Four Hundred Years of Xenophobia: Vladimir Putin, 1612 and All That

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Shtukina Ekaterina / Itar-Tass / Landov

Outgoing President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev and his successor Vladimir Putin watch honor guards during a parade of the Kremlin Regiment in Cathedral Square following the inauguration ceremony in the Grand Kremlin Palace, May 7, 2012.

1612 means little to the Anglophone world. But during the last time Vladimir Putin was president, it became enshrined in an annual Russian ritual. Few of us noticed. Now, after a constitutional feint in which he served as Prime Minister, Putin has returned as president, by remarkable coincidence, on the year's 400th anniversary. We need to know why he thinks 1612 is sacred.

According to Kremlin mythology, 1612 is the year that the Russian people — rich and poor, town and country — united under a strong leader to rise up against foreign, heathen oppressors. The bad guys, the story goes, were an army of Poles that had occupied Moscow for two years. They had been sent by their fanatical king, who was intent on conquering and converting the entire space of Orthodox Russia to western culture, in the form of Roman Catholicism. A prince named Dmitri Pozharsky and a merchant named Kuzma Minin emerged as national heroes and chased off the Poles. A gentle, pious teenage boy named Mikhail Romanov was elected Tsar. His dynasty lasted 305 glorious years. Throughout this time, Russia celebrated 1612, the year of salvation from outsiders, each Nov. 4 as "Unity Day." A suitable motto could have been: "Defeating outsiders together."

For about 88 years, however, Lenin's revolution eclipsed Unity Day. Russian Communists associated 1612 with the Romanovs and the scourge of monarchist power and forced 1612 out of fashion, replacing it with the Bolshevik's favorite year 1917. Indeed, in 2005, Moscow's die-hard communists protested when Putin switched the country's favorite year back to 1612. It was to no avail: 1612 soon became part of Kremlin mythmaking. Within two years, Russia's Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography had produced 1612, the movie. That treatment of history fit in with the lore of Putinland — one in which Russians need a strong leader and central authority to protect them from their worst nightmares.

There is a view of 1612 from Warsaw, of course. Polish romantics saw the years leading up to 1612 as the pinnacle of their nation's power, when Warsaw imposed its will on Moscow, and very nearly united Christianity's Eastern and Western churches. The melodramatic Polish rendition of history recounts how the greed of an authoritarian Russia led to liberal Poland's decline and dismemberment — with only a late and miraculous rebirth. (There are Lithuanian, Belarusian and Ukrainian versions of this victimization by Russia, too.)

Historians tend to agree, however, that none of the stories about 1612 are quite right. It is true that four centuries ago, at the time of William Shakespeare and the Jamestown Settlement, Russia was in chaos following the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1583. At the time, the map of Eastern Europe was dominated by a single superpower, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Its kings were elected, but to limit their authority they were often chosen from foreign dynasties (in 1612, the King of Poland was Swedish). The Commonwealth had a unique political system — in theory, a constitutional monarchy with a robust parliament and federal devolution. In reality, it lacked central authority and depended on the consensus of a few willful power groups, rarely in agreement and each pushing their own agenda (there are some startling similarities with today's European Union). The system contrasted with the police states of England, Spain and especially Russia. The Commonwealth's system worked for a time, especially for Europe's misfits (runaway Protestants, Cossacks and Jews could do as they pleased). Poland was too decentralized for there to have been any general scheme to take over Russia.

It is not surprising that when a slightly crazy Russian monk calling himself Dmitri appeared in the Commonwealth with a madcap idea of becoming the Russian Tsar, he wasn't locked up. On the contrary, he found enough Polish speculators to fund a free-booting expedition into Russia. With the half-hearted consent of the Polish king, these pirates on horseback occupied Moscow in 1610, were welcomed by Russians who wanted change, and the "False Dmitri" on the throne. Two years later, without serious political or logistical support from home, the motley garrison of Poles, Lithuanians and others gave up their residence in Moscow or were beaten out of the city. Russians who had profited from outside interference were also hounded.

And so, Russians can come up with squishy justification that way back in 1612, they threw out outsiders who were heart of a national crisis. And in that way, Putin can interpret his country's situation today as a parallel attempt at putting Russia first. History is power and Putin knows it.

But mythmaking has its drawbacks. Warsaw, of course, is suspicious of such propaganda from the resurgent Russian state, even though ordinary Poles tend to get along with ordinary Russians, since both consider each other fellow victims of Soviet oppression. The Kremlin regularly provokes Polish public opinion with comments about the past — in particular, when it has sought to exonerate Stalin's actions during World War Two. Still, Putin could have trouble with his historical equations if he sets himself up as an equivalent to the Romanovs 400 years after they took the throne. They were a dynasty of reactionary despots who used oppression to keep themselves in power while drumming up fear of foreign intervention. Or maybe that's his point.