Mark Galeotti

Putin is no Peter the Great

Putin is no Peter the Great
Peter the Great c. 1700 (illustration: Getty)
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Putin has a penchant for history, but only insofar it flatters him and his views. Last year, he gifted the world a 5,000 essay that essentially pre-justified his invasion of Ukraine with amateurish fantasy history, and now he is comparing himself with Tsar Peter the Great. It is not a comparison that fits or flatters.

Peter the Great is one of the, well, greats of the Russian historical pantheon. He ruled from the late 17th to the early 18th century, and in that time became the first tsar to travel in Europe, built a new capital at St Petersburg, and was both founder of the Russian navy and victor, on points, of the 20-year Great Northern War against the Swedish Empire, leaving Russia a dominant Baltic power.

Speaking on Thursday on the 350th anniversary of Peter’s birth, Putin said that Peter did not take anything from the Swedes – although he acquired territories along the Baltic coast and much of Karelia – but simply ‘returned’ to Russia what had been its own.

Smugly he added, ‘apparently, it is also our lot to return’ what is Russia’s.

Inevitably, this has caused much furore, including the usual overheated twitter claims that he was threatening to retake Estonia or the like. Rather, this is classic Putin in two ways.

First of all, this is the trollmaster-general in his pomp. Putin enjoys using his more outré rhetoric both to misdirect and to intimidate. With his armies bogged down in Ukraine, he can pose no meaningful threat in the north. However, knowing that the West has limited military resources – and, more to the point, that western politicians have limited political bandwidth – it would suit him very well to convince Nato to concentrate on this front rather than Ukraine.

Secondly, it is clear that Putin regards his rightful place as being in that pantheon of Russian state-building heroes. He has repeatedly drawn parallels between himself and not just Peter but also such figures as Peter Stolypin (the tsarist prime minister whose ruthless modernisation campaign was the regime’s last real chance for survival), tsar Nicholas I, the ‘gendarme of Europe’ and Yuri Andropov, the KGB spymaster-turned-General Secretary. In that context, this is just another of his attempts to write his own epitaph.

Digging beyond the superficialities, though, is this really the role-model Putin should be claiming?

Like Putin, Peter wanted to build Russian military power, and not only reformed his army but built his navy, just as Putin spent 20 years modernising his military. In the process, though he began the Russian state’s slide into insolvency and ensured it would be fighting wars not just to its north-west but also to the south, against the Ottomans.

Peter in effect forced the unruly Russian aristocracy into state service. However, the tsar’s control was never as complete as he might imagine, and his successors would periodically have to buy off or suppress them.

Peter’s reforms were also much less lasting than might be assumed, beyond St Petersburg. He was a fighting tsar, who reformed only what was needed to support his wars. He failed to address the fundamentals of the economy or of society, seeming to believe – wrongly – that forcing the nobility to shave off their beards and adopt European styles of dress would change how they thought.

Yet while it is tempting to make cheap shots comparing the 5’7” Putin with the 6’8” Peter, the tsar was genuinely a larger-than-life figure, who led from the front (unlike Putin), immersed himself in the detail of his plans (unlike Putin), and whose concrete legacy was the glory of St Petersburg (not the ruins of Mariupol).

Even in capricious arrogance, Peter puts Putin in the shade. Putin may have indulged himself by humiliating his foreign intelligence chief on camera, but when he was teaching himself dentistry, Peter forced his courtiers to let him practice on them.

When I was writing my Short History of Russia, Peter got the best part of a whole chapter to himself. Putin got just a half. A coda for the later edition, after his invasion of Ukraine, concluded ‘Putin really should not have trifled with History. History always wins.’