Iskra Schwarcz "He did not conquer anything, he returned!" What did Putin really want to say?




Iskra Schwarcz "He did not conquer anything, he returned!" What did Putin really want to say?






Abstracts: On the birthday of Peter the Great, June 9, VV Putin gave a speech to young entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists in which he compared today and the reign of this Russian emperor. This is not the first time that the President of the Russian Federation uses history for political messages, resorting to the techniques and methods of history politics. What is hidden behind this, in what key he expressed himself, and how historical analogies relate to historical reality, all these questions are treated in this article.

Key words: history politics, V.V. Putin, Peter I, Northern War, Ukraine, Narva


About the author: Iskra Schwarcz (*1953) is an Austrian historian of Bulgarian origin, a graduate of Moscow State University and lives in Vienna. Since 1990 she has been working at the Institute of Eastern European History of the University of Vienna, Professor, Doctor of Philosophy (Dr. phil.). Author of the books: «Petr I i Avstriya. Issledovaniya o petrovskoj epohe” (2022), “Francuzskoe korolevstvo I Russkoe gosudarstvo v XI–XVI centuries” (2021, with the co-author VV Shishkin). Editor of the volumes “Die Flucht des Thronfolgers Aleksej” (2019), “Quo vadis EU?” (2008, with the co-editor A. Suppan), “Russkaya I ukrainskaya diplomatiya v Evrazii: 50th gody XVII century” ( 2000, with the co-editors LE Semenova et. al.), "Russian and Ukrainian Diplomacy in the European International Relations in the Middle of the XVII-the Century" (2007, with the co-editors LE Semenova et. al.) and author of many more scientific articles on the history of Russia and other countries of Central and Eastern Europe.


Email: iskra.schwarcz@unvie.ac.at


In recent years, the President of the Russian Federation V.V. Putin takes every opportunity to set "new vectors" in the understanding of Russian history and designate new " spiritual bonds" (скрепы) inherent in the historical specificity of Russia. Suffice it to mention the article “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians” published last year and filled with historical myths, statements about the role of the personality of Alexander Nevsky in the history of Russia, as well as recent discussions about the Norman question and the emergence of Russian statehood, which caused a sharp resonance not only in Russia but also abroad. It was to be expected that in connection with the 350th anniversary of Peter I, we will learn from Putin a lot of new and interesting things about the reformer tsar: a legislator, a commander and a man. Therefore, it is surprising that the historical digression during the meeting on June 9, 2022, with young entrepreneurs,[1] took only a few minutes and was not devoted to the personality of the tsar and his transformative policy, but exclusively to the Great Northern War and the recapture from the Swedes, as Stalin's textbooks said, of the "original Russian lands" (исконных русских земель):


“Now we were at the exhibition dedicated to the 350th anniversary of Peter I. Almost nothing has changed. It’s astonishing! Somehow you come to this realization, to this understanding. Here, Peter the Great waged the Northern War for 21 years. It would seem that he was at war with Sweden, he conquered something ... He did not conquer anything, he returned! And there it is. All area around Lake Ladoga, where St. Petersburg was founded. When he founded the new capital, none of the European countries recognized this territory as part of Russia; everyone recognized it as part of Sweden. And there, from time immemorial, along with the Finno-Ugric peoples, the Slavs lived, and this territory was under the control of the Russian state. The same is true in the western direction, this applies to Narva, his first campaigns. Why did you go there? Returned and strengthened - that's what he did. Apparently, it also fell to our lot to return and strengthen. 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” [2].


Once again, Putin uses history for political messages, resorting to the techniques and methods of history politics. We are faced with the use of the past to legitimize the current decisions and actions of the authorities. What we observe is not just the president's passion for historical topics, but an instrument of political struggle and a well-thought-out strategy. By constructing desirable versions of the historical past and a suitable image of ancestors, such as the Slav Rurik, the protector and guardian of the faith, Prince Alexander Nevsky or Tsar Peter the Great, who “returned and strengthened” the original Russian territories, the Russian authorities manipulate historical memory.


There is nothing new in using history to explain politics. In any society, the aggravation of political contradictions affects the assessments of historical figures and events of the past, however, recently in Russia, history has increasingly replaced politics, and such unbridled instrumentalization of history is dangerous both for the historical profession and for society as a whole [3].


Let's go back to the president's statement. In rhetoric and argumentation, specific historical facts are not given, but only an analogy between today and the times of Peter the Great: “Almost nothing has changed. <...> He did not conquer anything, he returned it! <...> He returned and strengthened - that's what he did. < …> Apparently, it also fell to our lot to return and strengthen.” Although Putin has never directly mentioned current events in Ukraine, his words are, firstly, an acknowledgment that the war, which has been going on for the fourth month, is a war for the return of Ukrainian lands as “primordially Russian”, to the bosom of the Russian state, and secondly, Putin's statement gives grounds to assume that what is happening now in Ukraine is just the beginning of an “era of collecting Russian territory” (“собиранию русских земель“).


Putin's remark helps to better understand the official position of the Kremlin in the current conflicts. The absence of a mention of Ukraine in the context of the “return” suggests that for him there is only the struggle of the great powers and at this moment Russia, in his opinion, is opposed to the collective West. Therefore, there is a departure from the rhetoric about the denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine, which is typical for the start of a “special operation”, and instead the words “return and strengthen” appear. Combined with the words about the “western direction” and Narva, which are an unequivocal challenge to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, these words are especially alarming. Today, the return of the territory of Ukraine is on the agenda, the next object of military influence may be Narva and the Baltic states as a whole [4]. As one of the bloggers figuratively put it, commenting on these words: “The Ukrainian people turn out to be the same pawn in the game on the big European chessboard as the small Baltic peoples were in the game of the 17th-18th centuries.” [5] I would add to this - "and who in the 21st century can share the current fate of Ukraine."


This is not the first time Putin has proposed correcting modern historical views and returning to the optics of interpreting Russian history as the history of the Russian national state and as the history of the “Russian world” (русского мира). [6] His ideas about the “return of the original Russian lands” correspond to the political doctrine “collecting Russian lands”, which arose on the threshold of the New Age and is typical not for the reign of Peter I, but for the time of the great Moscow prince Ivan III (1462–1505) and his heir Basil III. Already under Ivan IV, when the "collecting of the lands of the Golden Horde" began, this concept ceased to meet the requirements of the time. Following the annexation of the Kazan and Astrakhan khanates, the conquest and development of the lands of the Siberian Khanate, which had never before been under the control of the Russian state, proceeded step by step. Therefore, speaking about the time of Peter I, Putin is mistaken, the Russian tsar did not collect "primordial Russian lands", but pursued an imperial policy of divide et impera indifferent to ethnic borders - he took what he was able to take and hold.


How do historical analogies from Putin’s June 9, 2022 speech relate to historical reality?


Since the middle of the 17th century, Russia has been part of the European legal system. In the Westphalian peace treaties of 1648, the Moscow sovereign "Magnus Dux Moscoviae" was mentioned along with the French king as one of the guarantors of the "universal peace" [7]. The works of the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, such as De jure belli ac pacis (On the Law of War and Peace) and his doctrine of natural law and the social contract (Natur- und Völkerrecht), which formed the basis of the theory of modern international law, were known in Russia. In 1710, by order of Peter I, Book III "De jure belli ac pacis" was translated into Russian.


The Petrine era is characterized by coalition wars, which were preceded by many negotiations and treaties. We must recall that the Northern War was a coalition war by nature. It began after the conclusion of an alliance agreement (Treaty of the Preobrazhensky November 11/21, 1699) between Peter I and August II, the Saxon elector and the Polish king. The "Northern Union", along with Russia, included Poland, Saxony and the Danish-Norwegian kingdom. These countries were united by the idea of weakening the influence of Sweden. Since the middle of the 16th century, Sweden waged long wars with its neighbors, which led to the gradual expansion of Swedish possessions along the shores of the Baltic Sea, turning it, in essence, into an inland Swedish sea [8].


Peter I understood that the fate of the Baltic Sea could be decided only by the joint action of several countries. Comparing the draft and the original of the Russian-Saxon treaty (1699), E. V. Anisimov drew attention to the design of the final text - the draft said that His Royal Majesty “desires to return those lands that the Swedish crown ... received through harmful agreements", but in the final version of the treaty it is mentioned that both countries intend to "have a war against the crown of Sweden because of the many of the injustices committed against both states by Sweden" [9].


Such reasoning allowed the Petrine diplomats to pursue a pragmatic and flexible policy in international negotiations. The border and peripheral regions were not seen as an object of "collecting Russian lands", but as an object of legal policy and legal norms, and the goal of the state was to correct the old "untruths" that were reflected in the "harmful" treaties.


So, in February 1700, Saxony started the war against Sweden, Denmark joined in March, and only at the end of August, after the conclusion of a peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire, Russia also entered the war. We see that Peter I made significant efforts to include Russia in the European "concert", while the modern Russian Federation is increasingly turning into a rogue state of international politics, and from this point of view, Putin's attempts to draw an analogy between themselves and Peter contradict textbook historical facts.


Were native Russian lands recaptured during the Great Northern War?


Disputes about which territories are "primordial" often lead to dangerous consequences. The Baltic Region is a historically developed region in which different peoples live and various historical destinies are intertwined. It is not so easy to filter and take into account the most important of the many historical facts and actors. Medieval Pskov and Novgorod, and then the Grand Duchy of Moscow and the Russian Empire were far from the only players in the region. An active role here was played by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, then kingdom of Poland, as well as the Teutonic Order and its branch of the Livonian Order, Denmark and Sweden. In connection with the change in the balance of power, there was a constant redistribution of territories. Thus, during the Livonian War (1558–1583), significant parts of Livonia and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were temporarily under Russian rule [10]. In 1595, the Tyavzinsky peace treaty assigned Livonia to Sweden, and after the Stolbovsky peace of 1617, when the Baltic territories of Russia - the Karelian district and Ingria, went under the rule of Sweden, i.e. Izhora and Novgorodian lands, the cities of Ivangorod, Yam, Ostrov, Koporye, Korela, Oreshek with counties and the entire Neva [11], Russia was cut off from access to the Baltic Sea for a long time. Only a hundred years later, Sweden lost the conquered lands in the Northern War and ceded Livonia, Estonia, Ingria, the Vyborgsky district and the southern part of the Kekholmsky district to Russia [12]. These are the historical facts.


And what is the situation with Narva? In historiography, it is generally accepted that the indigenous population of the early settlement belongs to the Baltic tribes [13], who had close trade ties with the Novgorodian lands, and they are attested in Russian chronicles. In 1329, Narva, which was then under the rule of Denmark, was already named in the chronicles not as a village, but as a city (civitas or oppidum), the city status is also confirmed by later documents of the 14th century. But since the Danes could not pay the Teutonic Order the amount that the order requested for the suppression of local uprisings, King Valdemar IV of Denmark sold all of Estonia, and at the same time the city of Narva and Narva Castle in 1346 for 19,000 silver marks to Grand Master Heinrich Dusemer (1280 –1353). A year later, the master transferred the purchased lands to the Livonian Order. Over time, Narva turned into one of the most important border fortresses of the Order, which was not in the interests of Moscow. After the annexation of Novgorod in 1478 The Grand Duchy of Moscow became the largest state in Europe in terms of territory. The ambitions of Grand Duke Ivan III to play a prominent role in the Baltic political space led to the construction of the Ivangorod fortress in 1492 opposite Narva in order to threaten Livonia [14]. During the Livonian War from 1558 to 1581, the city of Narva passed into the hands of the Russians. In 1581 the Swedes conquered Narva and Ivangorod. Then for a short time during the time of Boris Godunov, Ivangorod again went to the Russians, but in 1612 the city again returned to the rule of Sweden. In order to increase the importance of Narva in the eastern trade, the Swedes united Narva and Ivangorod into one city in 1649, and Ivangorod began to be called "Russian Narva". The events connected with the "Narva embarrassment" in the Northern War and the subsequent capture of Narva in 1704 are well known. According to the Nystad peace treaty in 1721, Narva was ceded to Russia.


As we can see, these are territories that changed hands and were not original Russian lands, including from the point of view of the ethnic composition of the local population. The question arises: on whose territory was Petersburg built?


The Neva and adjacent lands are mentioned in the oldest chronicle – in The Tale of Bygone Years (“Nestor’s Chronicle”) – as a territory through which Novgorod merchants regularly traveled to the Scandinavian countries. Though with the kingdom of Sweden, the Great Novgorod has found a tough opponent in the struggle for influence in this region. From the XII century, the first crusades of the Swedes began, which proceeded with varying success. Fortune was either on the side of Novgorod, or on the side of the Swedes. The most famous battle for the Russians took place in 1240. Detachments of Novgorodians and Ladogans, led by Prince Alexander Yaroslavich, attacked the camp of the Swedes at the mouth of the Izhora and won a victory that went down in history as the Battle of the Neva, and Prince Alexander received the nickname Nevsky. In 1300, the first Swedish fortress Landskrona was built on the Neva on the so-called Okhtinsky Cape, but it was soon destroyed by the Russians, and vice versa, in 1323 the Novgorodians built the Oreshek fortress at the source of the Neva from Lake Ladoga, which soon fell into the hands of the Swedes. The territory from the Narova River to Lake Ladoga was inhabited mainly by Ingrian Finns. But since they did not have their own statehood, both rival powers equally tried to seize their lands. In 1617, under the Treaty of Stolbovsky, the Neva and the Oreshek fortress came under the rule of Sweden and remained in its possession until 1702. As we can see, these lands changed hands and they cannot, especially taking into account the ethnic composition of the population, be considered as primordially Russians, and the city of Petersburg was founded on territory, which only after the Treaty of Nystad (1721) officially came under Russian rule.


With his “historical” statement, Putin once again showed that the “unpredictable” past is an important ideological resource and can be used and interpreted to justify and legitimize contemporary politics. The approach to historical narratives as a language spoken by politics, and the use of methods of history politics leads not only to aggravation of relations with neighboring countries, but is also fraught with risks of global military conflicts and may lead to a Third World War.


In conclusion, I want to emphasize that under Peter the Great, Russia has always been a part of Europe. As the successor of his reforms, Catherine the Great, put it: "Russia is a European country." Putin's current policy is tearing Russia away from Europe and destroying the bridges that were created by Peter the Great, and where this path leads to is still hard to say. Just do not forget the old maxim "History repeats itself twice ...".



[1] The meeting with SPIEF participants took place after visiting the multimedia exhibition "Peter the Great. The Birth of the Empire in the Russia – My History” historic park at VDNKh in Moscow.

[2] http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/68606 (visited 10.06.2022)

[3 Курилла И.И. Битва за прошлое. Как политика меняет историю. М.: Альпина Паблишер, 2022. С. 8; он же: История как язык политики // Новое прошлое/The New Past, 1 (2021), с. 119; Ср.: Миллер А. Россия: власть и история // Pro et Contra, май-август 2009. С. 6–23; Ачкасов В.А. Роль «исторической политики» в формировании российской идентичности: https://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/rol-istoricheskoy-politiki-v-formirovanii-rossiyskoy-identichnosti/viewer (visited 13.06.2022)

[4] The reaction of the Estonian Foreign Ministry due to Putin's words about the "return" of Narva: https://www.dw.com/ru/estoniya-osudila-slova-putina-o-vozvraschenii-narvy/a-62098138 (visited on 11.06.2022)

[5] Dmitry Travin's blog, June 9, 2022: https://www.facebook.com/dtravin61 (visited 13.06.2022)

[6] Каппелер А. Россия – многонациональная империя. Возникновение. История. Распад. М.: Прогресс, 1997. С. 10–11.

[7] Instrumenta Pacis Westphalicae. Die Westfälischen Friedensverträge 1648. Bern, 1948. S. 77.

[8] Е.В. Анисимов, Время петровских реформ. Л.: Лениздат, 1989, с. 86.

[9] Е.В. Анисимов, Время петровских реформ, с. 88.

[10] Erich Donnert, Der livländische Ordensritterstaat und Russland. Der Livländische Krieg und die Baltische Frage in der europäischen Politik 1558-1583. Berlin, 1963; О Ливонской войне см.: Филюшкин А.И. Изобретая первую войну России и Европы. Балтийские войны второй половины XVI в. глазами современников и потомков. СПб.: Дмитрий Буланин, 2013; он же: Первое противостояние России и Европы. Ливонская война Ивана Грозного. М.: Новое литературное обозрение, 2018.

[11] On the Stolbovsky world and its meaning, see: Селин А. А. Столбовский мир 1617 года. СПб.: Русско-Балтийский центр «Блиц», 2019; Русско-шведская граница (1617–1700 гг.). Исторические очерки. СПб.: Русско-Балтийский центр «Блиц», 2016.

[12] Text of the Nystad Peace Treaty: http://www.hist.msu.ru/ER/Etext/FOREIGN/nishtadt.htm (visited 13.06.2022)

[13] It is believed that the coast of the Narova River was inhabited by the Chud tribe. See about it: Городские поселения в Российской империи. Т. VII. СПб.: Типография Товарищества «Общественная польза, 1864. С. 581–582.

[14] As early as 1417, attempts were made to build a fortress opposite Narva, but they were unsuccessful. See about problems at the end of the 15th century: Бессуднова М.Б. Россия и Ливония в конце XV века. Истоки конфликта. М.: Квадрига, 2015.


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