It is impossible to watch Vladimir Putin’s arrogant invasion of Ukraine without being appalled by its savagery. Dead men and women strewn on the streets of Bucha, hands bound behind their backs. Russian soldiers raping women, sometimes in front of husbands or children. Russians seizing loot of every size, from cellphones to giant John Deere wheat-harvesting combines. And, again and again, testimony about torture: beatings, electric shocks, near suffocation with plastic bags.
Yes, all wars are bloody, but they’re not all fought like this. The First World War, for example, killed millions. Yet Captain Boris Sergievsky, a fighter pilot in the Imperial Russian Air Service stationed in western Ukraine, who as an émigré years later married my aunt, told me that if you fatally shot down a German aviator over Russian territory, you buried him with full military honors; you then dropped by parachute onto the German airfield his personal effects and a photograph of his funeral. That war, like this one, was over territory. But in today’s war, even as Putin insists that the would-be conquerors and the invaded are “one people,” the Russians almost seem to have an additional aim: to humiliate the Ukrainians, to dehumanize them, to see them suffer.
Most often, we find cruelty like this when human beings are divided by religion or ethnicity. Consider the Crusades, the Holocaust, the lynchings of thousands of Black Americans in the South, and, for that matter, the two recent Russian wars against the Muslim Chechens. But both Russians and Ukrainians are white, Slavic, and, if religious, usually Orthodox Christians. In eastern Ukraine, many victims of Russian atrocities are native Russian speakers—as is the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Any search for perspective on the invasion’s brutality must include Putin’s background in the secret police, his dictatorial rule, and his drive to extend the reach of that rule. Russia’s past is also crucial to the mix. In recent years, Putin has determinedly justified his expansionist ambition by spreading his own version of Russian history. School curricula and a nationwide array of historical theme parks now lavishly celebrate one incarnation after another of a strong unitary state made stronger and larger by all-powerful leaders—from Peter the Great to Stalin—who defied foreign meddling. One particularly savage and revealing slice of that history, however, is a moment when the state was anything but unitary: the Russian Civil War of a century ago, when assorted forces known as the Whites tried for three bloody years to dislodge the new Bolshevik regime from power.
Before the U.S.S.R.’s collapse, in 1991, its rulers portrayed that war starkly: The Whites were evil reactionaries who tried to delay the glorious triumph of Soviet rule. But Putin, whose passion is for empire, not communism, has a different view. He would love to restore the power of both czarist Russia and the Soviet Union, which extended over territory far larger than his own shrunken Russia of today. Last November, in Sevastopol, Crimea, the site of one of the civil war’s last evacuations of White troops, Putin dedicated a monument to the war’s end and declared that “Russia remembers and loves all its devoted sons and daughters no matter what side of the barricades they once were on.” The civil war was a struggle that embodied much of what’s in the headlines today: ruthless violence, Russian fears of foreign intrusion, a brain drain of educated refugees, and the tension between dreams of empire and breakaway regions wanting independence.
Long before the civil war tore Russia apart, the challenges of holding such a huge country together, against threats without and centrifugal forces within, had been handled with widespread oppression as well as tight control from the top. Orlando Figes, a historian who taught at Cambridge and the University of London, gives a useful, compact survey in The Story of Russia, which is particularly strong in its sense of the continuities between past and present. For instance, he sees a parallel between the great boyar clans of several centuries ago—allowed to accumulate wealth and power but only at the czar’s pleasure—and the oligarchs in Putin’s orbit. He is also instructive on the czarist conquest of the Buryat and other peoples across Siberia, a 200-year process beginning around 1580, pointing out that Russian history books have always portrayed it—wrongly—as less brutal and genocidal than the conquest of the American West.