Putin’s myth-making glorifies Russia. Ours humiliates the West

Advanced capitalist democracies have much to be proud of. Now, uniquely in world history, we are fabricating lies to denigrate our successes

Janet Daley

. 25 February 2023 •

When autocrats want to change the course of their country’s future they begin by taking control of the past. By setting their objectives – however outrageous they may actually be – in what appears to be a plausible historical trajectory they create a story (now called a “narrative”) which makes their own ambition justifiable. If this propaganda operation is conducted successfully, it can make even the most appalling crimes seem not just acceptable but necessary.

The mythology that underpins Russia’s new imperialismcombines a resurrected medieval mission with 20th-century global paranoia – but neatly eliminates references to Soviet Russia’s own monstrous crimes. The starvation of whole swathes of the Ukrainian population by Stalin and the mass murder committed in the Gulags do not feature at all. The Putin fable is so tortuous and bizarre that it is difficult to believe that any contemporary population could be convinced by it – and yet the majority of today’s Russian population appear to accept it, along with the horrific consequences to which it leads.

Most oddly, much of the belief system that this new national identity involves comes directly from the Orthodox Church whose authority was, within living memory, criminalised in Russia. The saints and martyrs to whom Vladimir Putin now makes ostentatious obeisances were, during his time with the KGB, regarded as ludicrous fictional figures used by a wicked Tsarist tyranny to entrap the masses in superstition. In truth, that supposedly universal rejection of theology by Communist Russia may always have been misunderstood. A friend of mine who visited a major Soviet university in the 1960s told me that, inscribed over its front entrance were the words: “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live.” What is that, if not a form of displaced religious belief? Communism did not so much discard religion as replace it with a new conception of what was sacred and what was forbidden.

Absolutism remained – along with the idea that Russia as a nation had a unique moral obligation to preserve the nativist integrity of its people. Those who share its blood bond (and particularly its language) must be united with their brethren in the Motherland. If some of them happen, by accident or misfortune, to reside in what is technically another nation state, then that is a problem which must be overcome – by force if necessary.

This Russian revanchism is remarkably similar to Nazi Germany’s claims over the Sudetenland. The reclaiming of territory that once belonged to one country but has since become part of another is one of the oldest sources of war, possibly the very oldest. There is nothing very new here. With territory comes power and wealth. The loss of it – especially to a competitor state – means increased vulnerability, humiliation at home and abroad, and the possible collapse of a ruling regime. And, as it happens, some of the territory that Putin is attempting to seize for Russia is peculiarly useful to its economy and, in the case of Crimea, has played a significant role in Russian history.

This is really a very old kind of story: the sanctification of the history of a people whose collective memory must be reshaped into a tale of heroic resurgence with all the nasty bits left out.

What is – so far as I know – quite unprecedented is what the opponents of this aggressive campaign, our side, are doing to their history at precisely the same moment. While Putin tells the Russians that they have been, for centuries, the blameless victims of the world’s hostility, the West is teaching its young that they have inherited the fruits of evil – that the advantages which their political culture and economic system have provided are inherently tainted, that even their ineradicable genetic traits such as skin colour convey guilt and the need for endless self-abasement.

Instead of editing out the bad chapters in its history as Russia is doing to such spectacular effect, the West is perversely avoiding any recognition of the tremendous contributions it has made to improving the conditions of life through the spread of mass prosperity and personal freedom.

The reach of Western ideas around the world is recounted as an unrelieved story of wickedness, of relentless conquest and exploitation from which no one outside the rich of those imperial nations ever benefited. This is factually wrong and deeply pernicious. But these arguments about the colonial past have been going on for a long time. Now there is a new and more radical version of Western self-hatred. We, who are alive now, are not just responsible retroactively for what our ancestors may have done centuries ago. We are also actively culpable for what is happening right at this moment by living our modern lives – making use of the products and discoveries of industrialisation that are destroying the planet and therefore the futures of other less advanced peoples.

To atone for this, we must move backwards to a pre-modern time when we did not ravage the earth with our desire for unseasonal warmth, plentiful and varied food and travel beyond the narrow bounds of our birthplace, while fully expecting our descendants to lead ever more free and comfortable lives.

We have been ready and prepared to offer the means to achieve these things to less advantaged countries. Now, not only must we accept self-denial for ourselves – we must impose it on the world at large because this Western way of life is too dangerous to be propagated.

Where once the developing world might have expected to graduate to the standard of living we took for granted, it is now being told that the party is over: we will not give them a chance to experience life in the modern era, after all.

Russia, in its mortification at having lost the Cold War, is seeking to revive a myth of past glory, at the same time as the West – having won the great argument – is mired in self-loathing. Where is that going to end, do you think?


  1. Selected comments from DT readers :

    Schalk Lourens
    “The Russian scheme for the Donbas & Ukraine is from the Nazi playbook on the Sudetanland and the Anschluss with Austria.”

    Ted Leaf
    “All good reasons why the west should at last go all out and remove the troublesome russians once and for all.
    Peasants with nuclear weapons, such a good idea,.
    We had the opportunity 30 years ago, when Russia was bankrupt and had about the same military capability as the Isle of man, as their nuclear capability was in the same awful state as the rest of their hardware.
    We need to decide what’s best for the rest of the northern hemisphere for the next 100 years, then knuckle down, build up massive defencive systems, while also using advanced tech to keep improving surgical precision strike capability, then remove the ability to either even launch systems or to guarantee take downs of most that do manage to launch, then remove the capability of at least 5 nations to build/launch weapons of mass destruction.
    If down to me, I’d call putins bluff tomorrow, yes, there would be some casualties in the west, but a small price to remove the Russian Cancer once and for ever.
    Do unto others before they do it to you.”

    Caz Holly
    “Yes Janet, where will it end.
    I do not understand the comments on here, surely they can’t all be pro-Russian trolls.?
    I always thought that the Russian people would see through Putin once the truth about Ukraine comes out. That has never happened & i now see will never happen.
    Similarly I thought that the left wing Marxists in our country would be forced to stop the re-writing of our history but it has not, in fact got worse.
    Today we have teachers teaching our kids about gender, woke, how bad we were in the past, how only a Marxist government can make things better & equal & so on. No patriotism, no pride in all the great things we have done for the world & there is much.
    We have unions who do not care about pay & conditions, as Mick Lynch said he want to destroy capitalism, is Irish & hates the U.K, Yet he has managed to persuade swathes of British people to do his bidding, It is astonishing.
    The same with the Junior doctors who do not see any problem with the BMA demanding a 30% increase knowing that will never happen, they follow rebellion for the excitement & sake of it.
    Nurses too with another Irish person in Pat Cullen. Butter would not melt in her mouth & yet she puts so called pay & conditions ahead of cancer treatments & deaths of the public they are meant to serve. It is dangerous & frankly evil.
    I could go on & at the end of the day we have swathes of people manipulating vital workers with many of them being young & excited.
    It is worse than when we left the E.U & Brussels hated the U.K & devised punishment going beyond anything expected.”

    Stephen Westwood
    Reply to Caz Holly
    “Russians think differently to us in the West, having been brainwashed through communism, lies, coercion and the brutality they have been forced to endure for decades. Death just to preserve the lie is just a matter of fact to them.”

    * Richard Hall 
“deep knowledge of historic narrative” – ROFLMAO. My dog knows more than she does.”

Jonathan McNamara 
Reply to Richard Hall 
“You a very committed BOT. Must be because you were taught in school that Russia stood alone for two years against Nazi Germany, when in fact it was the UK. Russia had done a deal with Hitler to split Poland between then. Outside 41-45 Russia has a pathetic history of oppressed people, serfdom, mass starvation and brutal repression of invaded countries.”

Rod Williams 
Reply to Richard Hall 
“I suspect your dog knows more than you ever will.”

Rod Williams 
Reply to Jonathan McNamara 
“Britain, France And the British Commonweath !! stood alone …
    Britain & France declared War on Germany on 3rd Sept 1939
    New Zealand and Australia – on the other side of the planet – also declared War on 3rd Sept.
    South Africa declared on 6th Sept
    Canada declared on 10th Sept
    Russia only changed sides because it’s ally – Germany – invaded it.
    the USA only got off the fence and entered the War because of Pearl Harbour … And because Germany and Italy then declared War on it.

  2. “What is – so far as I know – quite unprecedented is what the opponents of this aggressive campaign, our side, are doing to their history at precisely the same moment. While Putin tells the Russians that they have been, for centuries, the blameless victims of the world’s hostility, the West is teaching its young that they have inherited the fruits of evil – that the advantages which their political culture and economic system have provided are inherently tainted, that even their ineradicable genetic traits such as skin colour convey guilt and the need for endless self-abasement.”

    In particular; “…the West is teaching its young that they have inherited the fruits of evil…” is a big issue and it’s called Wokeness. We are busy in the US renaming army forts, tearing down statues and creating an army that is becoming more and more to be better qualified to pick daisies rather than fight like Ukrainians. We question everything about our past, even such things that only a few years ago would have never been thought possible. It’s now more important to provide enough public toilets for the 28 different genders than to teach core values that made the West what it is; not perfect, but the best system that ever existed in the history of mankind. Our slow-motion self-immolation will not help make past wrongs to be righted, however, it will allow much worse wrongs to sprout and to prosper, as, for example, we now see in China. It’s okay to look at your past and to acknowledge those wrongs. But, what we’re doing in the West is not normal anymore, and our enemies are watching us going full-scale marshmallow with glee.
    If wokeness had taken root in the 1930s, half the world would now speak German and the other half Japanese. Woke idiots might think about this when dealing with the new Nazis and imperialists that we allowed to sprout. Let’s not allow it to prosper.

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