The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Thematic: The Use and Abuse of History

Vladimir and Volodymyr: A Pivotal Moment in History

Who is the real nihilist in this struggle?

Martha Bayles

Two presidents, photography Shutterstock and Alamy Stock Photos; THR illustration.

Published in 1953, The Captive Mind remains possibly the best book ever written about the lure and trap of totalitarian ideology. In his riveting collection of linked essays, the great poet Czesław Miłosz probed the motivations of Polish writers and intellectuals (Miłosz, at one time, included) who joined the Communist regime after World War II. The rewards of the book begin with its epigraph, which Miłosz attributes to “An Old Jew of Galicia”:

When someone is honestly 55 percent right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60 percent right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God. But what’s to be said about 75 percent right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100 percent right? Whoever says he’s 100 percent right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.11xCzesław Miłosz, epigram, The Captive Mind (New York, NY: Vintage, 1959).

Where Miłosz found this epigraph, I cannot say. But it resonates today, in large part because the old Jew he quotes is from Galicia, the medieval name for a region stretching from eastern Poland to western Ukraine, whose principal city, Lviv, is now overflowing with refugees fleeing a scorched-earth invasion ordered by a twenty-first-century fanatic claiming to be 100 percent right.

Until recently, it might have been thought a bit harsh to call Vladimir Putin a fanatic, so skilled is he in the art of soft-pedaling. For example, his now famous 2017 treatise “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” begins on a seemingly conciliatory note: “The wall that has emerged in recent years between…the parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space, to my mind is our great common misfortune and tragedy. These are, first and foremost, the consequences of our own mistakes.” Read on, however, and you will see that the “mistakes” being referred to are those of the Ukrainians, who by aligning with “those forces that have always sought to undermine our unity” are causing “misfortune and tragedy” for the Russians.22xVladimir Putin, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” President of Russia website, July 12, 2021, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181.

To restore that unity, Putin proposed a “turn to history” in search of certain “key, pivotal moments” that shaped “the great common Motherland” Russians and Ukrainians fought for in the Great Patriotic War. The history of World War II’s Eastern Front is too agonizingly complex to summarize here, but one thing is certain: It was never a simple matter of Russians and Ukrainians joining together in comradely solidarity. Ignoring this complexity, Putin (or his ghostwriter) cobbled together seven thousand words of murky detail to support the proposition that the unity of Mother Russia was predetermined in the year 988 CE, when St. Vladimir of Kievan Rus’ was baptized and proceeded to convert the entire federation of East Slavic tribes, which at its height stretched from the White Sea to the Black, the Vistula River to the Don. According to Putin’s summary:

Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe. Slavic and other tribes across the vast territory…were bound together by one language…economic ties, the rule of the princes of the Rurik dynasty, and—after the baptism of Rus—the Orthodox faith. The spiritual choice made by St. Vladimir, who was both Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Kiev, still largely determines our affinity today.33xIbid. (emphasis added)

In his public efforts to reaffirm that “affinity,” Putin has revived the old tsarist notion of the “Third Rome,” the claim that Moscow, seat of the Russian Orthodox Church, was the sole remaining bastion of Christ in a world of decay and apostasy. That venerable conceit, used for centuries to justify autocratic rule and the conception of a unified Russian people, was on display in November 2016, when Putin and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church unveiled a fifty-six-foot bronze statue of St. Vladimir outside the main gates of the Kremlin. In their speeches to the assembled dignitaries (and state media, of course), both president and patriarch avoided any mention of Kyiv or Ukraine. But the message was loud and clear in Putin’s allusion to “our duty to stand together,” and in Kirill’s warning that “it is bad when the children forget that they have the same father.”44xQuoted in Shaun Walker, “From One Vladimir to Another: Putin Unveils Huge Statue in Moscow,” The Guardian, November 4, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/04/vladimir-great-statue-unveiled-putin-moscow.

In Ukraine, the reaction to this unveiling was a mixture of irritation and mirth. When Russian state TV announced that this was “the first monument to Vladimir the Great” ever raised, Ukrainian social media erupted with critical messages and images of Kyiv’s Monument to St. Volodymyr (the Ukrainian spelling), which since 1853 has graced a steep hillside overlooking the Dnieper River. Other postings joked about Putin’s pettiness in making the Vlad monument a couple of feet taller than the Volod, while still others contrasted Moscow in 988, a nameless settlement in the wilderness of the Moskva River, with Kyiv, a gold-domed center of commerce and culture that by then had been thriving for 150 years as a stop on the riverine trade route carrying Norse longships from the Baltic to the Bosporus.

This battle of the monuments, St. Vladimir versus St. Volodymyr, brings to mind Friedrich Nietzsche’s discussion of “monumental history.” As the great German thinker explained it, an individual with a “powerful spirit” partakes in this variety of history when he or she seizes upon a great deed from the past and uses it as inspiration for bold, creative action in the present. Putin used not only medieval history to emphasize the brotherly ties between Russians and Ukrainians, but also their shared struggle against the Nazis on the Eastern Front in World War II. Yet as Nietzsche warned, to force a great deed from the past “into a general formula” that deprives it of its uniqueness is an abuse of history. With “all the sharp angles broken,” that deed becomes a “false analogy” that “entices the brave to rashness, and the enthusiastic to fanaticism.”55xFriedrich Nietzsche, “The Use and Abuse of History,” in Thoughts Out of Season, Part Two, trans. Adrian Collins, ed. Oscar Levy (Edinburgh, Scotland: T.N. Foulis, 1909), 3–100, retrieved from Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/38226/38226-h/38226-h.htm.

In its account of the comradely struggle on the Eastern Front, Putin’s treatise breaks almost all of the “sharp angles,” starting with the fact that in Soviet Ukraine a decade before the Nazi invasion between three and four million Ukrainians died in the Holodomor, the mass starvation that resulted from Joseph Stalin’s brutal campaign to collectivize agriculture. By itself, the Holodomor gives the lie to Putin’s “spiritual affinity” myth. So great was the hatred of Stalin in Ukraine that when the Nazis invaded in 1941, many Ukrainians collaborated, believing that Hitler could not possibly be worse. But here, too, the truth is complicated and cuts many ways, because that collaboration was also motivated by a vicious anti-Semitism that facilitated the mass murder of Jews, along with partisans and local officials, in towns and cities whose names are now familiar in the West because their populations are dying in the hellfire sent by Putin.

Fanatical or cynical, Putin’s motives are notoriously hard to fathom. Even conservative admirers in the West are now hard-pressed to explain how this knight of the Christian faith could have unleashed such a vicious attack on a neighboring people whose kinship, indeed brotherhood, with Russia he considers indissoluble. Yet Putin continues to play the Third Rome card that has brought him this far. Indeed, he has recently moved it to the center of his culture war strategy.

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, after glasnost and perestroika had given way to greed, social chaos, and ideological confusion, Putin and his minions encouraged both the state and the newly privatized Russian media to adopt a hip, ironic approach to cultural production that was intended to consolidate power by destabilizing the information environment in ways that would make it harder to distinguish fact from fiction, real news from politically motivated fake news. While this slick approach impressed some Western observers, others saw it as a particularly pernicious application of the postmodernist idea that all narratives are equally true (or equally false)—and that power alone determines, through endless repetition and other rhetorical trickery, what is at least provisionally or conveniently “true.”

The political technician behind this phase of Putin’s cultural campaign, a clever hipster named Vladislav Surkov, not only helped Putin construct his autocratic “power vertical” within Russia, but also shaped the information strategies for regaining influence abroad and, even more ominously, for retaking those parts of the former Soviet Union that Putin considers integral to the greater Russian world. Though recently removed from Putin’s inner circle, Surkov has never been modest about his achievements, including his central role in Russia’s annexation of Crimea and parts of the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine. As he boasted in a 2021 interview with the Financial Times, “I am proud that I was part of the reconquest. This was the first open geopolitical counter-attack by Russia [against the West] and such a decisive one. That was an honour for me.”66xHenry Foy, “Vladislav Surkov: ‘An Overdose of Freedom Is Lethal to a State,’” Financial Times, June 18, 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/1324acbb-f475-47ab-a914-4a96a9d14bac.

As efforts to assert complete control over Ukraine have proved challenging in the face of fierce resistance, Putin has possibly abandoned Surkov’s theater of the absurd for old-fashioned mind-numbing propaganda. Still, one should not underestimate Surkov’s role in retrieving the Third Rome myth from the dustbin of history and fusing it with ethnonationalism to project an image of Russia as a global defender not just of Orthodoxy but of religion and religiously based values in general. That image received ironic burnishing in the winter of 2012, when the Russian punk band Pussy Riot moved its profane mockery of Putin out of Moscow’s alt-cult venues and into its venerable Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Although that stunt was widely applauded by progressives in the West, it did not weaken Putin’s reputation or influence in the slightest. To the contrary, his crackdown on those “transgressors”—and on others since—reinforced his posture as a valiant, lone knight defending family, faith, and community against Western infidels intent upon destroying the morals of decent people and luring the young into cesspools of depravity or whirlpools of gender fluidity. That such a posture resonated with millions of socially and religiously conservative people around the world, including many in the United States, was not lost on other autocrats, aspiring or actual, from Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to China’s Xi Jinping.

This posture of fighting Western decadence is now part of a system of mutual support, formal and informal, among the world’s growing club of increasingly brazen autocrats. Part of that support is finding new uses for dubious history. During the recent Winter Olympics, General Secretary Xi Jinping and President Putin met in Beijing and signed an agreement declaring, among other things, their shared rejection of NATO expansion in Europe and of the building of alliances between America and China’s Asian neighbors. According to The Economist, the two sides also “agreed that the promotion of democracy is a Western plot.”77x“Xi Jinping Places a Bet on Russia,” The Economist, March 12, 2022, https://www.economist.com/china/2022/03/12/xi-jinping-places-a-bet-on-russia.

This last statement is slightly misleading, because the first seven paragraphs of that agreement are a paean to democracy, stating at one point that Russia and China both “have long-standing traditions of democracy.” The catch is that democracy is not defined as a system of government rooted in the unalienable rights of human beings—a definition that is rejected as a “one-size-fits-all template.” Instead, the agreement defines democracy as whatever a given regime says it is:

A nation can choose such forms and methods of implementing democracy that would best suit its particular state, based on its social and political system, its historical background, traditions and unique cultural characteristics. It is only up to the people of the country to decide whether their State is a democratic one.88x“Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development,” President of Russia website, February 4, 2022, http://en.kremlin.ru/supplement/5770.

The agreement does not say how, exactly, the people get to make that decision. But if we read between the lines, we can discern the real message. In keeping with long-standing traditions of autocracy in both countries, the agreement defines democracy as popular compliance with the regime, engineered through a top-down system of controls over the thoughts and sentiments of the masses. In this area, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) considers itself more expert than the Russian regime, which it regards as still scrambling to regain the control it lost under Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991.

We see this Chinese judgment on Russia in an instructional video released by the CCP in March 2022. The video begins with General Secretary Xi asking, in 2013, “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Communist Party of the Soviet Union collapse?” The reply is clearly intended as a warning. Quoting Xi (who of course knows the answers to his own questions), the video explains that when Gorbachev introduced glasnost and perestroika, he unleashed an evil force called “historical nihilism,” which by “negating Lenin, negating Stalin, [and] engaging in…ideological confusion,” caused the “huge” Communist Party of the Soviet Union “…[to] be scattered, and the socialist country of the Soviet Union…[to] fall apart.”99xLi Shenming, “Historical Nihilism and the Disintegration of the Soviet Union,” World Socialist Research, no. 1, March 26, 2022.

The term “historical nihilism” sounds vaguely Nietzschean because, after all, Nietzsche wrote about history and nihilism. But as wielded by the CCP, the term is not an idea but a slogan, used to denounce every departure—in belief, speech, press, assembly, and protest—from the 100 percent rightness of Xi Jinping Thought. And the late- and post-Soviet Russian reformers are entirely to blame. Nowhere in the video is there a reference to the Chinese version of glasnost that occurred in the 1980s, which resulted in the prodemocracy movement that was violently crushed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and in other Chinese cities in June 1989. Instead, party members are instructed to draw a series of lessons from the negative example of the Soviet Union’s collapse:=

First, we must attach great importance to the counterattack and criticism of historical nihilism.… Second, we must…seriously deal with Western “soft power” and “smart power”.… Third, we must…struggle in the ideological field.… Words and deeds that deny the history of the party…must be thoroughly criticized and punished.… Fourth, leadership in the ideological sphere must be firmly in the hands of loyal Marxists.... Fifth, we must organize the whole party to take the lead [and]…improve the ability to resist historical nihilism and other wrong trends of thought. If these lessons are learned, then “the grand cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics will surely have an extremely splendid future!”1010xIbid.

Strikingly absent from this document, and from CCP’s ideological pronouncements in general, is any claim of divine authority equivalent to the idea of Russian Orthodoxy as the Third Rome. The closest thing to religion under Xi has been his early attempt to cast himself in the role of a latter-day Confucian sage-king, whose “rule of virtue can be compared to the polestar which commands the homage of the multitude of stars without leaving its place.”1111xXi’s remarks, in which he quotes Analects 2.1, were made in a September 2014 speech. See Michael Schuman, “The Chinese President’s Love Affair with Confucius Could Backfire on Him,” Time, October 30, 2014, https://time.com/3547467/china-beijing-xi-jinping-confucius-communism/. This attempt did not last long, perhaps because the precepts of Confucius contain many examples of historical nihilism. For example, the Master taught that the true sage-king would not be an autocrat, that his ministers would feel duty bound to protest any policies they considered misguided, that the government would not interfere in the lives of the common people, and that the authority of the sage-king was not absolute.

To be sure, China’s remarkable economic progress over the past thirty years has greatly reduced that country’s need for an outward-facing ideology designed to appeal to the 6.5 billion people on the planet who, not being Han Chinese, are unlikely to be moved to admiration by the CCP’s tone-deaf ethnonationalism—to say nothing of its recently adopted “wolf warrior diplomacy.” This is not to suggest that the CCP has not made considerable efforts to influence foreign opinion. But these have mostly taken the form of money and flattery, as opposed to moral leadership. The CCP has made scant progress toward winning the hearts and minds of foreigners who cannot be easily bought or buttered up.

The bad news, therefore, is that a new species of totalitarian rule is looming on the horizon, with unprecedented powers developed, tested, and shared by the world’s two largest autocracies. In the West, we can only speculate about what Russia has been learning from China, and vice versa. But that should not blind us to the fact that both regimes have been making a sustained effort to fashion a powerful “narrative” that can unite their domestic populations against outsiders. And if jingoism and xenophobia prove effective in this effort, the leaders of Russia and China see no reason not to deploy them. The West will writhe in disapproval but not make any serious effort to defend itself.

In addition, these autocracies are advancing in the methods of coercion, combining newfangled digital surveillance with old-fashioned terror and brutality. Some of these methods require a strong stomach, but these regimes are convinced that with the proper “narratives,” they will not have to deploy them, except in certain extreme cases. This confidence rests firmly on the assumption that the narratives are state of the art, persuasive not as propaganda but as “truth,” because as the world now understands, there is nothing much out there to challenge their “leadership in the ideological sphere.” Even the West, with its sentimental attachment to Reason and the Enlightenment, considers objective truth a relic of that bygone era.

But here is the good news—a glimmer only, but better than darkness. The world was trudging along in its seemingly unstoppable march into the totalitarian future when, suddenly, it hit a wall. With more than poetic justice, the name of that wall is Volodymyr. Of course, that name is very common in the lands between the Vistula and the Don. But this Volodymyr (surname Zelensky) is a most uncommon man, a comedian turned politician, whose unexpected greatness would be instantly recognized by Nietzsche, if, through the magic of eternal recurrence, the philosopher were to reappear in our midst.