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Understanding How Counterfactuals Shape Putin's Worldview and Historical Rhetoric

Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has weaponized history to justify Russia’s “special military operation.”  He has drawn historical analogies to World War II and claimed he is preventing Ukrainian “Nazis” from committing “genocide” against vulnerable Russians.  He has used historical revisionism to whitewash the Soviet Union’s 20th century mistreatment of Ukraine.  And he has practiced outright historical denial by rejecting the reality of Ukrainian nationhood.     

Various commentators have tried to explain Putin’s tendentious approach to history by situating it within his broader historical worldview.   They have argued that Putin is a skilled “manipulator of history” who is obsessed with a range of historical concerns, including the desire to arrest Russia’s imperial decline, foster its national revival, restore unity, and avenge instances of historical “betrayal.”

An important -- but thus far overlooked -- component of Putin’s historical worldview is his use of counterfactuals.   Although often rejected as too speculative to be used in serious historical inquiry, counterfactuals offer profound insights into human psychology.  As social science research has shown, speculating about the past channels a range of human emotions -- especially regret and relief.  When people regret the course of history, they often create fantasies in which it turns out better.  When people feel relief about how history actually turned out, they produce nightmares depicting how it might have been worse.

Doing a deep dive into Putin’s speeches, writings, and interviews over the past two decades reveal notable patterns of counterfactual thinking.  These patterns, in turn, are key components of his historical orientation.  Putin has regularly used nightmare counterfactuals to express regret about the course of 20th century Russian history.  He has floated fantasies in which Russia avoids its 20th century tragedies.  And he has used “what ifs” to justify his invasion of Ukraine as necessary for helping Russia preempt future calamity.

Like many before him, Putin has adopted an inconsistent position on speculating about the past.  On the one hand, he has routinely touted the merit of historical objectivity, noting in his well-known National Interest essay of 2020, that “it is crucial to rely exclusively on archival documents” and avoid any “politicized speculations” when studying the past. He has also often invoked the famous Russian saying, “history does not know the subjunctive mood” -- as he did in a speech delivered in 2016 to the National Historical Assembly in Moscow.  In very same breath, however – in fact, in the very next sentence of his speech -- Putin observed that “there is a place for…speculation” in historiography, adding “all aspects are of interest…both what happened and what could have happened.”  

To illustrate this point, Putin used his 2016 speech to address one of his preferred counterfactual scenarios: the nightmare of the Soviet Union losing World War II to Nazi Germany.  Pointing ominously to what “Hitler had planned to do with the Russian people had he won,” Putin noted that they “would have ended up – far away in Siberia, essentially doomed to extinction.”  Putin expanded on this point in a 2021 speech to schoolchildren in Vladivostock, noting: “if the Nazis had won the war…there would have been no future for [the Russian people] whatsoever, because…[while] those who could work [were]…to be used as workforce, those who were not…were…to be relocated beyond the Urals…and some of them…killed in gas chambers.”

By using close call counterfactuals to explore this nightmare, Putin expressed relief for the actual course of history and valorized Russia’s contribution to it.  As he explained, the possibility of a Nazi victory threw into sharp relief how the world would have been different “if we had not achieved what we did,” adding that the Soviet “victory over Nazism is probably one of the most outstanding and significant events of the 20th century.”

Putin also used counterfactuals to justify Joseph Stalin’s leadership of the USSR against the Nazis.  In defending the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of August 23, 1939, Putin explained how the Soviets’ conquest of eastern Poland helped the USSR survive the Nazi invasion of June 22, 1941.  Noting that “the old Soviet-Polish border ran only within a few tens of kilometers of Minsk,” Putin declared that “the USSR would [have] faced seriously increased risks” without the added buffer zone, adding in 2019, that “the onslaught of the Nazis would have been much more painful for the USSR…had it been launched even closer to the political, economic and military-industrial centers of the Soviet Union.”

Putin also lamented missed opportunities involving Soviet history.  When asked the counterfactual question in 2018 what occurrence he would have most like to have prevented, Putin responded “the disintegration of the Soviet Union.”  In his 2021 Vladivostock speech, Putin went even further by fantasizing about how much better Russian history would have been had “Russian statehood [not] disintegrated twice during the 20th century [in 1917 and 1991],” citing the claim of “specialists…that we should have had a population nearing 500 million people [today, instead of merely] 146 million.”  This missing growth, he suggested, was a regrettable byproduct of Russia’s 20th century “tragedies.”  

Given these regrets about the past, Putin has predictably used “what ifs” to justify his invasions of Ukraine.  Here, Putin has used predictive counterfactuals, speculating about how events might have unfolded in the future had he not undertaken immediate action in the present.  In a speech justifying his invasion of Crimea in 2014, for example, he cited the intolerable possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, declaring that the presence of “NATO’s navy…in [the port of Sebastopol]…would [have] create[d]…a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia.” To justify his invasion of 2022, he outlandishly claimed that “the Nazi regime in Kyiv could have got its hands on weapons of mass destruction, and its target, of course, would have been Russia.” Floating nightmares of how the future would have turned out in the absence of Russian aggression serves to justify it.

Putin is hardly the first national leader to use counterfactuals to justify his political reign.  The western historical record is full of figures who behaved similarly: Stalin, Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Frederick the Great – the list goes all the way back to Antiquity.  The full story of how reimagining the past reflects attitudes about the present remains to be written.  But the sooner we recognize how counterfactuals can shed light on how history is instrumentalized, the better we will be able to respond to contemporary challenges.