Having more or less stifled internal dissent, Russia is now ready to play a more aggressive role on the international stage. Remember, it was Putin who restored the old Soviet national anthem. And it was he who described the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “national tragedy on an enormous scale.”

It would be a bigger tragedy if he or his successor tried to restore that evil empire. Unfortunately, that is precisely what the Weimar analogy predicts will happen. ~Niall Ferguson

Three points to start.  Putin restored the melody of the old Soviet anthem, but the words have been completely changed.  Call it grotesque, or call it appropriation of different pasts, call it the politicisation of nostalgia, or call it what you will, but he did not simply restore the Soviet anthem as it existed before 1991.  That is a rather misleading statement.  Second, if we understand that Putin is a nationalist and further understand that many Russian people living in the USSR saw the USSR as a Russian project in which Russians were the main actors, it will make a lot more sense that, as a nationalist, Putin will view the collapse of the USSR in terms of a collapse of Russian power and prestige.  Indeed, Russian power and prestige did collapse, and nationalists don’t like it when this happens to their state, but one need not necessarily read anything more into it than that.  None of this is necessarily to praise or defend Putin as such, but simply to understand the political realities of Russia today.  Third, a Weimar analogy does not suggest a revival of the empire that preceded the period of chaos, disillusionment with democratic parliamentarism and hyperinflation, but rather a transformation of the Weimar republican system into something else.  If Ferguson’s claim had been true of the Weimar period, it would have meant that the Hohenzollerns or some family like them would have reconstituted the Kaiserreich, which obviously did not happen.  Instead of a return to pre-1991 Soviet models or the evolution of a hyper-nationalist revisionist regime, we are seeing the development of a quasi-democratic authoritarian nationalist regime.  If there were any interwar comparison that would be more suitable to modern Russia, it would more likely be post-1938 Spain that serves as the model.  For a number of reasons, however, this is an unsatisfying comparison.   Unfortunately, Mr. Ferguson can be very good at understanding the past when he is not actively working on a political project in the present, but here he makes a hash of things.  Since he is part of McCain’s camp, it is no surprise that he would espouse alarmist and Russophobic sentiments.

Historical analogies are indeed inexact and imperfect, especially when they involve Weimar and Nazi Germany.  People find endless points of comparison between their own moment in history and this period, because this is one period they can be fairly sure the History Channel-addled minds  of their readership will be able to comprehend.  These people are also fairly sure that they can conjure up the appropriate reaction of fear and loathing for whatever it is that they are comparing to incipient Nazism.  The analogies are inexact because the arguments are always tendentious.  “Did you realise that Hitler was a vegetarian, and did you know that so-and-so is a vegetarian?  We should fear and hate so-and-so.  I rest my case.”   

These analogies are inexact and imperfect because there has never been and will never be any situation very much like the interwar period of the 20th century.  WWI was in many ways such an epoch-ending, transformational war that we still live in its shadow and feel the reverberations of the explosion that laid waste to so much of Western civilisation.  Yet, for all its force and significance, it had still not “resolved” the problem of a unified Germany, whose unification is arguably the one political event that has most defined the history of most of the world since the French Revolution.  The relative reduction in the size of the Russian “empire,” on the other hand, and Moscow’s attempts to compensate for newfound weakness does not present a “problem” of this kind.  A Russia with fluctuating borders and cycles of waxing and waning power is not something new on the scene.  There has been a Muscovy/Russia of this kind since at least Mikhail I (r. 1613-1645).  We can find analogies that are less ideological and more appropriate to the present situation in the history of Russia itself.  The Time of Troubles in the early 17th century, ending with the establishment of the Romanov dynasty, is almost certainly a better comparison.  Russia’s modern recovery from internal chaos and foreign exploitation, both perceived and real, has a good deal more in common with the building up of the tsar’s power in the 17th century than it does with the hyper-nationalist revisionism of the Third Reich.  Another reasonably good period for comparison might be the reign of Tsar Nikolai I (1825-1855).  The consolidation of power domestically, the definition of Russian identity in relatively more authoritarian, nationalist and religious terms and efforts to make limited gains in the Russian “near-abroad” compare fairly well with what Putin has been trying to do.  The direct comparisons between Nikolai I’s Caucasian wars and Putin’s war in Chechnya are obvious.