War in Ukraine: Is Vladimir Putin so nostalgic for the USSR?

“The USSR is gone, the past cannot be brought back. And Russia does not need this today, we do not aspire to it”. On this September 30, 2022, when ratifying the annexation of four Ukrainian regions, Vladimir Putin defends himself in vain, Russian greatness obsesses him. A few years earlier, hadn’t he called “the collapse of the USSR” the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century?

At the end of August, the master of the Kremlin will not be among those to pay homage to Michael Gorbachev during his disappearance. For many in Russia, the former leader also symbolizes the end of a world. With the annexation of Ukrainian territories, ex-KGB spy does he seek to reconstitute the USSR?

Galia Ackerman is a specialist in the Russian and post-Soviet world and rightly mentioned in our podcast Focus, Soviet influence on the future leader: “I think that Putin, as a young man who dreamed from a very young age of serving in the ranks of the KGB, was someone who was brought up to believe that Russia had to recover the power and the influence of the Soviet Union (…) I think that Putin, dreamed on the one hand of giving back to the heir of the KGB his glamor and on the other hand, giving back to Russia its historical role which has never been more important than during the Soviet period,” she said.

Tsarist Russia, a model for Putin?

But should we not seek further this ambition to reconstitute Russian greatness? The leader regularly discusses Katherine II. At this time at the end of the 18th century, the Russia of the Tsars was in its firmament. Never have borders been so wide.

The empire, a model still today for Putin, according to Galia Ackerman. “This imperial matrix, it goes beyond political regimes. It was valid during the tsarist period. It was valid during the Bolshevik period. It is still valid now.

“During the Bolshevik period, she continues, there was of course the pretext of the world revolution. Russia is the vanguard of the Soviet Union, the vanguard of humanity. But it was typically a colonial empire and the people who were against the communist regime and they could still stay with that imperial matrix.

“So when the empire broke up at the end of 1991, it was experienced as tragedy and humiliation by many, many Russians, because they had no other identity, apart from that imperial identity. And what happens with the imperial identity when there’s no more empire? You can put it back together and there’s the resentment. And Putin rode on that resentment quite widespread”.

Giving Russia “its rightful place”

And this “resentment”, this feeling of weakness in the face of a triumphant West, experienced as a humiliation in Russia, Vladimir Putin intends to put an end to, by annexing Ukrainian territories today, even if it means putting Russia on the nations.

“After the collapse of the Soviet Union the West decided that the world should always submit to its dictates,” he declared on September 30.

“At the time, in 1991, the West expected that Russia would not recover from such shocks and would continue to collapse on its own. It almost happened. We remember the 1990s, the terrible 90s, hungry, cold and desperate. But Russia resisted, revitalized itself, became stronger again and took its rightful place in the world.”

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War in Ukraine: Is Vladimir Putin so nostalgic for the USSR?