Speed Reads

Smart takes

Here's a Russian historical analogy Vladimir Putin won't embrace

Franz Krüger, Wikimedia Commons

The idea that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to revive the relative glory (and territorial conquest) of czarist Russia has its own niche in foreign policy circles. While Hillary Clinton and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble are comparing Putin to Adolf Hitler, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says Putin sees himself as "a new czar" and Finnish graduate student Anneli Portman did a textual analysis of the pronouncements of Putin and Czar Alexander I, finding striking similarities (via Bloomberg's Peter Coy). For fun, try an image search for Czar Putin.

Presumably, if Putin aspires to be a latter-day czar, he would prefer to follow in the footsteps of one of the "great" ones — Peter I (1682-1725) and Catherine II (1762-1796) — or even the formidable Ivan the Terrible (1547-1584). Robert Service, a Russian history professor at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, has someone else in mind, as he explains in The New York Times:

Putin himself is much more like another czar, Nicholas I, who stumbled into military conflict with the British and French and rejected calls for the basic reforms needed to enable Russia to compete with the world powers of the day. Nicholas had a cramped perspective and arrogant personality. Always attentive to the armed forces and the secret services, he overlooked the broader necessity to modernize Russia's economy and society. His country paid dearly for this when his army was humbled in the Crimean War of 1853-56. Russian foreign policy under Mr. Putin displays an equally gross lack of foresight. [The New York Times]

Service goes on to explain the probably unintended consequences of Putin's annexation of Crimea and feints (so far) at peeling off other parts of Ukraine. But Service fails to mention that despite Nicholas' defeat in Crimea (1825-1855) — his son, Alexander II, negotiated the peace in early 1956 — Nicholas I gobbled up Poland and won the east shore of the Black Sea, helping expand Russia toward its greatest size, 9.2 million square miles, in 1864-65.