“It’s the economy, stupid,” was behind Bill Clinton’s political success. With Russian president Vladimir Putin, it’s history, stupid.
As a very contemporary saying in Moscow goes, Putin has failed to build us a great future, so he has built up our great past. From Moscow to Crimea (annexed from Ukraine last year), from St. Petersburg on Russia’s north European border to the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, Putin presides over a neo-Eastern Christian empire, and 90% of Russians applaud his broad, imperial aspirations.
Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane has exposed tensions between Putin and Turkey’s parallel autocrat, president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan has long argued that after World War I, Turkey’s border with Syria was drawn unjustly, dividing brotherly Turks. Since Russia has been bombing Syrian rebels, some of whom belong to these Turkic Turkmens, Erdoğan’s government “condemned the barbarian attack in the strongest way.”
What’s more, Turkey’s involvement in Syria seeks to topple president Bashar al-Assad, while Russia’s intervention is not only about fighting the Islamic State but also about preserving the Assad regime, Putin’s key regional ally. On opposing sides of this proxy war, the presidents of Russia and Turkey frame their disagreement as Christendom vs. Islam, a popular argument among the nationalist public in both countries.
Even though some Western commentators have denounced Erdoğan’s objectives “to interfere with Moscow’s operations against Islamic radicals,” many have argued that they stand with Turkey in a common effort to oust Assad. Putin’s push to heighten the stakes of the confrontation by promising sanctions on Turkey’s food imports and to investigate its Russia-based businesses has been criticized as detrimental to his country’s own economy. Yet, few have focused on the actual—existential, traditional—reasons behind the escalation: historical conflict between the Byzantines and Ottomans.
A bit of history: The Eastern Roman Empire—also known as Byzantium—surrendered to the Ottomans (then ruling a broad swathe of territory including modern-day Turkey) in 1453. Its capital, Constantinople—known as the Second Rome after the First Rome fell in the fourth century to Germanic invaders—became Istanbul. Moscow then took up the mantle of salvation of the Christian Orthodox faith, declaring itself the Third Rome. Even before the current spat, Putin had positioned himself as heir to the Byzantine emperors, destined to withstand the destruction of fundamentalist Islam and the decay of the Catholic and Protestant West.
Never mind that after communism ended in 1991, Russia established itself as a member of global institutions such as the G8 and World Trade Organization, and signed international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and Chemical Weapons Convention; in March 2014, following Crimea’s annexation, Putin declared that his Russia would count its origins deep in Christian history. He framed the struggle for Crimea as Russia’s Mount Sinai, its own Jerusalem, a cradle of Russian civilization and of its Orthodox leadership in the wider world.
In 988 the Grand Prince of Kiev, Vladimir the Great, a namesake of Putin (and convenient historical parallel) converted Russia, at the time known as Kievan Rus’, to Christianity. That nationwide baptism raised Vladimir’s stature, ensuring Russia’s consolidation of territory from the Black Sea to the Baltic. Bravely fighting off incursions from the East and the West, the legend has it, he took over the Crimean town of Chersonesus from the Tatars. Moreover, as a newly minted Christian, he married Anna, a Byzantine princess, upstaging rejected French and German kings.
After Byzantium’s collapse, another Byzantine princess called Sophia Palaiologina married Ivan III, also a “Great,” thus securing Russia’s Third Rome status in 1472. All those Greats fit well into Vladimir V. Putin’s heritage. His middle initial, “V.,” is often referred to in Moscow as veliky, i.e. “the Great.”
Say what you want, but there is an impressive philosophy behind these grand aspirations. Putin follows the Eurasian argument of the populist religious philosophers Nicholas Berdyaev and Ivan Ilyin, 1930s anti-communist exiles. He is also fond of the dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who, although he denounced communism in The Gulag Archipelago, was a proponent of Russian nationalism as a uniter of the pan-Slavic world—including Ukraine and other Christian Orthodox territories.
This idea of a great Russian revival through activation of the Orthodox Christian spirit allows Putin to count yet another Great—Catherine the Great—into his pantheon of predecessors. In 1772 she sent a warship to the areas of Lebanon and Syria to assist the locals in fending off the Ottoman Empire. This excursion ended two years later, when the Empress left the region, satisfied with Turkish concessions in the Crimean Peninsula. Putin is an ardent fan of Catherine, once noting that she was even “a better ruler than Peter the Great: less blood, more action … It is under Catherine that Russia expanded most of its lands.”
In today’s Crimean tug-of-war between Ukraine and Russia, and the tensions in Syria between Russia, Turkey, and the West, it is Catherine’s philosophy of expansionism that best explains Putin’s worldview. He, too, is from St. Petersburg (Soviet Leningrad), a city that since Catherine’s rule became known as the “Northern Palmyra,” an alter ego of the ancient Palmyra in Syria, a third-century center of great wealth and architecture.
Today, Palmyra’s architectural treasures—its famous Arch of Triumph, a Greco-Roman Temple of Baalshamin, the Hellenic site of Dura Europos (which housed the oldest Christian church), and other priceless ancient monuments—have been destroyed or damaged by ISIL. Russians feel deeply troubled about this destruction, as it represents an encroachment on their Christian mission.
Of course, there have been long-standing political connections between the Russians and Assad, yet it’s his religion, the Alawite, a syncretic brand of the Muslim faith, that inspires the Kremlin to defend his rule. For containing aspects of Christianity this religion is lauded by the Russian Orthodox Patriarchy, prompting the following declaration: “The fight against terrorism [in Syria] is a holy struggle, and today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world to combat [it].”
Antioch in ancient Syria is remembered as a “holy land, our [Orthodox] land,” where the followers of Christ were first named “Christians” in the 100s. Today’s Antioch is a town in far southern Turkey, called Antakya, which Syria still claims as its own. (It also directly abuts the Alawite-majority area around Latakia, Syria’s principal port.) Hence the current row with Turkey is increasingly framed in civilizational and imperial terms—their Ottoman sultan Recep against our Byzantine emperor Vladimir.
Some observers have pointed out that the grandiosity of Putin’s plans notwithstanding, he may have overreached. In Ukraine, in Syria, and now with Turkey, “Russia can’t manage several simultaneous conflicts with its most important neighbors, especially as domestic discontent with austerity measures appears to be rising,” Leonid Bershidsky recently wrote.
Perhaps, but forethought has never been our forte; we seem to always return to the old ways—patriotism and bellicosity against all as a way forward. In Putin’s vision, Russia is not a country with a deteriorating economy due to Western sanctions imposed over the Crimean annexation; it is the great descendant of a powerful empire, the defender of faith for all Christians—an outlook that most of his nation shares.