Skip to content

Historian Jade McGlynn: Putin 100% believes Russia’s distorted history

by Masha Lavrova March 8, 2024 11:27 PM 11 min read
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a rally of his supporters at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on Feb. 23, 2012. (Yuri Kadobobnov /AFP via Getty Images)
by Masha Lavrova March 8, 2024 11:27 PM 11 min read
This audio is created with AI assistance

Support independent journalism in Ukraine. Join us in this fight.

Become a member Support us just once

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has consistently weaponized and distorted history throughout his time in power since 2000.

In a recent interview with U.S. far-right commentator Tucker Carlson, Putin went back more than 1,000 years to justify Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Dr. Jade McGlynn has dedicated years to researching and analyzing the political manipulation of history in Russia under Putin's rule. She is a research fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, a linguist, and historian specializing in modern Eastern Europe, particularly Russia.

Her books, "Russia's War" and "Memory Makers: The Politics of the Past in Putin's Russia," focus on Russia's aggression against Ukraine, as well as Russian state-society relations, propaganda, and memory politics.

The Kyiv Independent sat down for an interview with McGlynn to discuss Russia’s distortion of history on Feb. 28 in Kyiv.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) lights a candle unveiling a huge monument to legendary Russian medieval prince Alexander Nevsky in the village of Samolva, outside Pskov on Sept. 11. 2021. (Alexey Druzhinn /SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

The Kyiv Independent: Vladimir Putin’s interview with Carlson sparked a lot of emotional reactions and comments. But how does an actual historian feel after watching something like that?

Jade McGlynn: For most historians, I would imagine it's an incredibly frustrating exercise. But I think for those of us who specialize in Russia, it was not a particularly surprising one, because you can actually go back to 1999-2000 and see pretty similar things. But of course, this level of detail ever since he (Putin) locked himself away in a bunker during the coronavirus pandemic with the company of (Russian billionaire Yury) Kovalchuk and the state archives, things have taken a much more deleterious turn. The critical thing to remember when watching these videos is that this is a political technology and an act. This is historical politics. Of course, we're talking about history. But in many ways what we're talking about is cultural memory, and particularly in Putin's case, the official state memory.

There's a difference between history and memory. History is the exercise of trying to find out what exactly happened. He's not interested in that. He's interested in using the past to build a memory that unites the Russian nation against others in a way that helps legitimize his regime.

Historian and Russian researcher Dr. Jade McGlynn speaks with the Kyiv Independent on Feb. 28, 2024, in Kyiv. (The Kyiv Independent)

The Kyiv Independent: Putin claims that Russia's history started over 1,000 years ago with Kyivan Rus, a Viking state that covered some of the modern territories of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. Does Russia actually have a claim on those territories?

Jade McGlynn: No, and even if Russia were the successor state to Kyivan Rus that would have absolutely zero bearing it has the right to those territories today because there are “inconvenient things” like international law, territorial sovereignty, and recognized borders.

The idea of Russia as the heir of Kyivan Rus is very important for Putin. It was actually written into the Constitution in 2020, and it's very central to all the ideology at this point that surrounds the Putin regime, not just him personally.

The notion that Russia is a country that is inherently a great power, a superior civilization, and this all links back to the idea that Russia is the inheritor of Kyivan Rus, which gives its linkages back to Byzantium. This is such a political issue right now because if Russia is the inheritor of Kyivan Rus, that means in their reading of history, Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Russians are essentially just one people. We can see where some of those ideas have led us, unfortunately.

Russian soldiers walk to Red Square by passing through Tverskaya Street during the rehearsal of Victory Day military parade marking the 77th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, at Red Square in Moscow on May 7, 2022. (Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Secondly, it leads us to the notion that Russia is distinct and special, an alternative civilization that derives almost a historical essence. What is interesting is that none of this is invented by Putin. We can go back to Ivan Grozny for example, and during his enthronement, he had Mongol caps and elements like this that he claimed to be from Kyivan Rus. And after the Time of Troubles, of course for the Romanov Dynasty, the idea that they were descended from the Rurikovich line was very important to their legitimacy to the throne. So, almost consistently we see Russian leaders (except perhaps during the Soviet period) drawing on Prince Vladimir, or if you ask Danish people, Valdermar, for this legitimacy to rule.

The point is, why does Russia need to present itself as the heir of the Kyivan Rus? If Russia just wanted to pretend it was the heir of the Kyivan Rus, that would just be historically inaccurate. The question is, what do they want to do with that?

The Kyiv Independent: So when did Russia's history begin?

Jade McGlynn: That's a very tricky question. If we're talking about the Russian state in its current formation, of course, you could make an argument for 1991. That would be the easiest one.

If you want to talk in a more conceptual sense, we could go back to Muscovy and the rise of Muscovy under the Mongol Empire. I think it would be much easier to trace Russia's historical origins as a current state to Muscovy and the expansion of Muscovy by taking over neighboring principalities. Then, it could be traced back to Kyivan Rus with which Muscovy has faint historical links.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and other participants carry portraits of their relatives - World War II soldiers - as they take part in the Immortal Regiment march on Red Square in central Moscow on May 9, 2022. - Russia celebrates the 77th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany during World War II. (Natalia Kolesnikova /AFP via Getty Images)

The idea of Russia as a country with 1,000 years of history brings this idea of constancy and historical essentialism that appeals to many people in Russia. Because Russia has seen, in a century, two arguably free states collapse. And so it provides this idea that there is Russia that endures and that Putin is merely the newest incarnation of the leader of this Russia.

The Kyiv Independent: One of Putin's main messages is that Ukraine is a state that was artificially created. Are there any states that aren’t artificially created?

Jade McGlynn: No, all states are artificial. According to Benedict Anderson's very important book in this area, "Imagined Communities," nations are imagined. Still, it doesn't make them less real. People are united by a certain amount of factors, and that's different for each country.

In Britain, it might be something like traditions and history, but in America, it'll be something more like ideas. In some countries like Germany traditionally it's ethnicity – obviously, that has had some negative effects. And the problem for Russia is that it doesn't have this imagined community. It's never been about "we, the people.” It never had nationalism, unlike Ukraine, which went through the pretty standard European experience of nationalism we saw in Central and Eastern Europe during the 19th century. Russia never had that.

Russian soldiers in an armored vehicle parade during a Victory Day military parade rehearsal on the Red Square in Moscow on May 3, 2011. (Dmitry Kostyukov /AFP via Getty Images)

So instead of "we, the people" or "respublika," you have "he, the ruler, the state." That's a very different conception of the nation if you believe the nation is the state instead of the people. Today, people often ask me: "Oh, but so many people have died. How is this not having any effect on whether people think that Russia is a great state?" Because people think that Russia is a great state, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a great country to live in. Russians presumably are not idiots. They can see it's not a great country to live in. But that's not how power or great power is measured in Russia.

The Kyiv Independent: When Putin talks about Ukraine's artificial creation, the Ukrainians' wills or opinions are never really addressed. So, do Ukrainian people or even Russian people have any place in his revision of history?

Jade McGlynn: Not much of one, to be honest. Two thousand and twelve was a year of history, and there was a big effort to remake Russian popular culture with state-funded historical propaganda. It's very interesting to watch the depiction of Ukrainians in the sort of World War II films that they started to channel out. The Ukrainians are one of two people: they're either "good" Ukrainians because they're the “little brothers” who know “their place,” or the "bad" Ukrainians – they wear vyshyvanka, speak Ukrainian, sometimes they have the Cossack hairstyle, and they're almost inevitably “Nazi collaborators” in their (Russian) characterization. The Ukrainian people have consistently since 2014 been divided into “good” and “bad.”

A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on a page of a new schoolbook for high school students on general world history and Russian history, mentioning the country's ongoing military action in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, during its presentation in Moscow on Aug. 7, 2023. (Yuri Kadobnov /AFP via Getty Images)

What's so fascinating is the extent to which so many Russians within the regime and the security services load themselves to sleep on their own lullabies (to translate the Russian phrase freely). Because they genuinely did believe that they would be greeted as liberators and heroes in Kharkiv, in so many of these places by the “good” Ukrainians, who were “essentially Russian” and were “suffering” from the hands of “bad” Ukrainians, who are “extremists” and “funded by the West.”

So, the usage of history is not just a legitimizing factor or a descriptive factor. It’s actually a contributing factor. As this propaganda becomes ever more radical and as Russia's position in the world or Russia's position vis-à-vis Europe becomes ever more culturally insecure, the historical superiority-inferiority complex becomes ever more insistent, and people are much more likely to cling to it.

The Kyiv Independent: It's a lot easier to believe that you're the great saviors.

Jade McGlynn: …than that you're violent sadists who are committing genocide against people that you're supposed to think are your “brothers.”

The Kyiv Independent: Do you think Putin himself believes what he's saying? Does he not know Russia's or Ukraine's true history, if there's such a thing as true history?

Jade McGlynn: Yes, I think 100% he believes what he's saying. One of the mistakes many policymakers in the West have made is to think that he doesn't mean it. This is just something he says, and instead, what he means is the exact same thing that they would mean (if they said it).

People watch a light show on the occasion of the 73rd anniversary of the end of World War II at The Motherland Calls statue at the Mamayev Kurgan Memorial Complex in Volgograd, on May 8, 2018. (Mladen Antonov /AFP via Getty Images)

The Russian political establishment does not work according to the same measures of rationality as the U.S. It does not have the same conceptualization of security. For example, if we look at the Russian national security strategy, we can see that "historical memory" is mentioned 38 times, and "culture" is mentioned 40 times. Let's look at the American equivalent. There's obviously no reference to historical memory, and there's one reference to culture, and it's to agriculture. I think it just shows the chasm in the understanding of security and understanding of how important these historical narratives are almost to Russia's ontology. That doesn't mean we should respect it. But we need to understand it in order to appreciate the regime's motivations in Ukraine.

If we look at what Putin has said about Ukraine, even if we only go back to 2014, there's plenty of evidence that this is not going to be solved by just giving him a little bit more of Ukrainian land. This is about a war to reshape the global order and, in Russia's view, it has the right, and also the need to do it. Because Russia is a “great state” and Ukraine is a “colony,” it will therefore either be a colony of the West, which Putin doesn't want, or be a colony of Russia, which he does want.

Russia’s centuries-long quest to conquer Ukraine
Editor’s Note: This is episode 2 of “Ukraine’s True History,” a video and story series by the Kyiv Independent. The series is funded by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting within the program “Ukraine Forward: Amplifying Analysis.” The program is financed by the MATRA Programme of the Embassy o…

The Kyiv Independent: Many dictators have distorted and weaponized history. What is unique about Russia's distortion of history?

Jade McGlynn: There are two elements. One of them is the intensity of it. It's just simply more intense. In Britain, we often use World War II analogies. Even too much in my view. But the idea that you could send your child to a summer camp, where they could learn how to do historical disinformation blogging over the summer is a step too far. But that's something you can do at the "Strana Geroev" (“County of Heroes” in Russian) summer camps in Russia.

The second difference is the extent of what I call historical framing. It's the consistent use of historical analogies, where you understand the present through the past. Of course, we all use historical analogies. Unfortunately, they anchor quickly, so they're very effective in propaganda.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on a screen set at Red Square as he addresses a rally and a concert marking the annexation of four regions of Ukraine Russian troops occupy - Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, in central Moscow on Sept. 30, 2022. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)

The Kyiv Independent: Do you think that Putin is succeeding in his distortion of history?

Jade McGlynn: Yes, unfortunately, some of it does. In different countries, it works in different ways. In America, the idea that Russia has a right to Ukraine because Russia is a “great power” has a lot more resonance. Whereas in the U.K, it’s the idea of Crimea and the idea of Kyiv as “the first capital of Russia” – that’s a statement that has been said to me a few times by very intelligent people.

The Kyiv Independent: I guess most countries use mythologized history to create a national identity. But at what point did Russia move from just historical obsession to violence and aggression?

Jade McGlynn: Throughout history, in some ways, it has always started whenever Ukraine wanted to exist. None of this, and by "this," I mean this awful war, gets solved in discussions of who's the heir of Kyivan Rus. It gets solved in Russia's conception of itself and its role in the world, which needs to be drastically different. Until that point, we need to work our way to stop it from acting on its desires.

Support independent journalism in Ukraine. Join us in this fight.
Freedom can be costly. Both Ukraine and its journalists are paying a high price for their independence. Support independent journalism in its darkest hour. Support us for as little as $1, and it only takes a minute.
visa masterCard americanExpress

Editors' Picks

Enter your email to subscribe
Please, enter correct email address
* indicates required
* indicates required
* indicates required
* indicates required
* indicates required


* indicates required
* indicates required


* indicates required
* indicates required


* indicates required
Successfuly subscribed
Thank you for signing up for this newsletter. We’ve sent you a confirmation email.