How the image of a besieged and victimized Russia came to be so ingrained in the country’s psyche

Claud Mccoid

The array of anti-Russian actions taken by nations around the planet considering that the start off of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is virtually unprecedented and hearkens again to the darkest days of the Chilly War.

They’ve assumed numerous forms but broadly involve financial sanctions, navy guidance for Ukraine and boycotts of Russian exports. Other forms of resistance, undertaken primarily by nonstate actors, concentration far more on Russian lifestyle – its music, literature and arts – with the country’s conductors dismissed from European live performance halls and pieces by Tchaikovsky excised from set lists.

However there is no one state, worldwide corporation or command centre directing these attempts.

This has not stopped Russian President Vladimir Putin from arguing specifically that.

In a March 25, 2022, speech to Russia’s foremost cultural figures, Putin asserted that all of these actions – whether army, economic or cultural – amount to a solitary, concentrated approach by the West to “cancel” Russia and “everything linked with Russia,” such as its “thousand-yr history” and its “people.”

The sweeping, uncompromising mother nature of his rhetoric might sound hyperbolic and even absurd to Western ears nonetheless, in Russia that is not essentially the case. A lot of folks there appear to settle for Putin’s premise, not just because it seems to in shape current circumstances, but simply because the thought of the country surrounded by its enemies has deep historical roots.

In my reserve “Russia: The Story of War,” I examine how Russia has long imagined by itself as a fortress, isolated in the entire world and subject matter to perpetual threats.

When offense gets to be defense

For centuries, Russia has generally been derided as extremely, if not pathologically, paranoid: generally suspicious of outsiders whilst harboring ideas of conquest.

Nevertheless it would be tough to deny that the country has been guilty of aggression and has at times invaded neighbors – Ukraine staying but the newest illustration – Russians typically prefer to spotlight an additional element of its historical past, equally undeniable: It has been the target of overseas invasion for generations.

From the Mongols in the 13th century, to the Crimean Tatars, Poles and Swedes in the 16th as a result of 18th generations, to La Grande Armée of Napoleon in the 19th century and Hitler’s Wehrmacht in the 20th, Russia has routinely identified alone fending off assaults from foreigners. These chapters of Russia’s earlier make it effortless to paint an impression of a state routinely battered and victimized.

Painting of soldiers on horseback as city burns in background.

‘Napoleon in Burning Moscow’ by Albrecht Adam (1841).

Wikimedia Commons

Isolationism took on a various but linked sort in the 20th century: In advance of the conclude of Planet War II, Soviet Russia was the only nation in the globe professing a belief in Marxism and, for this motive, was a pariah in the eyes of most other nations.

The expanse of Soviet regulate above other nations soon after the war, hence, could be found as a defensive maneuver – a hedge against foreseeable future invaders.

An island of Christianity

Russia’s rendering of by itself as a geopolitical fortress coincided with the improvement of its identification as a bastion of Christianity.

In the 16th century underneath Ivan “the Terrible,” the ruling elite of Muscovy, as the land of Russia was identified then, propagated the plan of it currently being the 3rd Rome: the God-ordained, sole household of legitimate Christianity.

The two prior capitals of Christianity – the Rome of the Vatican and the Rome of Constantinople as the funds of the Byzantine Empire – could no lengthier aspire to these types of position. Right after all, the 1st was below manage of schismatics – as Orthodox Christians would look at Catholics – while the 2nd experienced been occupied by the Ottoman Turks because the city’s fall in 1453. That left Russia as the only spot wherever a pure kind of Christianity could reside.

At that time, no other Orthodox Christians have been free of international rule. This undergirded the perception that the Russian land was exceptional and, as this kind of, generally established it at odds with its neighbors these as the Poles, the Turks and the Balts, who, commonly talking, were of a diverse faith.

The concept of Russia as an island of legitimate Christianity, having said that, definitely attained traction in the 19th century as nationalists sought to define what created their country and people today distinct from – and, by implication, exceptional to – other people. Popular figures these kinds of as Fyodor Dostoevsky propagated this idea in his writings, as did Apollon Maikov, a renowned poet who likened Russia to a besieged monastery, beset by enemies on all sides and only ready to rely on alone.

Red star on spire silhouetted by tree cover.

The impression of Russia as a special, isolated spot has been strengthened in literature and faith.

Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Illustrations or photos

That Russia at the same time was topic to overseas invasions, most notably by Napoleon, served to website link the two ideas: Russia was a distinctive position, and for that rationale, some others on the outside have sought to destroy the nation, its culture and its faith via any usually means vital.

Victory in defeat

With the invasion of Ukraine, Putin and other Russian leaders have thoroughly embraced this picture of Russia the moment extra.

The country faces an “organized, disciplined attack against anything Russian,” declared Mikhail Shvydkoi, an formal in the Ministry of Tradition. Putin has even long gone as considerably as to claim that boycotts versus Russian literature are the equal of reserve burnings by Nazis in the 1930s.

This coy evocation of Nazi criminality not only resurrects Earth War II as a reference level for nowadays, but it also aligns with Putin’s principal justification for launching his invasion over a thirty day period ago: the alleged embrace of Nazism by the Ukrainian govt and subsequent “genocide” of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. The prices, pointless to say, are absurd, and this motivating narrative for war has speedily fallen apart.

So Putin has turned to a much more secure and, as functions have shown, additional feasible myth to justify his steps: “Fortress Russia.”

The benefits in arguing this line are manifold. It deftly molds to the situation now at hand. Western sanctions, in trying to get to isolate Russia, can also perversely affirm the country’s mythical see of by itself as a special put that outsiders search for to wipe out.

By this reasoning, the sanctions basically replicate the West’s continuing antagonism from Russia relationship back hundreds of years. That the invasion established these sanctions in movement can be swept beneath the rug.

It also paints Russia as as soon as yet again defending itself from outside the house aggression and therefore flips the job of it becoming the villain in the conflict with Ukraine. It enforces the strategy of Russia as the perpetual sufferer, normally the underdog in the facial area of history’s injustices and inequities. In addition, it preserves the perception of Russia as an island of goodness and beneficence in a hostile world.

The emphasis of this new narrative must not be dismissed in the West as just a different propaganda ploy. As the war has turned more into a stalemate, this line, as seen in Putin’s speech of March 25, 2022, has received additional traction.

In reality, although many in Russia have opposed the invasion and some have remaining the place because of it, recent inner polling suggests that assist for Putin has crystallized exactly all-around this image of him as leader on the nation’s ramparts defending their critical passions. If this pattern proceeds, then – at the very least in phrases of self-graphic and self-esteem – the nation may possibly have uncovered a satisfactory ending no make a difference what outcome may possibly come from the war.

For the “Fortress Russia” fantasy will constantly have the country land on its feet – even in defeat.

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Gregory Carleton, Professor of Russian Scientific tests, Tufts University

This posting is republished from The Dialogue under a Resourceful Commons license. Study the primary short article.

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