The Triumphs and Tribulations of Peter the Great: What Putin’s View of 18th-Century Warfare Can Tell Us About Ukraine
Why did Peter the Great wage the Seven Years War? Why did he fight the Swedes for seven years? And the Battle of Poltava, do you know where it is? Where are Sweden and Poltava? The decisive battle of the armies of Peter the Great and Charles XII took place near Poltava: Why were they there?
Several months before the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin played history teacher for a class of Russian schoolchildren. For Putin, the answers were obvious. Peter’s armies were in Poltava, now located in northeast Ukraine, waging a great power struggle with the West, represented at the time by Swedish King Charles XII. Unfortunately for Putin, one student in the classroom was more hung up on details than grand narratives and replied: “Speaking generally, it wasn’t called the Seven Years War, it was called the Great Northern War.”
Putin of course, is famously obsessed with this history. But Putin’s comments on 18th-century history reveal that he doesn’t even always get the details right. His allusions to the era of Peter I and Catherine II are shallow, upbeat, and focused on what academics call the great man history. He likes kings, generals, and heroes who successfully turned the wheel of Russian history. He wants to highlight Peter’s early victories in 1709 and Catherine’s conquest of Crimea in 1783, rather than the many defeats that marked the intervening years. Up to this point, Putin has publicly ignored the long, painful, and grinding process of 18th-century Russian imperialism.
It’s easy to see how Putin’s greatest hits version of Russian history — all the victories, none of the brutal setbacks — might have led to the false confidence with which he ordered his forces into Ukraine last February. But despite his public rhetoric and occasional errors, Putin undoubtedly knows the real history behind Russia’s long, difficult 18th century struggles. As Russia prepares for a longer conflict in Ukraine, this history also offers examples he can draw on where Russian armies overcame significant setbacks, reconstituted their forces, and fought on to victory. As a result, looking back at how Putin uses and distorts the story of Russia’s 18th century wars can help us anticipate what he envisions for his own war today.
A Heroic History
Like most heads of state, Putin is fairly upbeat when discussing his country’s heroes in public. In his speeches, Putin primarily focuses on two eras: the portion of the reign of Peter the Great that lasted from 1700 to 1721 and Catherine the Great’s reign between 1768 and 1783. In the long arc of 18th-century Russian history, this would be a bit like talking about the American Revolutionary War by mentioning Lexington and Concord and then skipping to Yorktown. The progression may be correct, but a lot of the nuances and complexities are lost.
Discussing Peter I on the 350th anniversary of his birth last June, Putin commented:
Almost nothing has changed. It can be surprising when you start to understand this. Peter waged the Great Northern War for 21 years with Sweden and annexed some territories. He didn’t annex anything, he reclaimed them! Yes, truly. All of Karelia where St. Petersburg exists was founded then. When [Peter] founded a new capital, none of the European countries recognized this territory as Russia. Everyone claimed it was Swedish. But since the dawn of time, not just Finns, but also Slavs lived there and this territory was once under the control of Kyivan Rus. The same is true to the west, with Narva and his first campaigns. He was reclaiming territories and fortifying borderlands, that’s what he was doing. Well, it is also now our destiny to reclaim and fortify.
Here, Putin justifies his invasion of Ukraine by reference to 18th-century Russian history. By changing Peter I from a conqueror into a reclaimer, Putin creates a narrative that he and the early Russian leader are in the same position. In his mind, European powers refused to recognize Russia’s rightful claims under Peter, just as the international community fails to recognize his seizure of Crimea.
Putin usually frames his understanding of the Great Northern War as a great power competition in which the enemy was the West but the battlefield was Ukraine. During the Great Northern War, the most unified Ukrainian resistance to Russia came in 1708 to 1709, when Hetman Ivan Mazepa took a few thousand Hetmanate cavalry and a larger number of Zaporizhian Cossacks into an alliance with Swedish King Charles XII. The Swedish, Hetmanate, and Zaporizhian force was crushed at Poltava by Peter in 1709. During the period of the Russian Empire, and in modern pro-Russian circles, followers of Mazepa, or Mazepintsy, have become synonymous with traitors to Putin’s vision for Russia and Ukraine.
But for all of his focus on Peter, Putin’s favorite topic is the fifteen years between 1768 and 1783 when Russia defeated the Ottoman Empire, stripped it of the Crimean Khanate, and annexed Crimea. Putin has said that Catherine achieved victory with less cost than Peter, and that he admires this. Catherine the Great led Russia during this era, and Putin seems to identify with her. Putin remembers her as a conqueror and founder of cities. Russia’s armies were highly successful in this period, led by famous figures such as Peter Rumyanstev and Grigory Potemkin. (When they withdrew from Kherson, Russian forces removed Grigory Potemkin’s bones from St. Catherine’s Cathedral.) During these years, Russia fought against an ailing Ottoman Empire. In 1690, few would have bet on the emerging Muscovite state against the Ottoman forces. But by the 1760s, the Ottoman military had grown weaker. As a result, in the 1768 war, Catherine’s armies travelled from victory to victory at battles such as Larga, Kagul, and Kerch.
Here, as in the Great Northern War, Putin’s narrative holds that victories over other great powers allowed Russia to crush Ukraine. Victories over the Ottomans allowed Catherine a free reign in dealing with the Ukrainian Cossacks. In 1764, Catherine founded a new province called Novorossiya to consolidate her military frontier, which grew to encompass Kharkiv, the Donbass, old Crimean Khanate possessions, and the territories of the dissolved Zaporizhian Cossack host.
Under the direction of Putin and Patriarch Kirill, this history is celebrated. Since 2014, commentators have noted Putin’s use of the name Novorossiya. On Jan. 16, 2023, the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society announced a competition for Russian school children focused Catherine’s annexation of Crimea and the foundation of Novorossiya. And, not surprisingly, in response to the invasion, Ukrainians have started to dismantle statues of the Empress that remained on their territory.
In Putin’s heroic interpretation, Peter I beat the West during the Great Northern War, which blocked any effort at Ukrainian independence. Then Catherine II defeated the Ottoman Empire to seize Crimea and southern Ukraine. With the help of heroes like Pyotr Rumyanstev, Alexander Suvorov, and Fyodor Ushakov, Russian victory was always assured. In 1708, a Russian commander proudly reported back to the Kremlin, “the bandit’s den at Bakhmut is taken and destroyed, and the inhabitants have been slaughtered.” Putin is undoubtedly hoping to receive a similar report any day.
A Century of Setbacks
Yet this whole narrative obscures the fact that Russia’s historical fight to conquer its southern frontier lasted for centuries, and even its decisive phase ran over one hundred years. In presenting his triumphant account, Putin often publicly glosses over the failures and costs associated with Russian imperialism. What Putin leaves unsaid is almost as telling as his boasting about 18th-century commanders. Despite its eventual victory, Moscow experienced plenty of severe losses during this period. Russia endured defeats and setbacks when on the offensive in Crimea in 1687, 1689, 1736, 1737, 1738, and 1739. It also suffered losses at Azov in 1695, Narva in 1700, Fraustadt in 1706, Holowczyn in 1708, the Prut River in 1711, Gross-Jägersdorf in 1757, Zorndorf in 1758, Colberg in 1758 and 1760, Khotyn in 1769, Izmail in 1789, Porrassalmi in 1789, and Uttismalm in 1789. Then, as now, defeats often stemmed from a lack of logistical preparation and overconfidence.
In July of 1711, Peter I led the Russian army into a disastrous fight against the Ottomans on the River Prut. The czar had been misled by his cronies into believing, much like Putin in Ukraine, that victory would be quick and easy and that his forces would be welcomed as liberators by Christians in the Ottoman Empire. But the Ottoman army surrounded his forces and compelled his surrender. According to one recent survey of the campaign, “Peter… nearly lost everything—his army, his territorial gains since 1701, his throne—because the army had been placed in an untenable position on the Prut by poor political intelligence and inadequate logistics.” Only Ottoman leniency in peace negotiations allowed Peter to withdraw, reconstitute his forces, and continue the concurrent war against the Swedish Empire. Putin has been silent on this incident, and since the invasion of Ukraine, Russian critics of his policies have noticed the silence.
Tellingly, Putin has never publicly referred to the career of Field Marshal Burkhard von Münnich, one of the most important figures in 18th-century Russian military history. In a war over Crimea in 1735, Münnich allowed himself to be lulled into a false sense of security, leading to a string of falsely optimistic assessments: In 1736, he predicted “Azov will be ours…perhaps even Crimea will fall to us.” Then, in 1737, “All of Crimea will be subordinated to our control.” By 1738, he was already anticipating the conquest of modern-day Romania. Then, more boldly, in 1739: “the standards and flags of the Empress will be hoisted, where you ask? In Constantinople, in the oldest Greek Christian Church, the Hagia Sophia.”
Historians from the nineteenth century on criticized Münnich’s overconfidence in light of his underwhelming performance in the 1735-1739 war. But Brian L. Davies has presented a new interpretation of this conflict, arguing that Münnich and his subordinate officers learned from each year of failure, and that by 1739, the Russian military emerged from the conflict with new tactical doctrines and a strengthened logistical system.
If Russia suffered multiple defeats, how was it ultimately able to ultimately emerge victorious in conflict after conflict? During the 18th century, Russia demonstrated an impressive ability to suffer losses and absorb casualties, then recruit new forces and resume the offensive. During the Great Northern War, Russia drew on its manpower in order to solve military deficiencies and avoid internal problems. Today, Russia frequently recruits men from rural areas, and tries to avoid recruitment from large urban centers. By contrast, between 1700 and 1705, Moscow frequently avoided rural drafts in order to preserve its agricultural economy. Instead, servants, craftsmen, and the urban poor were initially targeted by the Russian state. As the war continued, this proved insufficient, and, from 1705 to 1711, the state turned to the rural agricultural population. This system of conscription endured for the rest of the eighteenth century and supplied the Russian army with men. During the war against the Crimean Khanate and the Ottoman Empire in the 1730s, the Russians lost more men from disease, the climate, and privation than enemy action. In order to maintain their strength of 120,000 men in the face of casualties, Russian armies in this theatre alone were forced to bring in 150,000 replacements between 1738 and 1739. Adjusted for today’s Russian population, that is the equivalent of 1.4 million losses.
As Putin prepares the Russian people for a long war in Ukraine, they may begin to hear more about this part of their history. On Dec. 22, Putin’s government registered a general education plan for Russian students that featured topics such as “Overcoming initial failures in the Great Northern War.”
Russia didn’t conquer Crimea on the first attempt, or even the sixth. In the current war, the Russian military made many initial mistakes. But then, the same is true for many of its 18th-century conflicts. Today, Russia retains the ability to reconstitute its forces over a period of months or years. Indeed, the country’s nuclear deterrent makes it even easier for Putin to continue to reenact his fantasy of being a modern 18th-century czar. Only Ukrainian resolve and Western support can determine if his reenactment looks more like Peter’s failure on the River Prut, or Catherine’s conquests later in the century.
Alexander S. Burns is a visiting assistant professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville studying the American Continental army’s connection to European militaries. His edited volume, The Changing Face of Old Regime Warfare: Essays in Honour of Christopher Duffy, was published in 2022.