Last night I tried to avoid Ukraine doomscrolling by popping in a DVD of Mikhail Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila, an opera I didn’t know and one based on a fantastic tale by Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s national poet. No escape. Barely into the first act, Ruslan suggested an answer to the question everyone seems to be asking, now that we have a better idea what Putin wants: Why is he so obsessed with Ukraine?
I then recalled what George W. Bush, that celebrated judge of character, notoriously said after meeting the new Prime Minister Putin in 2000: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy…. I was able to get a sense of his soul.” That led to what Joe Biden (according to Joe Biden, a less than unimpeachable source) told Putin when they met in 2011: “I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.”
And that made me recall one night when I was 19, when I ducked into the Zum Zum deli and ice cream shop off Harvard Square and ordered my usual refreshment, a 25-cent birch beer. The tall guy in the white apron and cap behind the counter, gobsmacked me with his reply, in a lilting West Indian accent: “Have you ever thought of selling your soul?”
“Come on, it’s nothing to you. You probably don’t even think you have one. I’ll give you this birch beer for your soul.”
“Uh…. So have you bought other souls?”
“Oh yes,” he said proudly. “I have 424 souls. I’ve already bought two tonight.” He held up two paper napkins with scribbled contracts and signatures.
“I’m really not interested in selling,” I said, and then an imp whispered in my ear. “But what would you think about trading?”
He lurched back. “No, no, that wouldn’t be fair! I have 424 souls and you only have one.”
I plopped down my quarter, got out, and never went back to Zum Zum.
Weird though it was, this encounter contained a lesson beyond the obvious one (stay away from soul-hustling soda jerks): For some people, a soul is something to be acquired, sold, and coveted—which means they don’t really believe they have souls. Just look into Putin’s dead eyes.
Whatever the ontological status of his soul, Putin seems to think Russia has lost its soul and his destiny is to win it back—literally, by brute and extremely brutal force, inch by bloody inch, across Ukraine. Putin divorced his wife of 30 years in 2013, and speculation about his amatory status has long been rife in gossipy corners of the Internet. There’s nothing to it, a former close associate of his recently told NPR: “Putin is married to Russia.” Or to his idea of Russia as a wellspring of glory and authenticity—the authenticity he lacks himself.
And that’s where Ruslan—note the “Rus”—comes in. The opera begins at the 10th-century court of the prince of Rus, the first Russian state, where the chorus lustily sings the praise of “Great Rus”—also known as “Kyivan Rus,” after its capital. Rus’s borders stretched from the Black Sea to the Arctic White Sea. Russia. Belarus, and Ukraine all trace their origins back to it, and two of the three nations even incorporate Rus in their names.
Kyivan Rus collapsed in the 13th century and power shifted north, first to the Republic of Novgorod, midway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, and then to those two cities in turn. But the absence of an actual Kyivan Rus today lets the myth of it beckon like a lost golden age. Putin’s fixation on recovering it isn’t just another tyrant’s grasping for falsified historical justifications. For him, it’s the true Russian heartland, and without it Russia, like Putin himself, isn’t quite real.
Such anxious nostalgic nationalism is solipsistic and self-defeating. Take it to even more absurd lengths and Turks, Finns, and untold other European peoples would be fighting to reclaim the patches of central Asia their ancestors set out from.
It does nothing to gainsay the Ukrainians’ consummate right, after all the carnage inflicted on them by Stalin and his generation-skipping successor Putin, to preserve their independence and continue building a modern, democratic European state. The fact that Ukraine is a worthier successor to Kyivan Rus—a cosmopolitan trading power, progressive for its day—than Putin’s paranoid, resentful, inward-looking reincarnation of the Soviet Union only further mocks his pretensions.
All the more reason Putin’s willing to destroy it in order to reclaim it.