Tufts University professor and author Gregory Carleton discussed how Russian historical myths contribute to Russian exceptionalism and the rationale for its invasion of Ukraine at a seminar Tuesday evening.
Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies hosted the talk, which was moderated by Edythe Haber, professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Carleton, a member of Tufts’ Department of International Literary and Cultural Studies, said Russia’s past military legacy formed its “sense of exceptionalism,” which represents a key part of the nation’s cultural identity today.
According to Carleton, the nation’s exceptionalism is grounded in Russian war myth, which celebrates “defense” in conflict and “the legacy of invasion.”
He added this portrayal of history “always puts Russia on the side of the good” and allows the nation to frame its actions as “always responding to foreign aggression, not committing it.”
Even the Russian language, per Carleton, reflects the nation’s defense of its perceived land claims. He explained the Russian affix “Род” — meaning “birth” and “kinship” — appears in the Russian words “Родина,” or “the land that gave birth,” and “народ,” or “people.”
According to Carleton, this etymology illustrates the “organic connection between land and people,” indicating a “longstanding legacy that the defense of the land is a sacred act.”
Russian myth describes the recurring pattern of Russia overcoming invasions, according to Carleton.
“Russian exceptionalist history is very much cyclical,” he added, whereas “Americans tend to think of their history as linear.”
Through Russia’s yearly celebration of defeating the Nazis in World War II on May 9, Russians continue to “share a sacred kinship,” according to Carleton.
On that day, Carleton said, Russians from all generations show “pride in themselves,” exemplified through “the spirit of those marching” and “holding the photographs of those who served.”
“Russian identity can be forged from the ultimate triumph in war,” he added.
This sacred kinship, per Carleton, “transcends politics and class” and “unites them” as “one family, symbolically born from the war and from the blood of their greatest generation.”
This source of Russian pride and unity, Carleton said, is entrenched not only in a fight against invaders but also in a belief that Russia is always on the side of the “just.”
In the eyes of the Russians throughout history, he said “it’s not just Western aggression, but it’s rather a Western overall colonial genocidal drive against the world.”
Carleton said during the event that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants the Russian people to believe that Nazism did not disappear, but transformed into imperialism exhibited by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“And now, according to President Putin’s speech on the day of invasion in February, the same Nazi threat has taken seed in Ukraine,” he said.
“He has come to believe in his own history and his own propaganda,” Carleton added.