Putin the Great? Hardly…

Published by The i paper (6th June, 2022)

When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, many officials took down their icons of Communism to replace them with images of their new leader Boris Yeltsin. But in Saint Petersburg, an ambitious young confidant of the city’s first democratically-elected mayor hung up instead a portrait of Peter the Great. This was a move of potent symbolism by Vladimir Putin, who had left the KGB the previous year and was seething over collapse of his country’s empire. For this huge figure who looms over Russian history not only created the port that was the apparatchik’s home city but transformed a backward nation into one of the world’s great powers.

More than three decades later, Peter I is still Putin’s historical pin-up. The Russian president, a leader obsessed with the past and shaping of his nation’s narrative, boasts of his admiration for the maverick ruler credited with launching Moscow’s expansionist empire during a remarkable 42-year reign. A bronze statue of the tempestuous tsar – who was born 350 years ago this week – looms over his desk in the cabinet room. “He will live as long as his cause is alive,” declared Putin three years ago.

These two leaders are divided by three centuries – although the diminutive dictator in the Kremlin is also at least one foot smaller than his imposing predecessor. Both were capable of great cruelty and chillingly ruthless in pursuit of their goals. Harald Malmgren, an aide to four US presidents who talked with Putin during those post-KGB years in St Petersburg, wrote  earlier this year that the future president spoke at such length about Peter and post-Soviet Russia’s need for a similar strong man that “I was convinced he sees himself as his incarnation.”

So what irony that Putin’s botched invasion of Ukraine has sabotaged the legacy of his hero. Far from demonstrating Russia’s strength and status as a great power, the Kremlin’s failure to seize Kyiv and impose a puppet regime has only underscored weakness and diminished its global standing. Peter was driven by fervent desire to engage with Europe, modernise his nation and failed efforts to eliminate corruption. Putin, by contrast, has turned Russia into a pariah state and done little to develop the country while funneling vast resource wealth into pockets of billionaire cronies.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, last week had to deny that his boss was slamming shut the window on our continent pushed open with such vigour by Peter – most notably with his creation of Saint Petersburg as a port on the Baltic Sea for his beloved navy and “to let in the light of Europe”. This stunning city with its canals and grand palaces is undeniably beautiful. Yet it was built on blood over the bodies of thousands of slave labourers, a reminder that there is nothing new about autocratic Russian rulers viewing the lives of citizens as disposable in their drive to achieve imperial ambitions.

There is another big difference between these two aggressive Russian rulers from such different times. Last week I was in Poltava, an elegant city in central Ukraine that felt on the surface barely touched by the war with its packed cafes and parks, although only two hours by train from Kharkiv. Yet how badly Putin must have wanted to see his troops march through this city less than 150 miles from his border so he could emulate his idol. For this is the place where Peter led his troops in a decisive 1709 battle against the Swedes, defeating the key regional power to establish the Russian dominance over eastern Europe that has provoked such concern and dismay over subsequent centuries.

Putin, by contrast, has displayed military incompetence and logistical ineptitude that must have left Peter spinning in his grave, even if the atrocities of Russian forces seem little changed over the centuries. Now the floundering president, defeated in battles for Kyiv and Kharkiv by a nation whose existence he denies, has turned to his generals to grind out gains in the eastern Donbas region. Perhaps many twists lie ahead in this senseless war. Yet it was hard not to wonder if historians of the future might see Poltava, with its bustling streets flying the blue and yellow flag now seen as iconic around Europe, as the place that marks both the start of Russia’s expansionist era and the end point thanks to Putin’s dismal deeds.

It might seem curious that a tsar born 350 years ago should influence the actions of a modern ruler, but history feels more alive when an empire is ebbing in a region that has seen such fluid borders and heavy bloodshed – something easy to forget on our island nation with its fixed boundaries. Given the dark history of Moscow imperialism under differing types of dictator, it is no wonder states that suffered so much from their neighbour’s brutality have long been alarmed by Putin’s deviant behaviour. Their warnings were ignored for too long. Yet even at this pivotal point in a war with so much at stake, fissures emerge in the West while a foolish French president starts bleating that Russia should not be humiliated despite invading another nation, committing war crimes and seizing one-fifth of its land.

Putin deserves to be crushed for his continent and his country’s sake. Peter was a visionary colossus who earned his sobriquet of greatness through reform at home as well as battle abroad. Putin’s reactionary reign, however, is etched in failure, pushing him to ever more desperate tactics and repression to protect his circle of thieves. He tries to rewrite the past to explain his personal horror story. His actions make it more likely the surviving vestiges of Moscow’s empire will one day implode, regardless of the course of this grotesque war and any Pyrrhic victories. Meanwhile he looks like a small man destined for infamy in history, shrinking under the shadow of a mercurial giant.

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