Appalling though Vladimir Putin is, the idea that he is somehow a figure out of time, with no real place in the 21st century, is something that only those with a conviction that history moves, however uncertainly, in a certain direction could believe. In reality, history is, to quote (in bowdlerized form) an English writer, “just one thing after another.” It has no purpose, no fixed “arc.” If those who act as if it did are in senior enough positions, the results can be disastrous.
Writing in the Atlantic, Tom McTague:
There is a peculiar modern tendency to describe things we don’t like as belonging to the past. The Taliban are medieval, Donald Trump supporters backward, Brexiteers nostalgic for empire. Under this rubric, Vladimir Putin is a Soviet throwback and the war he may soon start in Ukraine, as John Kerry once remarked, is like some 19th-century skirmish transplanted into the 21st.
It is no doubt a comfort to imagine that these things that do not conform to our ideas of modernity are, therefore, not modern. To think this way means that we are modern and on “the right side of history.” In this way of looking at the world, all the bad things we see around us are like ghosts from the past whose deathly grip on progress might frustrate it for a while, and with potentially terrible consequences, but cannot stop its wheels from eventually grinding on. This is, of course, total nonsense…
Putin, who, whatever we want to believe, is a man very much of our world. In fact, not only is he as modern as any Western leader, but compared with those who seem to think that modernity equates with sometime around the year 2000, he is considerably more modern.
To be sure, modern does not mean “good” or “reasonable” or “right.” Nor does Putin’s modernity mean that he has been—or will be—successful, either for the Russian people or in his stated objectives of pushing back NATO’s frontiers and keeping Ukraine tied to Russia. To say that the Russian president is modern, in fact, is not to make a value judgment at all. He is, as my colleague Anne Applebaum has set out, a violent, kleptocratic danger to the world. Nevertheless, understanding Putin as a modern phenomenon is fundamentally important if we are to avoid the category error that assumes the danger posed by him and his sort is that they might turn back the clock, not speed it up, re-creating old worlds rather than forging new ones.
On the other hand, in making the new, it can be helpful to look back to the old, as something to be emulated, rejected or, indeed, both, copying a bit here, rejecting a bit there, and, often, reimagining a great deal more. One of the more interesting aspects of Putin’s thinking as it has evolved (at least in public) has been the way he has attempted to create a view of Russian history in which elements of the Czarist and Soviet past can be exhumed (and then often rewritten) to create a thread that unifies, rather than divides, his country.
Karl Marx noted that in moments of revolutionary crisis the spirits of the past are summoned up to present the new scene in a way we can understand. That is what Putin is doing today. The point, as Marx spotted, is not to actually make the old spirits rise again, but to use their memory to glorify the new struggle, magnifying the task in the public imagination.
Marx was not always wrong.
Agree or disagree, there’s a great deal more in McTague’s article to consider (read the whole thing, really), but for now I’ll just quote this:
The reemergence of China and Russia . . . poses an imaginative challenge. Suddenly, we are forced to confront the prospect that in the future we may not have “progressed” toward some more enlightened, just, and universal order. Instead, the future might be more particular, competitive, national, or perhaps even civilizational. And if that is the case, what happens if we are on the wrong side of history, not because we were necessarily wrong but because we just got beat?
The West has not been beaten, nor need it be. Nevertheless, the complacency fostered by its elites’ quasi-religious belief in the inevitability of a curious, universalist vision of progress has presented Putin with at least a moment of opportunity — and China with rather more.