Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a reception to honour graduates of military academies at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, June 28, 2016. (Reuters)

July 13, 2016

What's in a Name? Putin's Ominous Vision for Russia

Originally published in
Vladimir Putin famously called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century.  The good news is that he isn’t rebuilding the Soviet Union.

The bad news is that he is selectively reaching back into Russian history to glorify the “gatherers of the Russian lands,” as they are known, and the Russifiers—those who imposed Russian identity by force on the diverse subjects of the empire.

This appeal to atavistic Russian nationalism, nay, chauvinism, may strike a deep chord in a people desperately looking for a new idea and a new identity to rally around following the collapse of the only state they had ever known.

Putin’s aggressive nationalism is nowhere more obvious than in the new names he has bestowed on many of Russia’s ballistic missile submarines. These include the St. George the Victor, the Dmitrii Donskoi, the Yurii Dolgorukii, and the Aleksandr Nevskii.

St. George is Russia’s patron saint.  The other three are all mythical heroes of Russian medieval history who conquered enemies and extended Russian lands.

Two more submarines honor historical figures who happen to share Putin’s first name:  the Vladimir Monomach and the Prince Vladimir, the latter a 24,000-ton, 16-missile boomer whose keel was laid in July, 2012, shortly after Putin’s resumption of Russia’s presidency for a third term.

Prince Vladimir was the legendary saint who converted Kievan Rus (from which Russia later emerged) to Christianity in the 9th Century.

Vladimir Monomach, on the other hand, was a less noteworthy historical figure descended from, and named for, a Byzantine emperor.   Yet the Byzantine reference may be significant, since a later Russian tsar, Ivan IV (the Terrible), sought to legitimize his rule by claiming that Moscow had become the “third Rome” following Byzantium’s fall in 1453 to Turkish invaders.

It could also, of course, simply be fortuitous that Prince Vladimir and Vladimir Monomach were the only two Russian rulers of significance who shared Putin’s given name.

Could it also be a coincidence, then, that both ruled from Kiev, the heart of the lands of the Rus, as the forebears of the Russians were known—a heartland that includes much of the modern Ukraine?

Vladimir the Great conquered those lands with an army from northern Russia; Vladimir Monomakh entered them at the invitation of its population following a rebellion.  Putin surely did not miss these obvious historical parallels.

The name of the last imperial nuclear ballistic missile submarine is even more interesting—the Aleksandr III.

Aleksandr Aleksandrovich was the second-to-last Romanov tsar, ruling from 1881 to 1894.  He was not particularly noteworthy nor particularly well-liked among Russians or his fellow monarchs.

He lacked the patriotic appeal of Aleksandr I who defeated Napoleon, or the drive for modernization of Aleksandr II, who emancipated the serfs in 1861, a year before Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in America.

So why him? Russia already has a warship named for Peter the Great, but one might have put any of a number of more distinguished tsars ahead of Aleksandr—Catherine the Great, for example.

Yet Aleksandr III perfectly suits part of Putin’s narrative.  He was perhaps Russia’s most reactionary czar, and his mantra, “orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationalism,” fits Putin’s ideology quite closely.

For one thing, Aleksandr abolished the last vestiges of Imperial Russia’s toleration for non-Russian subjects and launched the harshest Russification effort of the czarist period.

He required all of his subjects to learn and use Russian. Russia’s subject peoples, such as the Finns and the Poles, had previously been able to study and teach in their native languages, although their autonomy had steadily eroded over the previous decades.

Russia’s Jews, always subject to discrimination, had been allowed to live in relative peace in poor villages within a designated geographic area—the “pale of settlement”—where they could speak Yiddish and practice their religion while eking out a living on marginal frontier lands.

Aleksandr abrogated many remaining rights of the Jews even within the pale of settlement, and his reign saw vicious pogroms that sent many of them fleeing to Europe and America.

Since Aleksandr III did little else of note, these policies are presumably what commended him to Putin.

Their violent nationalism and linguistic imperialism find powerful echoes in Putin’s actions, statements, and, above all, his narratives of a Western conspiracy of encirclement, cultural and military aggression, and desire for Russian decline.

Russianism defined in this way is inherently expansionist.  It defines Russia as the lands occupied by Russian-speakers and those who can claim descent, either genealogical or cultural, from any of the previous Russian states going back to the era of Kievan Rus.

This Russianism has borders, to be sure—it is not limitless.  But the borders stretch far beyond those of the Russian Federation.

As a statement of intent, the names Putin has bestowed on the most powerful and destructive vessels in his fleet are ominous indeed.