History Lessons

Photo: Putin gives a talk during a meeting with young entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists participating in SPIEF. Credit: Kremlin.ru
Photo: Putin gives a talk during a meeting with young entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists participating in SPIEF. Credit: Kremlin.ru

Please pay attention – the Kremlin does

Explain the significance of the 1634 Treaty of Polyanovka. What happened in Narva in 1704? And who signed a peace treaty in Moscow in 1920 and why does that matter now?

These are not questions for a history exam. They are burning national security issues that affect peace and war in Europe. They show that Kremlin imperialist thinking goes far beyond Ukraine. Russia is bent on rebuilding its sphere of influence, based on a semi-mystical historical mandate. Everyone in Russia’s neighborhood should worry about that. So should their allies.

Speaking to students in Moscow on June 9th — the 350th anniversary of the birthday of Peter the Great — Vladimir Putin said, with a near smirk, that his “destiny” was to “return” and “fortify” territories conquered by Russia’s first emperor. He specifically mentioned the (now-Estonian) city of Narva, which Peter I took from the Swedes in 1704. That prompted an immediate diplomatic protest from the Estonian government.

In other news: a motion submitted to the Russian Duma would cancel its Soviet predecessor’s recognition of Lithuanian independence in 1991. The clear threat is to Lithuania’s legal status and state borders. (Note to fact-checkers: Lithuania’s pre-war independence was in fact recognized by Soviet Russia in the Moscow treaty of 1920.)

Swapping ancient historical claims is a game without limits. A Lithuanian MP responded to Putin’s remarks by citing (not wholly accurately) the Polyanovka treaty of 1634 to claim that the Russian city of Smolensk was in fact Lithuanian.

More recent history is burning a hole in the map too. The Latvian authorities last month decided to demolish a memorial to Soviet “liberators” in a Riga park. Featuring a 79-meter-high obelisk and huge bronze sculptures, it is hardly a historic landmark — it was erected only in 1985. But its removal is potentially divisive and arouses memories of the “Bronze Soldier”, a Soviet-era war memorial in Tallinn. Citing public order problems, the Estonian authorities moved it in 2007, prompting a national security crisis: riots, a blockade of the embassy in Moscow, and a disabling cyber-attack.

I’m just back from Riga. Latvians are, for now, sanguine about the risks of demolishing the monument. The Kremlin “doesn’t have the bandwidth” to exploit the issue says an official. Local Russians do not want to be seen as Kremlin proxies. The authorities keep a keen eye on mischief-makers. Backing down would be politically impossible: elections are looming, and the erasure of the physical signs of Soviet occupation is a tangible way to express disgust at Putin’s war in Ukraine, and at the blow, it has dealt with living standards through higher fuel and food prices.

We have learned, belatedly and painfully in many cases, to see finance, economics, energy security, the legal system, social cohesion, the media environment, and other parts of modern society through a national security lens. Instead of making choices based on cost and convenience, we now think about resilience and risk.

That should include history: in the ahistorical la-la lands of western Europe, many have come to think that dusty dates and long-ago battles are none of their business. But if our adversaries are using history to justify territorial claims and war, it is our business. We need a new discipline of national-security history: we need to understand the past better than our adversaries. Knowing who did what to whom, when, and why, will help our decision-makers understand the significance of tendentious, selective interpretations of the past. It will also help these issues to the voters, and work out countermeasures.

The more we know of past centuries, the better our chances of shaping this one.

June 13, 2022