Vladimir Putin quoted Tolstoy after his summit with Joe Biden: “There’s no happiness in life, only a mirage of it on the horizon.”
Analysts have spent days since puzzling over what he meant.
Putin did add that we should cherish that glimpse of happiness. He was referring as much to trust as happiness, adding that while there was no “family trust” between the US and Russia, in the meeting with Biden “the silent lightnings of it actually flashed by”.
Make of that what you will. Putin has been here before. He has seen off Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump — all of whom wanted a “reset” with Russia.
Putin is still here and, if anything, is more powerful at home and abroad. He has revived Russian influence in the world — not always entirely legitimately and by force.
Putin has tested America
Under Putin, Russia is at war in Ukraine, has annexed Crimea (albeit Russia points to a controversial referendum result showing 97 per cent of the population voting to be integrated with Russia), occupied territories in Georgia, expanded influence in the Middle East, especially in Syria, where Putin has decisively intervened to prop up the government of Bashar Al Assad, and supports autocrats like Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.
He has also targeted and locked up — even allegedly poisoned — rivals, notably opposition figure Alexei Navalny. He is also accused of overseeing a cyber war against the US, something Putin denies.
When Putin sat across from Biden in Geneva this week, he believed he was meeting the leader of a fading empire. To Putin, America is in decline and he has tested it and arguably bested it.
When Barack Obama failed to enforce his “red line” in Syria after Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Putin seized an opportunity. He is now an indispensable figure in that conflict.
He launched his actions in Ukraine and Crimea, calculating that the US would do nothing to stop him. And, sanctions aside, he has been proved right.
Common ground with China
He has grown closer to China’s President, Xi Jinping and, while short of an all-out alliance, it is a relationship of mutual interest. Like Putin, Xi also believes the West is waning.
Russia and China look to history for inspiration and vengeance. Putin and Xi share a similar world view. It is the view of a civilisation, not a nation. It is a long view of history informed by suffering and a sense of humiliation.
That’s why Putin quoted the Great Russian writer Tolstoy. He could also have quoted another line from Tolstoy: “Happy people have no history.”
Russia and China emerged from a long, dark winter. History is not something recorded in books or commemorated, it is etched into the soul. History is lived.
It is a very different view of the West which believes that history is something to be conquered. History is something left in the past. Indeed, the West believes that progress vanquishes history, that time unfolds in a straight line towards the very end of history itself.
That’s what we were told after the fall of the Soviet Union, that liberal democracy had triumphed and that it represented the final stage on humanity’s journey.
Putin has said that the fall of the Soviet empire was the great catastrophe of the 20th century. He believes that Russia was humiliated by the West.
Nostalgia, pride and politics
Putin says that the US had promised that in exchange for Soviet troop withdrawal from East Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall, there would be no NATO expansion, then betrayed that pact by enlarging NATO.
The West maintains there was never any such deal. Yet Putin feels under siege and carries a grudge.
In any event, in his recent book, Russia as Empire: Past and Present, historian Kees Boterbloem says “the real opportunity was likely missed earlier, in the 1990s, when politicians in the EU and NATO countries passed up the chance welcome the Russian federation into their midst”.
Instead, Boterbloem says, “nostalgia for past greatness in Russia was inflamed”.
He writes: “Nostalgic pride in their countries past greatness affects many Russians.” And he adds that pride drives so much politics.
Putin knows this; he plays on that sense of historical grievance to bind the Russian identity. History is a weapon in the hands of populists and autocrats.
It is the politics of resentment: the past remains an open wound never to be healed. As Boterbloem says, there is an “enduring belief in an eternal empire in Russian collective memory”.
Our strategic mistake
The same exists in China, where Xi also speaks the language of history and grievance in China. The West underestimates this, and that is a strategic mistake.
Putin would say Biden does not understand history at all, history is struggle and survival.
He would tell him to read Tolstoy.
Happy people have no history.
Stan Grant presents China Tonight on Tuesdays at 8:00pm on ABC News Channel and 10:30pm on ABC TV.