Soviet Nostalgia and Great Power Aspirations

Putin beim Marsch des Regiments der Unsterblichen am Tag des Sieges, 9.5.2015, Foto: NickolayV/​Shutterstock

Ahead to the Past – The World in the Mind of Putin

Эту статью можно читать и на русском

It is not often that a national president expounds an official reading of history, but Vladimir Putin did just that on the 75th anniver­sary of the end of World War II. His polit­i­cally charged histor­ical manifesto claims to draw the “real lessons” from that bloody world war. Anyone who wants to under­stand what makes Putin tick and what it is that he seeks to achieve should read this text carefully. It is a document of histor­ical revi­sionism and of the old-new great-power ambitions of the Kremlin.

What Putin advocates is nothing less than reverting to the concert of great powers at the end of World War II. His point of reference is 1945, not 1990, hence the agreement on the post-war order reached among the victo­rious powers and not the European framework for peace that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet empire. He conjures up the spirit of Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam, images of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill bending over the map of the world. He does not say a word about the Helsinki prin­ci­ples of 1975 or the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe. This was no mere trifle. Thirty-two European states, including Russia, as legal successor to the USSR, along with the USA and Canada jointly committed them­selves to democracy as the legit­i­mate form of govern­ment and to respect human rights in the Paris Charter. The Europe of the future was to be founded on the renun­ci­a­tion of violence and on coop­er­a­tion, common security and the sovereign equality of all states.

For Putin, these guiding values, which are also reflected in human rights conven­tion (1950) of the Council of Europe, are no longer relevant. Nor does inter­na­tional law figure in the lessons of 1945 for the Russian president. For him, the core of the United Nations is the Security Council and the veto right of the states that were victo­rious powers 75 years ago, a right that he vehe­mently defends. And in this is rooted Putin’s claim that no major inter­na­tional political decision involving a conflict should be taken without or against Russia.

Putin makes it crystal clear that he is claiming the role that the Soviet Union used to play for Russia. It was not just nostalgia speaking when he described the break-up of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopo­lit­ical cata­strophe of the 20th century”. His ambition is to regain, as far as possible, the power that was lost. In his eyes, the Russian Feder­a­tion is not only the legal successor state to the USSR, but also its legit­i­mate political heir. He demands the return of Russia to the circle of powerful nations that steer the destiny of Europe and of the world. Though in compe­ti­tion with one another, the rivalry among these nations is limited by their respect for one another’s interests and spheres of influence. Inci­den­tally, the EU does not figure in this new direc­torate. An even footing with Wash­ington and Peking is what Putin is aiming at.

Putin cites the USSR’s crucial contri­bu­tion in the fight against Hitler fascism as the basis for Russia’s claim to great power status. Yes, he gener­ously concedes, some credit is due to the British and the Americans as well, but the greatest sacri­fices and the pivotal victories were those of the Soviet Union. The “Great Patriotic War” is the central source of the regime’s legit­i­macy, both internal and external. There is no other source. Communism has fallen into disrepute; the economy is stag­nating. Today, Russia has little to show for itself other than oil, natural gas and its military strengths. Pride in the Red Army’s victories, achieved at such great sacrifice, is a balm for the aggrieved Russian soul.

No critical light may be cast on this national narrative. Conse­quently, Putin defends both the Hitler-Stalin pact and the annex­a­tion of the Baltic states. For him, respon­si­bility for World War II lies solely with the Western powers and their policy of appease­ment toward Hitler. Poland having worked behind the scenes to scupper an alliance between the Soviet Union and England and France, Stalin was left with no choice but to enter into a pact with the devil. Putin justifies the Red Army’s march into Eastern Poland and the moving of the Soviet border westward as a purely defensive operation aimed at keeping the Wehrmacht as far from Moscow as possible.

That the Soviet Union stopped all of its anti-fascist propa­ganda overnight, accused the Western powers of warmon­gering and continued to supply the Third Right with raw materials important to its war effort until June of 1941: all this is swept under the rug. So, too, are the Katyn massacre and the mass depor­ta­tions in the Baltic republics. The Red Army’s occu­pa­tion of the countries of Central and East Europe? Nothing other than an act of liber­a­tion, in Putin’s view. That the liber­a­tion from Nazi tyranny led to a new system of oppres­sion is something he is unwilling to admit. Putin’s excursion into history turns out to be an exercise in imperial historiography.

Putin can see no stain on the glory of the Russian armed forces. In passing, he justifies even the bloody Chechen wars and the bombing campaigns in Syria as the “fight against inter­na­tional terrorism”. He recasts the unde­clared war against Ukraine as coming out against “neo-Nazis and Bandera’s succes­sors”. Greater cynicism would be hard to find.

Putin’s offer of a new arrange­ment among the great powers is a poisoned one. It has the potential to drive a wedge into the EU and NATO, it amounts to relapse, away from a normative order. Within Europe, it is primarily the French president who appears suscep­tible to Putin’s offers. France, a member in the concert of the great and the powerful – this, too, is dangerous nostalgia. Macron has already launched a strategic dialogue with Moscow and dreams of a “Europe from Lisbon to Vladi­vostok”. His desire to pull Europe out of the transat­lantic alliance is no secret. Putin likes this idea very much. We should not delude ourselves about a European autonomy: without a tie to America to hold it back, Europe would slip even further into the grav­i­ta­tional field of the Kremlin.

Putin’s push for a new Yalta also about the future of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus: Are they to go back to being satel­lites of the Kremlin, or should the path to Europe remain open? Should we grant the Kremlin the right to veto the European inte­gra­tion of these countries? Any ambiguity on this point is dele­te­rious. The same can be said of the security of Poland and the Baltic states. This can only be ensured by NATO.

Let there be no misun­der­standing: a strategic part­ner­ship with Russia is very much to be desired. But such a part­ner­ship can only come into being on a normative foun­da­tion: common security and the renun­ci­a­tion of violence, recog­ni­tion of the sovereign equality of all European states, respect for human rights. These are prin­ci­ples to which Russia has already committed itself more than once. As long as the Kremlin is unwilling to return to this path, Europe will need a policy towards Russia that combines limited coop­er­a­tion with the contain­ment of neo-imperial ambitions. This includes responding to Russia’s military build-up in the area of tactical nuclear weapons and to the violation of the INF treaty banning inter­me­diate range missiles. It is imper­a­tive that Europe not become vulner­able to military extortion.

At the same time, we should make every effort to support demo­c­ratic civil society in Russia. There are thousands of non-govern­mental organ­i­sa­tions active on behalf of human rights, envi­ron­mental protec­tion and social causes, running campaigns against corrup­tion and electoral fraud, inde­pen­dent Internet projects, critical jour­nal­ists, writers and artists there. They are living testimony to the fact that Russia is not doomed to author­i­tarian rule in perpe­tuity. A time of change will come.



Ralf Fücks is managing director of the Center for Liberal Modernity (LibMod), a Berlin-based think tank. Before co-founding LibMod, he headed the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, the political foun­da­tion affil­i­ated with the Green party, for over 20 years.

This article was published first in WELT , 29. June 2020.


Since you are here, if you liked the article you can suppport the work of LibMod easely with our donation tool.

LibMod is offi­cially acknowl­edged as a non-profit organ­i­sa­tion. Thus donations to us can deduct your taxes in Germany. For a German donation receipt (only required for donations more than 200 EUR) please send your address to

Verwandte Themen

Newsletter bestellen

Mit dem LibMod-Newsletter erhalten Sie regelmäßig Neuigkeiten zu unseren Themen in Ihr Postfach.

Mit unseren Daten­schutzbes­tim­mungen
erklären Sie sich einverstanden.