FLORENCE – In 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin returned his country to dictatorship. From the Kremlin to Crimea, Russian citizens must now deal with the greed, fear, and mendacity of a dictator who, in the course of a year, eviscerated any final check on his authority.
In many respects, Putin’s dictatorship is primitive. It is founded on base emotions rather than Soviet-era, ideological motivations. Though Putin has tried to stoke a popular desire for empire with his Crimea annexation and intervention in eastern Ukraine, these actions amount to little more than open theft by masked men in the dead of night; they have little chance of begetting lasting glory.
Many of my fellow cultural historians disagree. They insist that Putin’s regime represents a form of continuity with Russia’s cultural traditions. They believe that Russia has inherited a cultural DNA that transcends revolutions, as if some kind of vicious gene was driving the Kremlin’s current imperialist aggression in Ukraine (and, if Putin’s threats are to be believed, Kazakhstan may soon be next). Others believe that this continuity works through national character. They argue that Russians’ specific nature leads them to support Putin, just as they allegedly supported Stalin and the Romanovs.
Such arguments do not withstand scrutiny. Empires come and go, as do their traditions. For every expansionist Czar, or commissar, from Catherine II to Putin, there have been leaders prepared to retreat. Alexander II sold Alaska; Lenin withdrew from Ukraine in exchange for peace with Germany; and Gorbachev pulled back from central Europe in an effort to end the Cold War.