From Kulikovo Field to Kursk: Russia’s Forever War

Review of Russia: The Story of War, by Gregory Carleton (Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2017)

Russia’s glorification of victorious wars and colossal defeats has long baffled western observers. Visitors to Russia’s capital, the epicenter of Russia’s cult of victory, cannot fail to notice the monuments to military might that dot the urban landscape. A famous statue dedicated to the seventeenth-century liberators of Moscow, Prince Pozharsky and Kuzma Minin, stands in Red Square before St. Basil’s Cathedral.

Nearby, a row of monuments honoring Soviet “Hero Cities” for their sacrifices in the Second World War flank the Tomb of the Unknown Solider just below the Kremlin walls. Further away from the city center, a sprawling memorial complex known as Victory Park pays homage to Russia’s wars on the site where Napoleon’s army invaded Moscow in 1812.

A church mural in Nizhnii Novgorod.
A church mural in Nizhnii Novgorod depicting Prince Pozharsky and Kuzma Minin driving out winged Polish soldiers. From their base in Nizhnii Novgorod, Pozharsky and Minin led Russian forces to liberate Moscow from Polish occupation in 1612.

Just as war is ubiquitous in Moscow, so too does it permeate Russian culture. The panoply of enduring national myths and symbols prominently displayed in Moscow and across Russia are the subject of Gregory Carleton’s latest book Russia: The Story of War. Carleton, Professor of Russian Studies at Tufts University, sets out to demystify Russia’s infatuation with its past wars, condensing nearly 1,000 years of history into a succinct study stretching from the Mongol period, to the Polish invasions during the Time of Troubles in the early seventeenth century, to twenty-first century conflicts in Chechnya and Ukraine.

Tackling such a long stretch of history would be daunting for most historians, but Carleton skillfully reveals the symbolic links that give this millennium inner coherence in Russia. Indeed, he illustrates that near-constant warfare and invasions since the medieval period reinforced Russia’s self-image not only as a besieged Orthodox bastion of exceptional strength, but as a great power destined to be the savior of humanity.

Carleton argues persuasively that Russian identity crystallized through centuries of violent upheaval and war. Russia’s obsession with past triumphs and tragedies in combat has nurtured its sense of “military exceptionalism,” producing what he terms a “neo-nationalist civic religion” that forms the core of what it means to be Russian.

What distinguishes Carleton’s approach is his ability to show how Russia’s war myth can “weave vastly disparate events into a simple, self-reinforcing story” in which time collapses and epic battles merge into a linear narrative of unending victory.

'Courage' is the central monument of the Brest Fortress Memorial Complex in present-day Belarus.
“Courage” is the central monument of the Brest Fortress Memorial Complex in present-day Belarus. The defenders of the Soviet frontier at Brest held out for several weeks after the launch of Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, earning it the title of “Hero Fortress” of the Soviet Union.

Consequently, Dmitry Donskoy’s victory against the Mongols at Kulikovo Field in 1380, the expulsion of the Poles from Moscow in 1612, Russia’s valiant stand against Napoleon at Borodino in 1812, and triumph over Nazi Germany in 1945 all feature as evidence of Russians ’stoikost’ (“fortitude” or “resilience”) against all odds. Today’s ritualized celebrations of Victory Day on Red Square on May 9th and the aura of sacredness surrounding legendary battlefields such as Borodino, Sevastopol, Kursk, and Brest attest to the longevity of this narrative in which “collective martyrdom” is the highest virtue.

Moving beyond the realm of high politics, Carleton challenges the idea that Russian patriotic culture is a state-driven master narrative imposed by Kremlin ideologues. In particular, he draws attention to recurring tropes that appear in Russian literature and Soviet and post-Soviet film. Citing passages in works such as Lev Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace and describing scenes from iconic Soviet war films such as They Fought for the Motherland (1975) that emphasize the heroism of ordinary men, Carleton demonstrates how the “seeds” of Russia’s story of war “lie deep in the soil of Russian history” and culture.

Though his book follows a loose chronology, Carleton fruitfully revisits earlier periods to trace the evolution of Russian identity through successive wars. Yet, despite the prevalence of triumphalist narratives, Carleton is mindful that “the representation of war has never been a monochromatic phenomenon in Russia,” pointing to gruesome scenes in Viktor Astafev’s novel The Damned and the Dead (1994), a sobering account of the Red Army’s costly recapture of Kiev in 1943, and the ugly face of war revealed in Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys (1990), a searing portrait of the Soviet-Afghan War told through oral histories.

To his credit, Carleton also addresses wars that do not conveniently fit into the traditional arc of Russian history. He devotes an entire chapter (“Defeat Undone”) to examining the ways in which humiliating defeats, such as the Crimean War (1853-56), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), and the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-89), were subsequently transformed into heroic struggles.

This practice of “recasting fiasco as a heroic feat” seems to extend to upcoming commemorations of the Russian Revolution and Civil War as well. Approaching the centenary of 1917, Russian authorities seem inclined towards a bland narrative of reconciliation that stresses the sacrifices of all sides, avoiding uncomfortable questions about imperial collapse and the Soviet Union’s violent birth altogether.

Understanding the mechanisms that drive Russia’s war myth is also crucial to making sense of Russia’s behavior on the international stage today. Russia: The Story of War sheds light on deteriorating relations between Russia and the West over the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the stalemate in eastern Ukraine. If one follows the myth’s main script, Carleton argues, then a classic scenario has re-emerged in which Russia must halt western encroachment and intervene to protect co-nationals under threat. Far from fanciful, the old specter of western encirclement still looms large in the minds of Russian political and military officials, fueling wild conspiracy theories and belligerent rhetoric grounded in deep-seated anxieties about Russia’s isolation.

The persistence of a hardened siege mentality explains why NATO enlargement appears so threatening and why Russian commentators have repeatedly deployed the term “fascist” to disparage the Ukrainian government. Analogies to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union are not merely crude examples of state propaganda, but powerful historical reference points that resonate with many ordinary Russians steeped in their country’s patriotic culture.

A memorial dedicated to the heroes of the Great Patriotic War.
A memorial dedicated to the heroes of the Great Patriotic War (1941-45) in Yaroslavl.

Carleton’s goal in writing about Russia’s cult of militarism is to extend an invitation “to see Russia through the lens so many Russians have themselves internalized.” He succeeds brilliantly in immersing the reader in the centuries-long development of Russian national mythology. While he does not shy away from pointing out the silences and distortions in many accounts of Russian history, he is adamant that western observers take these dubious historical narratives and myths seriously to understand why they enjoy such wide currency in Russia today. Many regard Russia’s ostentatious displays of military greatness as unbridled chauvinism characteristic of the Putin era, but Russia’s epic war stories are embedded in a repertoire of themes that took root long ago.

Historians well versed in the key events and personalities that constitute the Russian national pantheon will find that Carleton often treads over familiar ground, but rarely have these disparate episodes been tied together so cogently in a single volume. Carleton’s erudition and brevity make Russia: The Story of War an ideal monograph for students and seasoned Russia watchers seeking to understand Russia’s war myth in its many manifestations. 

[All photos by reviewer unless otherwise noted]