Russian president Vladimir Putin has paid tribute to tsar Peter the Great on the 350th anniversary of his birth, drawing a parallel between what he portrayed as their twin historic quests to win back Russian lands.
“Peter the Great waged the great northern war for 21 years. It would seem that he was at war with Sweden, he took something from them. He did not take anything from them, he returned [what was Russia’s],” Putin said on Thursday after a visiting an exhibition dedicated to the tsar.
In televised comments on day 106 of his war in Ukraine, he compared Peter’s campaign with Russia’s current military actions.
“Apparently, it also fell to us to return [what is Russia’s] and strengthen [the country]. And if we proceed from the fact that these basic values form the basis of our existence, we will certainly succeed in solving the tasks that we face.”
Putin, now in his 23rd year in power, has repeatedly sought to justify Russia’s actions in Ukraine, where his forces have devastated cities, killed thousands and forced millions of people to flee, by propounding a view of history that asserts Ukraine has no real national identity or tradition of statehood.
Peter the Great, an autocratic moderniser admired by liberal and conservative Russians alike, ruled for 43 years and gave his name to a new capital, St Petersburg – Putin’s home town – that he ordered built on land he conquered from Sweden.
It was a project that cost the lives of tens of thousands of serfs, conscripted as forced labourers to build Peter’s “window to Europe” in the swamps of the Baltic Sea coast.
Before Putin’s visit to the exhibition, state television aired a documentary praising Peter the Great as a tough military leader, greatly expanding Russian territory at the expense of Sweden and the Ottoman Empire with the modernised army and navy he built.
In recent years, Putin’s interest in Russian history has loomed ever larger in his public appearances.
In April 2020, as Russia entered its first coronavirus lockdown, he drew bemusement in some quarters when he compared the pandemic to ninth-century Turkic nomadic invasions of medieval Russia during a televised address to the nation.
In July 2021, the Kremlin published an almost 7,000-word essay by Putin, entitled “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, in which he argued that Russia and Ukraine were one nation, artificially divided. It laid the groundwork for his deployment of troops to Ukraine in February.
Moscow attempted to justify its war in Ukraine by saying it was sending troops over the border to disarm and “denazify” its neighbour, an unfounded claim.
In the run-up to the launch of what Russia calls its “special military operation“, Putin blamed Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, for creating Ukraine on what Putin said was historically Russian territory, and for planting the seed of the USSR’s eventual collapse.
By contrast, the Russian leader offered cautious praise for Joseph Stalin for creating “a tightly centralised and absolutely unitary state”, even as he acknowledged the Soviet dictator’s record of “totalitarian” repression.
Putin has a history of praising leaders sharing his own conservative views, including tsar Alexander III and pre-revolutionary prime minister Pyotr Stolypin, both of whom have had monuments in their honour erected across the country.
Meanwhile, leaders seen as antithetical to a strong, unitary Russian state – including Lenin and Nikita Khrushchev – have seen their contributions played down.
“Putin likes leaders he sees as tough, strong managers,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“He wants to be seen as a Peter [the Great]-style moderniser, even though he will go down in history as a cruel ruler more like Ivan the Terrible.”