Letter From Crimea: Putin and Peter the Great


The sleigh that Tsar Peter rode to greatness in the making of the Russian Empire in the early 18th century. On display at the State Historical Museum, Moscow. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

This is the fourth in a series about a journey, by train and bicycle, across Russia to Crimea shortly before the war began.

During my days in Moscow, I had no fixed itinerary of where to ride my bike or what to see. The weather, chilly with fleeting moments of sun and clouds, made it nicer to ride around than to pause at some of the city’s outdoor cafés (most are around Red Square). Had I been forced to ride on the roads, I am sure I would have given up on the bicycle, as Moscow traffic is as aggressive as the country’s foreign policy, and as deadly. But with the city’s expansive sidewalks open to cyclists, I was free to go anywhere, and never once did I draw a scowl from the police or other Moscow justices of the peace.

With Russia now laying waste to Ukraine, I think back on my Moscow bicycle days as if they took place in a time warp. I no more thought of the city as the capital of evil than, for example, I did of Washington, when I went there during the halcyon days of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. At the same time, there was a foreboding coloring my visit to Moscow.

President Vladimir Putin was mobilizing his forces around the Donbas and in Crimea, and the Russian government was beginning to adopt his contempt for the West. It wasn’t a nation under martial law; instead there was an air of self-pity, which is perhaps more dangerous.

I preferred—a bit like Putin himself—to wallow in the Russia’s nationalist past, although in my case I went in search of those crossroads that, if taken, could have allowed Russia to become another member of the European community—such as Poland or Romania—instead of an angry outlier.

Reading History in Red Square

Although I was nervous about locking my bicycle in Red Square (where the police can impound anything in the name of national security), I did want to visit the State Historical Museum, which lays out the course of Russian history across two extensive floors, not unlike what you would find in an undergraduate course in which the books of Bernard Pares (A History of Russia, The Fall of the Russian Monarchy) are on the assigned reading lists.

Sometimes I start on the ground floor (all those maps of an expansive Kievan Rus in the 11th century that make the claims about Ukraine as the fountainhead of Russian and slavic culture), although this time I began on the second floor, with Peter the Great’s winter sleigh, that which he rode to the corners of his growing empire at the beginning of the 18th century.

In Russian history, Peter represents the road not often taken—toward constitutional monarchy, the rule of law, modernization, scientific exploration, and maritime ties (similar to those of Great Britain or the Dutch Republic). Instead, after Peter came a long line of Romanov tsars for whom power more closely resembled Ivan the Terrible’s autocracy.

In Hugh Seton-Watson’s The Russian Empire 1801 – 1917, he makes the point that the country developed many great things but one of them that it did not was a healthy middle class.

Vladimir Putin and Peter the Great

When Vladimir Putin, after his KGB days in East Germany, was a politician on the make in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, he chose for inspiration on his office walls a portrait of Peter the Great—to make the point perhaps that his vision of Russia is that of an expansive military power, leading with ships of the line and grenadiers.

In fact, one of Peter’s great victories came in 1709 over the Swedes at Poltava. The city is west of Kharkiv, now on the train (and attack) line to Kiev, and it is where Peter’s forces dealt a decisive blow against the Swedish empire, which in its heyday had marched south and east across Europe.

I have no way of knowing whether Putin has researched the battle of Poltava; despite his white papers about the origins of Russian culture (centered around Kiev in medieval Ukraine), I am not convinced that Putin himself is much of a reader or curious traveler. (He would seem to spend most of his time trying to keep daggers out of his back.) But he would not need to know much to persuade himself that another victory at Poltava (this time against NATO’s frontmen in Ukraine) might well be the way to revive Russia’s imperial ambitions.

The Way of All Imperial Flesh

In many ways the second floor of the State Historical Museum is an elegant recreation of court life in Russia, with portraits of tsars and tsarinas, not to mention regal furniture, maps of conquest, diplomatic treaties (in which Russia got the upper hand), and models of ships taking back the Caspian and Black seas from the Turks (Russia’s traditional enemy).

Whenever I go to the museum and walk these floors (they tend to be empty, even during school holidays), I am reminded that the Russian tsars very often came to a violent end and that the one constant in the last two hundred years has been ceaseless border wars—fought so that one day Russia might find national boundaries that align either with peace or its imperial ambitions.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, assassination claimed about half of the tsars. Tsar Paul I—the son of Catherine the Great and Peter III—died five years after he succeeded his mother on the throne. Among those hiding in his boudoir with swords were men loyal to his mother, who had little time for her effeminate son and who would have applauded the succession of Alexander I to the Russian throne (he would defeat Napoleon).

Alexander II is noteworthy for having liberated Russian serfs in 1861, but in 1881 an assassin waiting with bombs near the Winter Palace put an end to his life. In 1918 Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra, along with their family, were executed in an Ekaterinburg basement, a year after the tsar had renounced his throne and about six months after the Bolsheviks seized power.

Putin: End of Days

Putin might well see himself as a Poor Man’s Tsar, at once of the people and over them, and it could well be his fate to die in office (the Stalin model) or find himself exiled to one of his McPalaces in the Crimea (although a living Putin would always represent a threat to a successor).

Despite speculation in the West, I don’t believe the Russian Duma will ever oust him; nor do I think the oligarchs will rise in opposition. Both groups are wholly-owned subsidiaries of Putin Inc., although the military (absorbing catastrophic losses in Ukraine) has less affection for the Russian president, and fewer emotional ties.

Perhaps most fatal to Putin’s time in office would be a protracted land war in eastern Ukraine—with trenches, futile bayonet charges, and Somme-like deaths—especially if in front of his forces is a thin red line of NATO technology and behind them a lethal insurgency.

Russia Endlessly Redraws its Borders

As a map person, I was drawn to the museum cabinets that showed the endless changes to Russia’s borders in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Far East, which is one reason that Putin can drone on in the Kremlin about how places such as Bessarabia, Ukraine, Kovno, Livonia, Estonia, and Poland are “historically Russian”.

In between the great moments of Russian Empire, however, there have been periods of imperial retraction and collapse, such as in the aftermath of defeat in World War I.

For example, in the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (negotiated by Trotsky, under instruction from Lenin), Russia gave up Poland, Ukraine, Bessarabia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland—much as happened to the Stalinist world when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Russia isn’t the only European country that has had shifting borders. On a much smaller scale, Serbia (which started out in Macedonia and Kosovo) has suffered the same dislocated fate. Likewise, Germany has seen its borders move about—as wars have been won and lost—and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires went into liquidation.

At the moment Russia is one of the few European nation obsessed with its losses, and Putin’s great fear for Russia’s fragmentation is what he calls “Yugoslavization”.

Boundaries Floating on Air

Walking around the State History Museum, I found it hard to judge which map best matches Putin’s imperial designs.

Putin might well admire Peter the Great but I don’t think he would be happy with the contours of Peter’s empire, as in those days (1689 – 1725) Sweden controlled the Baltic and its adjoining states, the Ottoman Empire had Crimea and the (now contested) Sea of Azov, Poland dominated western Ukraine up to Kiev, and Russia didn’t extend much farther east than Orenburg.

But if Putin wanted to redraw the maps of Europe to match his territorial aspirations, for example, with those of the tsars in the first half of the 19th century, he would find himself at war with Romania, Moldova, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland, if not Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan—a lot of empire striking back.

My guess is that Putin’s ambitions are to turn back the European clocks to about 1931 (his father’s and grandfather’s Russia), when the western border of the Soviet Union stretched on a firm line from the Gulf of Finland to the Black Sea.

The Polish border ran west of Minsk, but within the Soviet Union were a Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, and Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic—with much of the western border tucked safely under the gorges of the Dniester River.

Unfortunately for Putin, President Volodymyr Zelensky and his NATO wingmen are working off a map from 1919 that shows an independent Ukraine well to the east of the Donets River, and not very far from the quietly flowing River Don.

Napoleon Visits Moscow

Before leaving Red Square, I checked to see that my bicycle was still safe—it was—and walked around the corner to The Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812, which is in another of the Kremlin outbuildings. In the 19th century it was the Moscow City Duma, and after that, until 1993, the Lenin Museum.

This elegant museum tells the story of Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, and his subsequent retreat and defeat. I was surprised by the even-handed treatment accorded to Napoleon, who could have been depicted as part of an invading Mongol horde.

Displays show a Napoleon with the regal air of yet another European monarch on the march, a worthy opponent of Field Marshall Kuznetsov (his opponent at Borodino) and Alexander I (who would eventually lead his lancers into Paris). It made me wonder whether the museum renovation was realized with French support, dating to a post-Soviet era when France and Russia were allies.

Now relations are reduced to the strange and pleading phone calls that last well into the night between French President Macron and Putin, who sound like lovers breaking up over the course of three years.

I took a picture of a Revolutionary medal, “In memory of the execution of Marie-Antoinette. 1793,” that shows the empress standing defiantly in her tumbril, on her way to the guillotine, and another of a print, La Grande Bataille d’Austerlitz (the Grand Battle of Austerlitz, now in the Czech Republic), which was Napoleon’s great 1805 victory over the Russians and Austrians (it is often called the Battle of the Three Emperors). One might have thought such art would have ended up in the dustbin of history.

Coming Out for the Cold War

If you are brooding about the origins of the Cold War—that never-ending conflict between Russia and the West—you need look no further than the museum print that shows the 1807 mid-river meeting at Tilsit (now Sovetsk, in the enclave of Kaliningrad) between Napoleon and Russia’s Tsar Alexander I.

In summoning Alexander to a raft anchored in the Nemen River, Napoleon might have thought he was meeting his worthy opponent at the mid-way point between their respective empires.

Instead he treated Alexander as a vassal, and less than five years later launched his invasion of Russia (a lesson in Western treachery that no doubt Putin learned well in grade school).

Elsewhere in the Kremlin, I have seen the famous Albrecht Adam painting, Napoleon Burning Moscow, which shows the emperor, surrounded by his officers on a hillside in 1812, watching the city go up in flames.

Actually it was Moscow residents (under instruction from its governor, Count Rostopchin), not the invading French, who put the city to the torch, to deny the invading French winter quarters—a tactical masterstroke that caused Napoleon to retreat in the winter cold, deciding the campaign in favor of the Russians.

Tolstoy writes of the incident in War and Peace: “Moscow was burned by its citizens — that is true; not, however by the citizens who remained, but by those that went away.”

A Warning to Western Invaders

Before leaving the museum, I found an old map of the Berezina Crossing (now in Belarus), which is where the Russians routed a majority of the retreating French forces in November 1812.

Napoleon managed to escape across some makeshift pontoon bridges (thrown up by Swiss engineers over the boggy Berezina), but much of his army did not.

I can recommend the forlorn memorials in the village of Studenka, on the banks of the Berezina, should anyone think that a war against Russia will go according to the plans printed in Western army manuals.

Next: At the home of the writer Boris Pasternak. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.