Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His new book, Homelands: A Personal History of Europe, will be published in the spring.
The time has come to ask whether, objectively speaking, Vladimir Putin is an agent of American imperialism. For no American has ever done half as much damage to what Mr. Putin calls the “Russian world” as the Russian leader himself.
This thought came to me recently when I was in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, talking to Ukrainians who Mr. Putin’s war has made refugees in their own country. “I was a Russian speaker until Feb. 24,” said Adeline, an art student from the now Russian-occupied town of Nova Kakhovka, referencing the date of Russia’s full-scale invasion earlier this year. (The Globe and Mail is identifying sources by first name, or not at all, because they fear repercussions.) Russia has failed to take over Ukrainian culture, she said, so now it has set out to kill it. Several other Ukrainian students told me they find “the spirit of freedom” in Ukrainian literature, while subservience to power permeates Russian writing.
Tetiana, a refugee from the ruthlessly bombed city of Mariupol, had suffered without heat, light or water in a cellar while under constant bombardment. She saw her best friend killed by a Russian missile, and then had a traumatic odyssey of escape. Tetiana speaks much better Russian than Ukrainian; her mother is actually from Russia – the Russian President would consider her a Russian. So I asked her for her message to Mr. Putin. She replied that she would like to kill him.
Wherever I turned, in every conversation, there was a total rejection not just of the Russian dictator, not merely of the Russian Federation as a state, but of everything and almost everyone Russian. Polling by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology shows that some 80 per cent of Ukrainians had a positive attitude toward Russia in 2013; by May, 2022, the figure was just 2 per cent. A university lecturer told me that his students now write “russia” with a small initial letter. “I don’t correct them,” he said.
This may be unsurprising in Ukraine, a country suffering from a Russian war that is now primarily directed against the civilian population. But the same thing is happening across much of the territory of the former Russian (and subsequently Soviet) empire, which, since the early 2000s, Moscow has tried to reimagine as russkiy mir – the Russian world.
In Georgia, a strong resentment of neo-imperial Russia is unsurprising, since Russia has occupied roughly one-fifth of the country’s sovereign territory since 2008. But following the invasion of Ukraine, that hostility has enveloped almost all Russians. Ironically enough, this affects the many tens of thousands of Russians who have fled to Georgia precisely to avoid being conscripted into fighting. Or as one banner put it, “Putin is killing people in Ukraine while Russians eat khachapuri in Georgia.” (Khachapuri is the distinctive Georgian cheese bread.)
The revulsion is also found in Central Asian states, which still have very close ties to Moscow. Kazakh journalist Arman Shuraev recently posted a video excoriating Russian bully and ambassador to Kazakhstan, Alexei Borodavkin, in fluent Russian: “Russophobia is all that you have achieved with your stupid actions,” Mr. Shuraev said. If Russia dared to invade Kazakhstan, he added, “the entire Kazakh steppe will be strewn with the corpses of your conscripts.”
When Russia launched its invasion, Ukrainian journalist Olha Vorozhbyt tried to explain to an Indian public what was going on. “Could you imagine a Britain that claims India is in its empire?” she wrote in The Indian Express. “That is what Russia is doing now.” One can extend the analogy: Imagine that a revanchist, militarist British dictatorship instrumentalized the cultural notion of an “English-speaking world” to justify its re-invasion of India.
The notion of russkiy mir was revived in the late 1990s as a kind of Russian soft-power initiative (mir means “peace” as well as “world.”) In 2007, a Russkiy Mir Foundation was created by presidential decree, and presented as a Russian counterpart to the British Council or Germany’s Goethe Institute. But the concept was then weaponized to justify Mr. Putin’s war of recolonization in Ukraine. He explicitly mentioned the term in a speech justifying the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The predictable result: Revulsion against his attempted recolonization has extended to the whole notion of a Russian-speaking world. Those who justify their wars in terms of culture will find their culture treated as an enemy.
Mr. Putin is trying to recover parts of the Russian empire by brute force and terror. Some 14 million Ukrainians, a staggering one-third of the country’s population, have been displaced. Europe has seen nothing like this since 1945.
In the end, Vladimir Putin will go down in history not merely as the man who failed to restore the Russian empire, but as the destroyer of the Russian world.