Threatening to annex Ukraine, after having taken back Crimea and intervening in the domestic affairs of Belarus and Kazakhstan, Vladimir Putin is suspected by some of wanting to reconstitute the Soviet Union. He has never hidden his nostalgia for it. But to understand the territorial ambitions of Putin’s Russia, we must look back to a time before the Soviet Union and ask: Where do we find Russia? What are its natural borders? And what does it mean to be Russian?
The answers are elusive because Russia has never had natural borders; nor can Russia be defined by ethnicity or religion. Trying to do so would mean overlooking significant Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish populations that have always contributed to Russian history. Alexander Solzhenitsyn devoted one of his books to Russian Jews because he considered their historical role essential in Russian history. Recall that the most impressive figure in the Russian Empire was Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great—she was of German origin. The ancestor of the most venerated of Russian poets, Alexander Pushkin, was a black slave acquired in Constantinople and brought to St. Petersburg.
In a famous 1962 speech, General Charles de Gaulle, then president of the French Republic, imagined creating a European Union that would extend from the Atlantic to the Urals. It is common, in fact, to see the Urals as the natural frontier between Europe and Asia. But the Russians, who have always considered themselves Europeans, have no regard for the Ural mountain range, which, for them, has never been a frontier. It is no more obvious where to place a border in the south. The Black Sea and the Caucasus have been disputed for centuries between Russians, Ottomans, Chechnyans, and Georgians. And on the western boundary, where does Russia begin? In 1772, Catherine appropriated half of Poland, of which a large part today has been incorporated within Ukraine and Belarus. In the nineteenth century, at the same time that American pioneers were arriving in California, Russian expansion reached the Pacific Ocean, and the Pacific itself did not stop the Russians—they still occupy the island of Sakhalin, a jetty of rock off of Japan. They colonized Alaska. In Northern California, many places still bear Russian names.
The Russian nation and its language were supposedly born in Kiev, in Ukraine. The imperial capital passed from Kiev to Moscow to Saint Petersburg. Russia, in a word, is a people always on the move. For centuries, it has marched toward all the cardinal points, without ceasing to be European. I recall once, on the island of Sakhalin, that is, in Russia’s far east, having conversed with residents who explained to me that Sakhalin was nice because salaries there were higher (because of the oil economy), but that Sakhalin was really “far from home.”
Consulting Russian history, we observe that Russia keeps going forward until someone presses back. Catherine II took over Poland and Central Asia because no one put up enough resistance. But when the Russians tried to colonize Manchuria and Korea, the Japanese empire intervened, in 1895; after some horrible battles, the Japanese prevailed and the Russians proceeded no farther against an unbreachable line. (I will not resist including a family anecdote in this account of the Russo-Japanese war. A distant uncle was conscripted in Warsaw, then part of Russia, in the Czar’s army, to go fight against the Japanese. He went there on foot, like Napoleon’s soldiers, and by the time he got to the front, six months later, the war was over. He returned by the trans-Siberian railway that had just opened.)
Russia stops when it is stopped; this is how it was prevented from reaching Constantinople, in the Crimean war of 1853 to 1856, by a coalition of Ottomans, French, and British. The seat of the Orthodox church barely escaped becoming Russian. In the Caucasus, it was only the fierce resistance of the Chechnyans (described by Leo Tolstoy, who took part in the fighting as a young officer in 1851) that made this region another limit not to be breached. The same was the case in 1969, on the Ussuri River: the Chinese resisted. Now the shoe is on the other foot: the Russians understandably wonder when the Chinese will invade Siberia.
Stalin gave new meaning to this relentless Russian advance: conquest by Communist ideology took over from ordinary colonization. Following the Japanese, the Turks, and the Chinese, it was the Americans, after 1945, who drew the red line that was to contain Russian advances. The line was sometimes cold but in other circumstances hot, as in the bloody fighting in Korea or in Vietnam, or through guerillas in Angola and Nicaragua. When Jimmy Carter effectively renounced America’s containment doctrine, the Russians started up again, taking over Ethiopia and Afghanistan. It was left to Ronald Reagan to redraw the line—and the Russians stopped. Then, in a dramatic move, Boris Yeltsin, the first elected president in Russian history, decided that the Russians had ventured too far and that they needed to come back home. Yeltsin had accepted Solzhenitsyn’s analysis: “The Russians are the main victims of the USSR.”
In 1991, the Russian people were exhausted by this race with no end, which traced all the way back to Catherine’s regime. Putin is thus the heir of this imperialist empress. He no doubt underestimates the exhaustion of his people, or perhaps he does not care. He will advance as long as no one says to him, “Halt! this line will not be crossed.” But we hear no authoritative voice, either from NATO headquarters or from Washington—certainly not from Washington, with President Biden’s seeming acquiescence yesterday to a “minor incursion.” Russia will march on, for now, because we are retreating.
Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images