Stolen Triumph Russia Revisits Pivotal Role in World War I
Part 2: The Resurrected Empire?
The resurgence of World War I commemoration is nourished by that inferiority complex that has plagued the Russians for centuries -- particularly since the start of the Putin era. Russia is not taken seriously by the rest of the world, the Kremlin elite believe, despite their view of it as always having been a great power.
That also applies to the period between 1914 and 1918. Russia occupied more than half of the enemy divisions for three years and held its ground, protecting Great Britain and France, the other two countries allied with Russia in the so-called Triple Entente, from certain collapse in the process, say historians. In the fight for common victory, Russia suffered more casualties than all of its allies put together, they argue.
Yet Russia, under Communist rule after 1917, was not invited to the victors' feast in Versailles, but was -- like always, according to the narrative -- left in the cold: Only France, Great Britain and the United States profited from Allied victory. Winston Churchill once encapsulated the tragic trajectory of czarist Russia when he wrote: "Her ship went down in sight of port."
The Russian view is that, prior to 1914, the country was not only large and rich, but also orderly, thanks to the czar, police and clergy. It had experienced an economic boom, delivered more than half of its exports to Germany and thus supported the German war industry -- facts that are part of the educational cannon in today's Russia. But this economic boom was not welcomed by Russia's foes, a group that not only includes Germany and its allies but also Russia's erstwhile partners, including the United States. The conclusion? All of them, whether Triple Entente or Central Powers, actually wanted to wipe Russia off the map.
So was the czarist empire just an imperialist power like any other? Not in Putin's Russia. The czar is now described as having been "wise and great" and would have won, had the Revolution not gotten in the way. For the Kremlin, World War I is a welcome blueprint for the present. Are not Western governments just trying as always to keep Russia down? Is the West not complicit in the downfall of the Soviet Union? NATO pressing at Russia's borders, the West's offensive in regions of Russian influence like Georgia and Ukraine: These are all symptoms in the Russian mind of a persistent goal -- the division or liquidation of Russia. This is what Russians must brace against.
A Metaphor for Putin
It is striking how hard Moscow is currently trying, against this backdrop, to position itself as a major foreign policy player. When it comes to Syria, Iran and American whistleblower Edward Snowden, Moscow's role in the conflicts is sold to the Russian people as clever geopolitical maneuvering. In reality, the country has defined itself as being in opposition to the West since 1917. It is a poorly organized empire whose power now depends on oil prices remaining at over $100 a barrel.
Nevertheless Putin acts at home as if the empire had been resurrected.
"Forgive us, Sovereign," it reads on large panels that recently commemorated the 400th anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty. Back in 2008, there was a television broadcast of the film, "Nikolai II: The Stolen Triumph." It brings together leading politicians, clergymen and historians "to show a fair picture of the reign of Czar Nicholas, one of the most successful in our history."
The czar can also be seen as a metaphor for the reigning leader of the Kremlin. Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has praised Putin as the "first ruler since Nicholas Romanov" who came to power legally. And Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Orthodox Church, honored him in November for "preserving Russia as a great power."
Guarding the Czar
The rewriting of history is both broad and detailed. The Russo-Japanese War, which the czar lost in 1905, is now interpreted as the first attempt at an "Orange Revolution," aimed at preventing Russia's ascension to the rank of world power. And the Brusilov Offensive in the summer of 1916, Russia's greatest feat in World War I in which they defeated the German and Austro-Hungarian armies in what is today's Ukraine, is seen as a turning point in the relationship between Russia and the Western Allies. The Americans and the British suddenly understood, according to this narrative: If Nicholas II is not gotten out of the way, the Russian empire will take down Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire on its own -- and then become world power number one.
The view of today's ordinary Russian is that czarist Russia was a paradise of civic life and imperial power. Built 120 years ago, the newly renovated Moscow department store Gum on Red Square is infused with this feeling of imperial nostalgia, promoted in TV commercials referring to the good ol' days. And in April, President Putin bestowed the honorary title of "Preobrazhensky Regiment" on the elite Moscow unit responsible for protecting state guests and carrying out counter-terrorism operations. For 230 years, that was the name of the hard-nosed aristocratic regiment tasked with guarding the czar.
- Part 1: Russia Revisits Pivotal Role in World War I
- Part 2: The Resurrected Empire?