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Peter The Great And Putin The What?

In the context of the war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his team have repeatedly made references to a glorious figure of Russian history: Peter the Great. But the current would-be tsar's selective memory tells us all we need to know.

Vladimir Putin on Red Square.

Vladimir Putin has always paid tribute to Russian national heroes, like at the Monument to Minin and Pozharsky on Red Square in 2017.

Cameron Manley


This past Thursday, Russians marked the 350th anniversary of tsar Peter the Great’s birth (June 9, 1672). Celebrations were held in his namesake city, St Petersburg, and the capital Moscow. As part of the celebrations, President Vladimir Putin attended a new exhibition in the capital dubbed "Peter the Great: The Birth of the Empire."

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Of course the exaltation of a leader best known for his Westernization and modernization ambitions is filled with terribly dark irony this year. Indeed, inspired by his time abroad, Peter I built St. Petersburg as Russia’s "window to Europe." Now, instead, Putin's invasion of Ukraine has slammed the door shut on Russia's rapport with the Continent — and indeed threatens to undo whatever progress Russia has made in recent years.

Putin’s Russia appears more isolated than ever, with heavy sanctions and global companies exiting the Russian market by the hundreds. Thus it's not surprising that Putin and friends are choosing to downplay Peter's affinity for Europe, instead focusing on his role in expanding Russian territories and consolidating state power.

"Returning" to what is Russia

Speaking to a group of young entrepreneurs at the new Peter the Great exhibition, Putin claimed that the emperor’s Great Northern War against Sweden (1700-1721) had been carried out to regain historically Russian land, not to conquer new territory.

"Peter the Great waged the Great Northern War for 21 years. It would seem that he was at war with Sweden, he took something from them," Putin told the gathering. "He did not take anything away from them, he was returning; yes, that’s how it was! Where St. Petersburg was founded, when he founded the new capital, none of the European countries recognized this territory as Russia, everyone recognized it as Sweden."

"Apparently, it is also our lot to return and strengthen [the country]. And if we proceed from the fact that these basic values form the basis of our existence, we will certainly succeed," Putin concluded, smiling broadly.

Taking strength in past victories

The era of Peter I and the war with Ukraine were compared, back in April, by the director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergei Naryshkin. "One of the most grandiose military victories was won by Peter I in the battle of Poltava. I think he would turn over in his grave, having learned what the descendants of the glorious Cossacks have brought these lands to in the last three decades."

On Feb. 24, when announcing the beginning of the invasion, the Russian president called "denazification" and "demilitarization" the goal, rooting out the "neo-Nazi" regime in Kyiv. He emphasized that "our plans do not include the occupation of Ukrainian territories." But in recent weeks, the Kremlin’s proxies in Ukraine said that the Russian-occupied parts of the Donbas and Zaporizhzhia Oblast, as well as Kherson Oblast, may well be annexed by Russia.

Putin is no Peter

There will of course be plenty of Russians who buy Putin’s narrative (that his so-called "special operation" is done only for the nation's prosperity and security), just as Peter the Great did three and a half centuries ago.

Yet, plenty of others see the bleak reality of the situation, turning to humor as a means to cope with the isolation Russia now experiences. Memes are making the rounds, including one of a photo of Peter I, alongside Putin, with the slogan "Peter I opened the window to Europe, Putin will close it"; another says: "Close the window to Europe, the view is horrible."

For Russian historian Boris Kipnis, the current situation is no laughing matter, and indeed the Kremlin’s decision to pervert Peter I’s path, shall be what determines Russia’s future: "Whatever the historical circumstances, if we abandon the path set by Peter I, we will ruin the country and the people…"

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