The ongoing war in Ukraine seems to many in the West to defy reason. But that is very much the view from Strasbourg or Washington. From Moscow the prospect looks quite different.
In the weeks leading up to the deployment of his forces, President Vladimir Putin spoke of Ukraine being part of “the historic Russia”, a part which cannot be detached from the whole at the mere whim of Ukrainian nationalists he sees as “drug addicted Nazis” in the pay of foreign governments. (In this context the term Nazi is mere abuse and without meaning, as the President of Ukraine is Jewish and lost family members in World War II).
That Ukraine is a “natural part of Russia” makes perfect sense to many Russians, for it was in its capital city Kyiv that Orthodox Christianity was first established in Slavic lands by missionaries from Constantinople in 899, more than a thousand years ago. It has remained since the central factor in Russian national identity, which even two generations of communism did not alter. Now it is ruthlessly utilised by Mr Putin to preserve his notion of national identity.
Constantinople, eventually the capital of the Byzantine Empire, was founded by Constantine himself, as ‘the New Rome’, where Christian culture would be settled and preserved after barbarians overran western Europe.
The idea of Byzantium, even under Justinian as recounted in the vivid immediacy of The Secret History of Procopius (or even at second hand in the pages of Robert Graves’ admirable novel Count Belisarius), influenced the emergence of the public culture of Russia in later centuries, as the ceremonials of the tsars from the time of Peter the Great onward, especially in the 19th Century, reveal.
Their claim to have inherited the role of protector of Christianity in the Ottoman Empire led in fact to the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853, in which Britain, France, and their allies invaded the peninsula to push back the tsarist claims on the Holy Land, indeed on the Levant in general.
Mr Putin’s interest in Georgia, Turkey, and his support of the Assad family interests in Syria arise from this same long-established notion.
But the problem Mr Putin has is that the Christian cultures of Europe, North America – indeed of the entire globe – have adapted themselves to the changing conditions of the world. But the Patriarchate of Moscow never alters. (There are in Russia too old Orthodox Christians who rejected the minor attempt to change with the times made in the 19th Century Russian state and Church. They were, of course, punished, by the tsars for their ultra-conservativism).
But Mr Putin somewhere in the depths of his now fuddled imagination conceives himself as the heir of Justinian, as the inheritor of the claim to be the ruler of the ‘New Rome’. That he seems to be devoid of any religious feeling, and merely manipulates the Orthodox Church to maintain his own powerbase, is quite in keeping with the spirit of that other tsarist title, ‘Autocrat of all the Russians’.
On the map in their school atlases Russian children can see that the geographic Russia looks huge: indeed the biggest nation in the world. But size does not tell the whole tale. True Russians, Russians like Mr Putin, have little interest in Russia beyond the Urals, all those bleak miles of hot desert or frozen wasteland, inhabited by demon worshipping savages with the mystical shamans. Siberia was and remains a place not for real Russians, but an outback fit only for difficult politicians, liberal minded authors, nihilists, and criminals. It is the land of the gulags, as it was under Stalin and the tsars.
So there is nothing new about what Mr Putin believes, or the claims he makes. But the tsars were overthrown. The Soviets, despite heroic defence of themselves in World War II, collapsed for much the same reason as the empire did.
Indeed Russia beyond the Urals is the product of 19th Century conquest of lesser developed people. Asian Russia is an anomaly in the 21st Century. The British, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese empires of the same era are all gone.
The tsar plunged happily into the Great War. They would teach those Austrians and Germans once and for all. But the war undermined their authority for good. Making war all too often has outcomes that surprise those who resort to it, as Mr Putin, like Nicholas II, may learn. The tsar’s real enemy was not the German Empire in front of him; but his own people behind him. Palace intrigue and public assassination, these too are the historic gifts of Byzantium.