Russian imperial propaganda and its predecessors: ‘Godfather Putin' and other cases of imperial nationalism

13:08 Sep. 12, 2016

‘Godfather Putin' and other cases of imperial nationalism

Vladimir the Fixer (Cartoon by Hajo de Reijger, @studiohajo / Twitter)

Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko on political vocabulary of modern and ancient empires and processes they indicate 

A great number of phrases articulated by statesmen or politicians were destined to enrich the political lexicon of the international community. It looks very probable that a remark recently made by Hillary Clinton will augment the ranks of these famous expressions. In one of her speeches, the Democratic Party's presidential nominee has described Vladimir Putin as ‘the grand godfather' of ‘extreme nationalism' – or, to be more precise, of its ‘global brand'.

Despite the understandable acclaim for this critical definition, it may contain a couple of undeserved compliments. Firstly, the type of nationalism steered byRussia's ruler is not ‘global' but ‘imperial'; and secondly, Putin's role in the matter of its practical application resembles that of a diligent unscrupulous franchisee rather than of a supreme patriarchic captain.

Imperial nationalism is a chimerical phenomenon, the origins of which (along with many names of its devoted architects) may be irreclaimably lost in the mists of time. Notwithstanding this temporal fogginess, it is quite safe to say that every single empire in human history aspired for a very particular kind of collective identity – the one that was to consolidate all the subjects of a farraginous political monster into a single and solidly unified community – in other words, an imperial nation. In many cases, these aspirations were not very far from being successful. However, each imperial project of the past faced the problem that proved to be despairingly unmanageable. It sprang from the antagonism of two particular processes – the movement toward the unifying politicized ‘oneness' and the evolution of those tribal, regional, or ethnic identities that opposed the state-inspired intermixture. 


The marriage of Alexander the Great to Barsine, the daughter of a Persian satrap and a Greek woman, (324 BC). A mural in Pompeii. Source:

Alexander enthusiastically promoted the idea of a common identity for all the peoples within his empire. His successors, on the other hand, did not share this dream.

In the 20th century, these anti-imperial mentalities were labeled as ‘nationalistic', whereas the empires, bygone or still functioning at the time, obtained a sudden opportunity to embellish their traditionally shaky reputations. They began to be seen as political entities that were almost unstained by the atrocities and xenophobia attributed to the modification of nationalism with ‘ethnic' character. Fortunately, this view has lost the wide approval of academic community it used to enjoy for some time. Although not without additional comments, many contemporary scholars would agree that most empires were extremely nationalistic and unpleasantly xenophobic. More importantly, the animosity and arrogance of their dwellers were not restricted to the attitude toward the ‘barbarians' from the outside. Each empire had a privileged titular nation, which snubbed other peoples and ethnic groups within their officially common polity.

In the 1st century AD, the Romans were irritated by the fact that their southern Gallic subordinates claimed the same Trojan descent as that of the ‘sons ofRome'. The latter were unready to share either imaginary forebears or actual social status with non-Romans. In 212, Emperor Caracalla attempted to change things for the better by granting full Roman citizenship to all free individuals throughout the Empire. But the improvements brought about by this decision were only partial. The citizens of Germanic origin, many of whom seized the highest military posts, were still discriminated – and that wasn't a good idea in the decaying imperial structure with increasingly Germanized army.             


Wounded Aeneas healed by Venus. Fresco from the House of Siricus, Pompeii, 1st century AD. Source:

The Romans believed that the Trojan prince Aeneas had founded their polity and their race. Any attempts made by the new subjects of the Empire to claim the same ancestry received a very cold welcome in Rome.


The Greek-speaking subjects of medieval Byzantium were most censorious upon such foreign types as the ‘round-faced Slavs' or ‘arrogant Francs'. At the same time, they demonstrated a much stronger enmity toward the Armenians and the Jews residing in the Byzantine Empire. These feelings hardly helped in 1204, when Constantinople was captured by the ‘Latin' crusaders, and in 1543, when the Ottoman Turks performed a similar but more definitive trick.


The Varangian Guard. An illumination from the 12th century manuscript of Joannis Scylitza's Synopsis Historiarum. Source:

The Byzantine Greeks openly disliked the members of this elite unit composed entirely of foreign warriors – mainly of Scandinavian and, after 1066, of Anglo-Saxon origin.  The idea of the universal (Roman) empire and the universal (Christian) religion coexisted inConstantinoplewith rather aggressive rejection of non-Hellenic outsiders. 


In the popular 1992 film-adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans, a character called Major Duncan Heyward (a man new to the North American realities of the so-called French and Indian War) repeated his superior officer notable words. ‘I thought (he exclaims) British policy is to make the world England, sir.' This formula reflects the real ‘British' attitude, which, some time later, was evident in all parts of the British Empire. Interestingly enough, Heyward addressed his haughty manifesto to Lieutenant-Colonel George Monro, a high-ranking soldier of Scottish and Irish lineage. According to the plot, the conversation between them took place in 1757 – that is 50 years after England and Scotland formed the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain'. A typical British officer of English parentage did not want the world to be ‘Britain'. For him, it had to be ‘England'.


One of the notable veterans of the French and Indian War (1757 to 1762) in Northern America, Captain John Campbell of the Black Watch, a Scottish officer who took part in the effort of ‘making the world England'. Source: 


Nevertheless, the ‘British' identity steadily grew stronger, and the famous song set to music in 1740 called upon ‘Britannia' (not England) to ‘rule the waves'. The ‘Britons' (unlike other ‘not so blessed' nations) were to preserve their freedom by any possible means. This approach allowed the Scots, the Welsh, and some Irish, as well as many people from India or the rest of the lands under British imperial control to take part in ‘ruling the waves' and building the Empire. Of course, the English (with very little regard to the non-English majority of the ‘Britons') kept on using the word ‘England' as a chief substitute for much more multifaceted title ‘Britain'.


The frontispiece of a 17th century edition of Michael Drayton's poem Polyolbion (from The Complete Works of Michael Drayton, now first collected. London: J. R. Smith, 1876). Source:

This illustration reflects the early modern ‘English' and partly ‘British' identity. According to the author, we see Albion, i.e: Britain, through the Triumphant Arch. She is surrounded by the Trojan prince Brutus, presented here as Aeneas's nephew, Julius Caesar, Hengist the Saxon, and William the Conqueror of the Norman dynasty. Despite the fact that it is the story of the whole Island, shown as a dame-goddess, what we observe here is the history of England with only one reference to the common British past embodied by Brutus the Trojan.


As for the imperial project developed by Moscow, its hierarchy of identities appeared to be even more complex. Since the conquest of Kazan Khanate in the 16th century, the Muscovites had to coexist with various ethnic groups of their growing polity. Later, the second place among those peoples was offered to the Ukrainians, who (to the great bewilderment of the present-day Russians) were not satisfied with this distribution of ‘seats'.  


Blessed is the Host of the King of Heaven (or Church Militant). Russian icon, 1550s. Tretyakov Gallery. Source: Wikimedia.

The icon is an allegorical representation of the conquest of the Kazan Khanate, which became the first step ofMuscovy's transformation into a polytechnic imperial entity.


After 1991, the Kremlin has been systematically fiddling with the term ‘rossiyane', which designates the all-embracing community of the Russian Federation, and the term ‘russkiye', which is reserved solely for the ‘ethnic Russians'. The latter group retains the highest position in the present-day arrangement of Russia's ethnicities, many of which are discriminated and repressed. Despite the fact that such oppression is prohibited by Russian law, the Kremlin may frequently choose to ignore its own regulations – and that is something we can witness in the case of the Crimean Tatars and Moscow's imperialistic scheming in the illegitimately occupied peninsula.

Russia's mighty state-propaganda persistently promotes both key national ideas – that of the ‘rossiyane' and that of the ‘russkiye'. Their mutual incompatibility and dogmatic self-apotheosis have all the chances to play a very specific role in the future of the Russian Federation – the one comparable to that, which advanced the fall or disintegration of some earlier empires.

Dmytro Ishchenko, PhD (candidate of science), historian, political analyst, diplomat at the MFA of Ukraine and the Mission of Ukraine to the EU (2002-2010).

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