When Putin threw down that gauntlet, in January 2012, no one in the West was paying attention. The issue in the headlines was that of Russian voters and their discontents; no one in Europe, America, or Ukraine was considering Russian-Ukrainian relations. And yet Putin, moving very quickly, had formulated a politics of eternity that transformed Russians’ protests against his fake elections into a European and American offensive against Russia in which Ukraine would be the field of battle. It was not, according to Putin, that individual Russians had been wronged because their votes did not count. It was that Russia as a civilization had been wronged because the West did not understand that Ukraine was Russian. It was not that Putin had weakened the Russian state by undermining its succession principle. It was that Europeans and Americans were challenging Russian civilization by recognizing Ukraine. In his first address to the Russian parliament as president in 2012, Putin affirmed this concept of the civilization-state.
No one was trying to divide the Russian Federation as a sovereign state with borders. But Ukraine was also a sovereign state with borders. That Ukraine was a different sovereign state than Russia was an elementary matter of international law, just as Canada was not the United States, and Belgium was not France. By presenting the banal legal status quo as a violation of Russia’s immaculate civilization, Putin was overthrowing a prevailing concept of law, one that Russia had observed for the previous two decades, in favor of particular claims from culture. Russia was not only innocent but generous, went his reasoning, since only through Russian civilization could Ukrainians understand who they truly were.
Even the most servile of Ukraine’s leaders would have difficulty accepting Putin’s description of their society. The president of Ukraine at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, was a known quantity in Russia and hardly a threat. Yanukovych had been disgraced in 2004 when a presidential election was stolen on his behalf, and Putin had been embarrassed when the election was held again and someone else won. The American political strategist Paul Manafort, at work on a plan to increase Russia’s influence in the United States, was dispatched to Kyiv to help Yanukovych. Under Manafort’s tutelage, Yanukovych acquired some skills; thanks to the corruption of his rivals, he gained a second chance.
Yanukovych won the election of 2010 legitimately and began his term by offering Russia essentially everything that Ukraine could give, including basing rights for the Russian navy on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula until the year 2042. This made it impossible for Ukraine to consider joining the NATO alliance for at least three decades, as Ukrainians, Russians, and Americans understood at the time. Russia announced that it would expand its presence on the Black Sea by adding warships, frigates, submarines, troop-landing ships, and new naval aircraft. A Russian expert pronounced that Russian forces would remain in their Black Sea ports “until doomsday.”
Suddenly, in 2012, Putin’s new doctrine challenged the very notion that Ukraine and Russia were legal equals who could sign a treaty. In 2013 and 2014, Russia would try to transform Yanukovych from a servile client into a powerless puppet, thereby inducing Ukrainians to rebel against a government that suspended their rights, copied repressive Russian legislation, and applied violence. Putin’s idea of Russian civilization and his bullying of Yanukovych would bring revolution to Ukraine.
Asked by students of history to name a historical authority, Putin could only think of one name: Ivan Ilyin. Now, Ilyin was many things, but he was no historian. If Ilyin’s timeless regularities could replace historical time, if identity could replace policy, then the question of succession could perhaps be delayed.
In his first address to the Russian parliament as president in 2012, Putin described his own place in the Russian timescape as the fulfillment of an eternal cycle: as the return of an ancient lord of Kyiv whom Russians call Vladimir. The politics of eternity requires points in the past to which the present can cycle, demonstrating the innocence of the country, the right to rule of its leader, and the pointlessness of thinking about the future. Putin’s first such point was the year 988, when his namesake, an early medieval warlord known in his time as Volodymyr or Valdemar, converted to Christianity. In Putin’s myth of the past, Volodymyr/Valdemar was a Russian whose conversion linked forever the lands of today’s Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
Putin’s monastic friend Tikhon Shevkunov maintained that “he who loves Russia and wishes it well can only pray for Vladimir, placed at the head of Russia by God’s will.” In this formulation, Vladimir Putin is the Russian redeemer who emerges from beyond history (“by God’s will”) and mystically incorporates a millennial Russian past simply by bearing a name. Time became a mystical loop, vacant of factuality. When a statue of Volodymyr/Valdemar was unveiled in Moscow (with the modern Russian spelling “Vladimir”), the Russian media was careful not to mention that the city of Moscow had not existed when Volodymyr/Valdemar ruled. Instead, Russian television repeated that the new monument was the first such homage to the leader of Rus. This was untrue. In fact, a statue of Volodymyr/Valdemar had been standing in Kyiv since 1853.
In history, the person in question was known as Volodymyr (as ruler of Kyiv) and Valdemar (to his Scandinavian relatives). He belonged to a clan of Vikings, known as the Rus, who had worked their way south along the Dnipro River in order to sell slaves at southerly ports. The Rus made Kyiv their main trading post and eventually their capital. The death of each Viking warlord caused bloody struggles. Volodymyr/Valdemar had been prince of Novgorod, where (according to Arab sources) he had converted to Islam in order to trade with nearby Muslim Bulgars. To win Kyiv, Volodymyr/Valdemar made for Scandinavia to seek military assistance against his brothers. He won the campaign and control of Rus. Volodymyr formalized the pagan rites of Kyiv and had local Christians sacrificed to the god of thunder. At some point Volodymyr married the sister of the Byzantine emperor, a political coup that required his conversion to Christianity. Only then did Christianity rather than official paganism became the source of legitimation of the ruler of Kyiv.
Christianity did not prevent parricidal, fratricidal, and filicidal warfare, because it did not provide a succession principle. Volodymyr had imprisoned his son Sviatopolk and was marching on his son Yaroslav when he died in 1015. After Volodymyr’s death, Sviatopolk killed three of his brothers, only to be defeated on the battlefield by his brother Yaroslav. Sviatopolk then brought in the Polish king and a Polish army to defeat Yaroslav, who, for his part, recruited an army of Pechenegs (people who had drunk from his grandfather’s skull) to defeat Sviatopolk, who was killed in battle. Then yet another brother, Mstislav, marched on Yaroslav and defeated him, creating the conditions for a truce and joint rule between those two brothers. After Mstislav died in 1036, Yaroslav ruled alone. And so the succession from father Volodymyr to son Yaroslav took seventeen years, and was complete only after ten sons of Volodymyr were dead. The life and rule of Volodymyr/Valdemar of Kyiv, if seen as history rather than within a politics of eternity, does offer a lesson: the importance of a principle of succession.