Deadly Illusions: The Ukraine War and Russian historical imagination – Fellows’ seminar by Igor Torbakov

1 December 2022

“Vladimir Putin has a twisted understanding of nationalism and national identity. He conceives of nations as primordial, timeless and immutable – linked by blood and soil, and the unity of fate. Static with linguistic and cultural unity, kinship transferred from generation to generation, making Russians and Ukrainians one people,” said Igor Torbakov of the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University, Sweden. “But nation is a fluid, malleable phenomenon. People must decide for themselves where they belong.”

STIAS Fellow Igor Torbakov

“Some commentators have aptly called Russia’s Ukraine war a ‘war of obsession’. Putin appears to be genuinely obsessed with Ukraine. The decision to attack Russia’s Slavic neighbour was influenced in large part by his belief in historical fantasies that have long circulated among Russian imperial-nationalists. This project seeks to investigate three intertwined sets of problems: What lies at the core of the ‘Ukrainian question’ as seen by the Kremlin? What key elements does the Russian leadership’s idiosyncratic vision of the two countries’ entangled history consist of? And, what historical myths inform Russian political imagination? The project will demonstrate that at the heart of all this historical mythology lies the Russian elites’ twisted understanding of what nation and national identity really are,” explained Torbakov.

“Until the invasion, analysts were not sure what to make of Putin’s ideas,” he said. “They saw it as developing a historical narrative to justify political ends but it’s actually the other way around – pursuing policies based on an idiosyncratic political vision, which is a recipe for disaster.”

Deadly Illusion is a book project born of personal shock and intellectual curiosity. The war has affected me personally. I am from Kharkiv – in the region affected by the most intense hostilities. The city has been shelled daily, some of my family are still there, so I perceive it very personally and emotionally. I am also intellectually interested in how the history of ideas and historical misinterpretations affect what is happening, and how these pushed Russia into the decision to start the war.”

Torbakov read a draft essay outlining his book.

“The events of the past 10 months flow out of and are conditioned and explained by history,” he said. “It’s a conflict unleashed by twisted political notions of history.”

He pointed out that at the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago – “the end of the last real Empire” many were surprised that Ukraine and Russia didn’t go to war. “Historians got it wrong,” he said. “It didn’t happen back then, but the current war is the biggest conflict in Europe since World War 2 and political and historical imaginings are key factors.”

Fatal obsession

Torbakov highlighted the 6000-word, quasi-scholarly treatise written by Putin in July 2021 about the historical unity of Russia and Ukraine. “The style and wording is his own,” said Torbakov. “It’s simple and menacing. Claiming that Ukraine has no distinct identity, that it is an artificial state, the lands are Russian and it has no right to exist separate from the Russian state. This message has been repeated in all his speeches since. It’s an example of his obsession and his historical imagination that has become sicker over time. As far back as his first term he was saying something needed to be done about Ukraine.”

Torbakov believes the 2014 revolution (the Revolution of Dignity) which was largely domestic and focused on ousting corrupt, pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, agitated Putin’s fixation on subjugating Ukraine and allowed him to paint Ukraine as a problem in need of a solution.

“Although Ukraine can be considered pertinent to key aspects of Russia’s place in the global order, Putin’s fatal fixation trumped pragmatic understanding of Russia’s interests.”

From the side of Ukraine there are three elements that are unacceptable to Putin – assertion of a separate national identity, the wish to put in place independent foreign and domestic policies, and the desire to be included in Western institutions.

“This challenges the idea of a restored Russia which is a very idiosyncratic version of the two countries’ histories,” said Torbakov. “There is a mystical attachment specifically to the area around Kyiv and about Ukraine’s role in Russian history as a foundation of the Russian Empire. The loss of Ukraine is seen as the demise of historical Russia.”

Torbakov pointed to the myths underlying all of this including the idea of a shared linguistic and cultural core and that most Ukrainians identify with and want to be part of Russia; that Ukrainian independence is a result of the unnatural dismantling of a 1000-year, unified Russian state, which was undermined by repeated gifting of historically Russian lands; and, that schism is ultimately disastrous for the Russian state and people because it weakens Russia and broadens the influence of other European countries.

“Much of this is a throwback to the late imperial era, misperceptions fabricated in Russian imperial circles of a mythological Russia. Putin can’t distinguish between the Russian Empire, the USSR and the current state. He thinks he rules historical Russia.”


What Putin didn’t factor into his plans was the growth over at least the last 100 years of a distinct Ukrainian nation that emerged from a complex, sometimes contradictory process of identity and nation building.

Tobakov pointed to an essay written in 1930 by historian Pyotr Bitsilli (1879–1953) who tackled the question of Russian identity and nationalism, and specifically the Russia/Ukraine problem. “Bitsilli emphasised that close historical ties create conditions for ‘unity’ but are not the proof of it. A sense of closeness between nations is a psychological fact. He did not support Ukrainian independence but was ahead of his time as a theorist of nationalism. He highlighted that you need political will and resources to create a separate nation but it can be done. These ideas are alien to Putin who sees these as unnatural splits caused by external forces and focuses on old-fashioned parameters of unity.”

Torbakov also believes that Putin’s historical views – and political decisions based on them – stem from ressentiment caused by the Soviet Union’s defeat in the Cold War and its subsequent collapse. Ukraine and Kyiv have been painted as the main symbolic losses to be regained at any cost.

“But every objective Putin wanted in Ukraine is now out of reach. The invasion has boosted Ukrainian national identity. It’s become a patriotic war. Instead of bringing Ukraine into the Russian orbit it’s pushed Ukraine further towards Western Europe and the European Union, and turned Russia into a global economic pariah.”

By contrast, Tobakov sees Ukrainian national policies and identity as a product of modernity with an eye to the future. Ukraine’s drive towards Europe is about learning from the experience of European countries, their need for external help and the desire to move away from the toxic legacy of the Soviet Union and post-Soviet condition. He emphasised that Ukraine doesn’t have a strong state tradition and was a highly corrupt state until 2022. “Even democracy exists largely by default because of the weakness of the central power to consolidate autocracy.”

But he also sees things in the future of Ukraine that are troubling. “Having 40 million people hating all things Russian will have a long-term effect. A large segment of the population in Eastern Ukraine, while seeing themselves as part of a political Ukrainian nation, are steeped in Russian culture and language. Now there are cancel-culture policies so everything Russian is being swept away.”

And what about Putin’s future?

“Very few predicted what happened. Even those who saw he was driven by misguided perceptions (and heavily influenced by religious leaders and his inner elite circle) didn’t really believe he would take the irrational and inconceivable step to the abyss which could be the ruin of Russia itself. He is hell bent on his own goals – he says he is open for negotiation but it’s only on his terms.”

“The war is not about boundaries but about overall control and hegemony. Putin doesn’t just want territory. It’s about imposing a new puppet regime in Kyiv subservient to Russia. And he can’t do it,” said Torbakov. “I believe his political future is a sad story. The fate of his regime hinges on the result of a senseless war and he can’t stop now without achieving something. He will be a scapegoat, even his physical safety depends on the war effort.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Anton Jordaan

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