‘Story of Russia’ author Orlando Figes talks about Putin and Ukraine
On the bookshelf
The history of Russia
By Orlando Figes
Metropolitan: 368 pages, $30
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At the start of the pandemic, British historian Orlando Figes began his book ‘Lockdown’: an investigation into the ideas, myths and beliefs that have shaped Russians over the past thousand years, drawn from his decades of writing and research on Russian and European history. The award-winning author of nine books, including “Revolutionary Russia” and “Crimea: The Last Crusade”, Figes delivered the manuscript of “The History of Russia” to its publishers in the fall of 2021, just as the Russian president Vladimir Putin was beginning to amass troops. at the Ukrainian border.
On February 24, Putin declared war on Ukraine and Figes had to rewrite the final chapter of his new book as the country’s history once again tipped into the territory of conquest, death and destruction. destruction. Published as the Russo-Ukrainian War enters its seventh month, “The History of Russia” is a superb narrative essay. An early review by Kirkus hailed it as “a lucid and shrewd text that unpacks the myths of Russian history to help explain current motivations and actions”.
In recent days, the Ukrainian army has taken over important territories occupied by Russia since the beginning of the war. But winter is approaching and rising energy prices caused by the war will upset the European economy, testing Europe’s will to continue supporting Ukraine. Interviewed on Zoom from his home in Umbria, followed up by email, Figes answered questions about the conflict, the policy of repression in Russia and the plight of his young people. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
A key theme of your book is that from the very earliest days of the Russian nation, Russians have yearned for an authority figure, from Ivan the Terrible to the Tsars to Stalin. Is Putin part of a long line of dictatorial leaders?
There is a power-worshipping monarchical mentality that is deeply rooted in Russian history. I think the Putin system relied on that, just like Stalin, who consciously relied on this need for a Tsar. And I guess any opposition or succession to Putin should also project power in this way. Dictatorships build their power base by eroding trust in other elements of a state system. Putin is the master.
Is the desire for an authority figure embedded in the Russian psyche?
I tend to retract from the idea that there is a power-worshipping DNA. But the sacralization of power, which I talk about at length in the book, testifies to the power of a divine tsar. The authority that can generate in Russia seems to be a persistent pattern. But is this still some sort of typical Russian thing? And the cult of Donald Trump?
Putin started his career in the KGB. He ruthlessly uses state security to silence his enemies, using exile, imprisonment, and even murder. How has the partnership between Russian leaders and the political police shaped the country’s history?
It’s an old tradition and dates back to Ivan the Terrible, if not the Mongols before that, that there are enforcers of autocratic power who are licensed to kill without account. Stalin was arguably the first dictator to rule through the political police, and this has become part of the fusion between the KGB and now the way politics works in Putin’s Russia. It’s a strange mixture of this KGB tradition, which Putin masterfully deploys, and a kind of medieval patrimonialism. You control these oligarchs. You own these people. It is a very powerful mixture.
How does this system affect opposition to the war in Russia?
I don’t think we know how much the opposition is infiltrated by the police, how much they actually know what must be very small groups of people operating via Telegram or their underground cells, like they did with these fires against military conscription centers.
Putin, with his Stalinist language, talking about traitors and fifth columnists, is inflammatory and further encourages surveillance and vigilante groups thinking they are patriotic [by] beat up someone known to be against the war. That’s probably enough, for now, to keep the opposition in a dark corner.
One of your conclusions is that Russia has a “hateful” need to punish Ukraine, due to Ukraine’s position as a former rebel colony.
For the Ukrainians, it is essentially a war of liberation from an empire. Russia is behaving imperialistically. I don’t think it’s genocide. I think the people at Zelensky overdid it, and I disagree with people like Tim Snyder who think it’s genocide. This is a denial of Ukrainian nationality.
What I see on the ground are crimes against humanity, war crimes and some pretty horrific atrocities against civilians. We have to wait for the full investigation and evidence. But what strikes me from what we know so far is that this falls more into the category of Russian soldiers, or maybe Chechen soldiers, indoctrinated into this idea of Russian superiority on Ukrainians, which goes back a long way in history.
Putin took power in 1999 and many young people in Russia have lived their whole lives under his rule. How do young people in Russia perceive the war?
There is a wide range of views, from people who are now in jail or who have been fined for bravely protesting the war, to Putin nationalists who support the war. The Soviet heritage is stronger in older generations. Younger generations are wiser, as they have used the Internet for information; they know how to use VPNs to get the information they need. Young people are less likely to harbor illusions or buy into the propaganda broadcast on state television. What they do about it is another question.
Russia’s Economy Struggles With Western Sanctions: How Will This Affect Young People?
It’s a desperate situation for young Russians who have become a dynamic sector over the past 20 years, with creative entrepreneurs, technicians and all the rest. I think they will leave. I think Russia will be late for long distances.
Over the past month, Ukraine has recaptured significant amounts of territory and Russian forces appear to be in disarray. What do you think of this development?
This is a positive development, of course. This shows that the Ukrainians are capable of victory, most likely if Russian forces collapse and even mutinie, as they did in 1917. This could oust Putin if he is blamed for the defeat. But there is still a long way to go in this war, so let’s first see how the Russians react in Donbass. Do they have the strength and morale to capture all of Donetsk and declare victory? We will see.
How do you think the war will end?
The fights will last a long time. Yet, in the end, the Russians will be forced to negotiate a settlement, I believe. It all depends on how long the West is ready to support the Ukrainians. I hope he will at least until [Ukraine] can negotiate from a position of strength. I fear that the West will give in to pressure from consumers affected by the economic crisis. If the Russians target Ukrainian infrastructure, as they threaten to do, there will be another wave of refugees fleeing Ukraine to the West. Right-wing populists will be the beneficiaries and it will increase the pressure on European governments to make a deal with Putin. The survival of democracy depends on the unity of the West.
Gwinn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who lives in Seattle, writes about books and authors.