I wish I could remember which German chancellor it was who said that the Russians’ idea of a secure frontier is one with Russian soldiers on both sides of it. The present war, and indeed all the sabre-rattling along the Russia’s frontier with the Baltic republics over the past few years are only the latest instances which bear out the truth of this observation. As tensions rose during the months preceding the invasion of Ukraine, I was reminded of what was going on in 1811 when Tsar Alexander I defied his ally Napoleon.
By the treaty of Tilsit in 1807 following Russia’s defeat at Austerlitz, Eylau and Fiedland Napoloen only imposed one condition on Alexander, namely that he persuade Britain to negotiate and, failing that, join the European blockade aimed at British trade. Despite having attacked Napoleon and been soundly defeated, Russia did not lose any territory, she actually gained some. But while her western frontier remained essentially the same as it had been before its army marched out to challenge Napoleon, it was now unacceptable to Russia. Why? Because instead of having Prussian troops on the other side who were as close in spirit to the Russian empire of Alexander I as those of Belarus are to Putin’s Russia, it now had Polish troops.
These belonged to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, carved out of Polish territory which had been annexed by Prussia. The Grand Duchy was ruled over by the King of Saxony, an ally of France. In 1809, even though Russia had failed to honour its treaty obligations by supporting him against Austria, Napoleon actually awarded Russia a sizeable chunk of Austrian territory, but that only heightened the paranoia in Russia.
Only a decade and a half earlier, Russia had been the chief player in carving up the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the final treaty governing this act bound all three signatories, Russia, Prussia and Austria, never to use the word ‘Poland’ again – which is why Napoleon, not wishing to ruffle feathers, had called his new creation after its capital rather than its land. But the fact remained that if not in name, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw was a Polish state. Its troops wore Polish uniforms, bore insignia with the Polish eagle and, most important, thought like Poles. As did a few million on the Russian side of the frontier, in the part of the old Polish state annexed by Russia.
Napoleon had no intention of restoring Poland and proposed to Alexander they sign a joint convention binding themselves not to encourage the Poles in their dreams. As a sign of his discouragement of such aspirations, he sent the best units of the army of the Grand Duchy to fight in Spain. But Alexander produced a draft convention which would excise the words ‘Poland’ and ‘Poles’ from all official correspondence, ban the wearing of Polish decorations and forbid the use of Polish emblems in the Grand Duchy. Napoleon was further to pledge not to allow the restoration of a Polish state and to go to war against the Poles should they attempt it. This was something Napoleon could clearly not commit to, any more than NATO could commit to never allowing Ukraine to join if it wished to.
While these negotiations were going on, Alexander was massing an army on his western border, sending out secret feelers to his contacts in Poland and Germany, and planning to invade the Grand Duchy, join up with Prussia and raise the whole of Germany, which various German malcontents had assured him was only waiting for a call to arms to overthrow Napoleon’s hegemony.
Napoleon made the wrong choice. Instead of just beefing up his troops in the Grand Duchy and allied German states, he tried to overawe Alexander. He and raised the largest army Europe had ever seen which, having failed to frighten the Tsar, he led to its doom in Russia. Had he waited for Alexander to invade, he would easily have defeated him.
The idealistic, profoundly benevolent Alexander I had nothing in common with the nasty little thug Putin. So whence the common paranoia? Could it be inherent in the system, infecting every ruler? Paranoia stems from feelings of insecurity, and it may seem surprising that one of the largest, potentially richest and supposedly most powerful states on the planet should be racked by such anxieties. Yet over the past three centuries at least, the Russian state, Tsarist, Soviet or Putinesque, has been wedded to a compulsive need for expansion, based on the fear of invasion from without.
The bases of this fear run deep and are inextricably bound up with a persistent crisis of identity. This reached apoplectic levels in the second quarter of the nineteenth century when the minister of education Count Sergei Uvarov argued that the educational system should be based on narodnost. This was a theory that the national character rested on the twin pillars of the Orthodox faith and Autocracy, which, he claimed was ‘the last anchor of our salvation and the most secure guarantee of the strength and greatness of our fatherland’. Tsar Nicholas I leaped at this opportunity to bolster his outdated and oppressive rule and narodnost was introduced into the school and university system, through subjects such as history, literature, geography and philology. This stagnant and oppressive self-image crept in everywhere, marking even the most unpolitical literature with a stamp of alarmist jingoism.
Narodnost was underpinned by an imagined ideal Russian past, an Elysian condition. The writer Konstantin Sergeyevich Aksakov, who ‘wore a dress so national that the peasants in the streets took him for a Persian’, built on this. He developed a theory that in the West states had been founded by tyrants, while in Russia authority was willed into being by the people. ‘Therefore at the basis of western states lie violence, slavery and enmity,’ he wrote. ‘At the basis of the Russian state lie goodwill, freedom and peace.’ In the circumstances, it was tactless of Pyotr Yakovlevich Chaadayev to publish, in 1836, his Letter, a comprehensive attack on everything the Russian state stood for. He maintained that Russia had contributed nothing to civilization except autocracy and serfdom, and inveighed against ‘the imbecilic contemplation of [Russia’s] imaginary perfections’. He was declared insane and confined. As the poet Tyutchev put it, one could not assess Russia, or love her, only believe in her.
It was a belief that could only be sustained by the invocation of an imaginary threat – a great Western conspiracy to crush Russia and a noxious Western ‘disease’ threatening to undermine her spiritual health. This paranoid vision demanded action. The historian Mikhail Pogodin argued that if they could be united under one sceptre, the Slavs could conquer the world, while the poet Feodor Ivanovich Tyutchev dreamt of a Russia ‘from the Nile to the Neva, from the Elbe to China, from the Volga to the Euphrates, from the Ganges to the Danube’.
It is not difficult to see how easily Putin’s propaganda can flourish with roots like this.