20 years under Putin: a timeline

Historian Dmitry Shlapentokh reviews Boris Akunin’s recent books—a novel and a historical treatise—that reflect the writer’s thinking about Russian history and thinly-guised allusions to the present and future. Seeing no good model for the Russian state in both the national and the European tradition, Akunin ponders the question: is Russia doomed? 


According to Boris Akunin, Russian rulers who opted for a laissez-faire approach, enjoying their private lives (such as female rulers of the 18th-century), were a better option than those engaged in implementing a grand vision (such as Peter the Great). Photo: Portrait of Catherine II by Fyodor Rokotov (1763).


Since the Kremlin regime has increased control over the country’s cultural life, Russian intellectuals are returning to the old Soviet habits—reading between the lines and finding allusions to the present and future in the discussions about the past. Instead of thinking about minute and fleeting events, they ponder the abstract and grand, such as the meaning of Russian and world history. Historical novels and treaties are once again in vogue, and Boris Akunin, a popular Russian writer and historian, is at the forefront of the trend. His vision of Russia’s past and, indirectly, of its present and future is conveyed in two recent books: Walnut Buddha (Orekhovyi Budda, 2018), a work of historical fiction, and The Epoch of Tsaritsas (Epokha tsarits, 2018), a historical treatise—both dealing with 18th-century Russia.


No Good Alternative for Russia

In the seminal philosophical debate of 19th-century Russia that unraveled between the Slavophiles and the Westernizers, the former had often accused Peter the Great (1682-1725) of destroying traditional Russian society. But later, both hardcore Russian nationalists and liberal Westernizers found positive outcomes in his reforms. Russian nationalists praised Peter as the man who made Russia a truly global power. Westernizers perceived him as someone who brought Russia closer to the West. The latter also justified his harsh policies toward the populace, arguing that, in semi-Asiatic Russia, a civilizational transformation could only happen in a top-down fashion and suffering of the hoi polloi was inevitable.

In Walnut Buddha, Akunin dissects and criticizes both views. In fact, he sees no positive models for Russia. The author rejects the Slavophile vision of the country, including that of pre-Petrine Russia, which in the book is embodied by the Old Believers,[1] who are portrayed as a brutal, totalitarian sect—similar to the equally brutal authorities. He also debunks the “Eurasian” theory that emphasizes Russia’s advantage over Europe. This theory stems from the notion that European colonies were built as entities fundamentally different from—and inferior to—the conquering nations, which allowed the latter to brutally exploit and abuse indigenous populations. It further holds that no such history exists in Russia, which is why both ethnic Russians and minorities lived in a happy “symbiosis,” to quote the leading exponent of Eurasianism, historian Lev Gumilyov. Akunin provides examples of the less-than-harmonious ways in which the Russians dealt with the natives of Yakutia in Siberia (e.g. Russian Cossacks and merchants would routinely rob the natives and rape their women).

As for Peter’s westernization of Russia, Akunin sees it as a disaster, deeming the West itself as hardly a positive alternative. For the author, the West, epitomized by Holland, is quite an unpleasant place. While it is true that Dutch citizens could not be arbitrarily arrested and their living standards were generally better than those of other European nations, Akunin argues that Holland offered no great art or science. Most of the Dutch characters in the book are either predatory businessmen or prostitutes.

Furthermore, Akunin argues that the newly westernized Russia became much worse than it had been before. The Russian Asiatic repressive machinery persisted, with European methods just making it more efficient. The point is illustrated by the storyline of a Dutch prostitute who marries a Russian noble and arrives in Moscow to be “greeted” by the corpses of rebellious Russian strel’tsy (soldiers) hanging from the Kremlin walls “like grapes.” According to Akunin, Peter also used European techniques to develop a system of compulsory labor camps, which the author clearly compares to the Gulag. Indeed, in Akunin’s interpretation, Petrine Russia eerily resembles the Stalinist USSR, where the industrial and geopolitical rise was fueled by the slaughter of the repressed population.

Akunin concedes that the exposure to Western culture did produce some notable Russian intellectuals, who, however, spent their lives in wishful thinking, developing plans to make Russia a good place for its citizens—plans that were never realized. Since neither Russia’s own tradition nor the West offers a good alternative for the country, Akunin suggests that one should perhaps look not for a societal alternative, but an existential one. It is symbolic that the hero of the book is a Japanese Buddhist monk who teaches a Russian girl to enjoy life.


The Role of Female Rulers

For Akunin, Russia’s greatest misfortune is the fact that it became not just a strong state but a multiethnic “Eurasian” empire, which acquired a taste for imperial expansion and related messianic dreams, encouraging the state to increase its absolute power. That selfsame Russian state has inborn defects, and Akunin elaborates on them in The History of the Russian State. Eurasian Empire: The Epoch of Tsaritsas (Istoriia Rossiiskogo gosudarstva. Evraziiskaia imperiia. Epokha tsarits, 2019).

According to Akunin, in the wake of the Mongol conquest, Russia absorbed the Mongolian political culture and became a “Horde state” (ordynskoe gosudarstvo), which could not exist without a “sacred” leader who personified the nation and maintained power and prestige by ruling through force and terror. Also, being an empire, Russia needed endless expansion. These conditions laid the foundation for its gravest problems of the 18thcentury, which seeped into the following century and beyond.

Being an empire and having a “sacred” leader seem to be permanent elements of Russian statehood, but, as Akunin posits, there are other features that could be removed with relative ease, which, if implemented, could greatly benefit the country. One is the end of the messianic pursuit. Indeed, in Walnut Buddha, Akunin blames Peter the Great not just for his excessive cruelty or for creating an empire, but also for his messianic plans—to make Russia a leading European power. These plans had the most devastating implications for the country: the state brutally interfered in the lives of ordinary Russians, ruining them through taxation, convict labor, and terror. Millions of lives were wasted, the economy was wrecked (only the industries directly supported by the state flourished). Ending this messianic drive would bring the country much needed relief.

To further this argument, Akunin suggests that those Russian rulers who allowed the country to develop according to its internal logic were actually much more beneficial for Russia than those who had grand plans. In The Epoch of Tsaritsas, he engages in a peculiarly innovative historiographical approach and lays out the case for the female rulers who dominated 18th-century Russia. Most historians, both pre-revolutionary and Soviet, hardly have anything positive to say about such female rulers as Catherine I (1724-1727), Anna Ioanovna (1730-1740), or Elizabeth (1741-1762). Catherine I was usually portrayed as a streetwalker who had neither the intelligence nor the ambition for the job, but, by a twist of fate, became empress. In a way, she was similar to Elizabeth, who was mostly interested in sex and dancing, and couldn’t care less about the state. Or Anna Ioanovna, who stood out for her exceptional cruelty and an affair with a German named Biron.

These three Russian female rulers are juxtaposed by Akunin to Catherine II (1762-1796). Soviet historians usually lambasted her for transforming Russian servants into real slaves, but even they praised her successful military exploits. Akunin approaches the issue from a different angle, crushing the very idea of the empire, which he compares to a dangerous form of cancer. Akunin credits Catherine II for showing practicality of mind and an understanding of what could and could not be done. For example, she promoted women’s education not only because she wanted to, but because she realized that it was doable.

For Akunin, Russian rulers who had grand plans for the country were a curse, whereas those who opted for a laissez-faire approach, enjoying their private lives, were a better option. Therefore, Akunin extends a peculiar pardon to Anna Ioanovna’s cruelty, noting that her attitude was essential for maintaining the “sacredness” of royal power. Besides, her terror targeted the elite and spared the common people. He also justifies Catherine II’s expansion of the Russian Empire, arguing that she did it essentially against her own will and otherwise did not engage in any grand projects.


Ending the Imperial Drive

What are the implications of this narrative? One view is that Russia is doomed because of its political culture marred by the imperatives of despotic rulers and imperial expansion. Still, Akunin sees a chance for Russia to develop organically, without massive state interference. Women, especially if they are not interested in imperial pursuits, could make for ideal rulers. However, this peculiar interpretation of the past on Akunin’s behalf is not so much a reflection of the rising feminism in today’s Russia, but rather a sign of another trend. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, nostalgia for the empire, often related to nostalgia for the Soviet regime, was strong even among liberal intellectuals. Recently, it has started to subside, which can be interpreted as a new emerging sense that Russia’s size and imperial ambitions are a liability rather than an advantage for the country.

In any case, the anti-imperial sentiment points to a new phase in Russian history. The notion of Russia as the “Third Rome” has been popular since the 15thcentury, while messianic dreams—implicitly or explicitly—connected with empire and the quest for global domination have been shared, to a degree, by both the elite and the masses. But these views seem to be increasingly tempered now, and some Russian intellectuals sense that the Russian state could well have reached the limits of its influence. In other words, Putin’s “Long State,” to quote from the regime ideologist Vladislav Surkov’s recent article, might not be as “long” as the author and, undoubtedly, some people in the Kremlin believe.



  1. Akunin, B. Orekhovyi Budda, Moscow: AST, 2018.
  2. Akunin, B. Istoriia Rossiiskogo gosudarstva. Evraziiskaia imperiia. Epokha tsarits. Moscow: AST, 2018.

[1] Old Believers are a group that split from the Russian Orthodox Church following the reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon of Moscow in the mid-17thcentury. Old Believers resisted the ritual and textual revisions introduced by Nikon and preserved the old practices of the Eastern Orthodox Church.


* Dmitry Shlapentokh is an associate professor at Indiana University South Bend.