is happening, we have no choice but to believe him.
What matters now, is what we do next.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.