Vladimir Putin: Bad Historian

Why Putin’s revisionist history is no laughing matter

By Oleg Atbashian
First publishеd in the American Thinker

As someone who’s lived in both Russia and Ukraine, who speaks both languages, and is versed in their histories, I’ve been bombarded with questions about Putin’s recent interview with Tucker Carlson. It prompted me to compile my answers into this article, hoping to clarify for my American friends the real backdrop and fallout of Putin’s remarks.

For a more complete breakdown, see a take by Senior Analyst for Russian and European Affairs of the Center for Security Policy, Andrei Illarionov, who used to be Putin’s economic advisor and knows him personally. Illarionov lists 12 main messages and 30 basic fakes in Vladimir Putin’s interview with Tucker Carlson, adding that a detailed analysis of Putin’s fakes, errors, absurdities, distortions, manipulations, and falsifications requires considerable space and time and, hopefully, will be done in the near future.

Indeed, Putin packed his interview with so many tall tales, you’d need an academic thesis to tackle them all. But let’s face it, who’s got the time for that? So, I’m serving up a condensed version, sprinkled with my own observations and takeaways for flavor.

First off, I tip my hat to Tucker Carlson for cozying Putin up enough to chatter away for two whole hours, revealing things about himself in ways we’d only speculated about. It appears that 24 years in an echo chamber of yes-men have dulled Putin’s knack for crisp arguments. With real opponents jailed or murdered, and a tame opposition in check, Putin’s debate skills are as rusty as a Soviet-era Lada. Throw him into an actual debate, and he’d fold faster than an empty suit.

Confronted with a question about igniting Europe’s bloodiest conflict since WWII, he unspooled an hour-long Viking saga, more tangled than a bowl of medieval spaghetti, dates flung every which way but right. Forget NATO fears; it’s all about the Kievan Rus princes now.

But how good is Putin as a historian? Let’s just say he’s about as reliable as tales of Conan the Barbarian from Robert E. Howard’s imagination. Had Tucker brought up Conan, Putin might well have anointed him a Russian hero who hailed from Cimmeria, which sounds like the Crimea and overlaps with modern Ukraine. And since in Putin’s imaginary atlas Ukraine equals Russia, it makes Conan a local legend. His entire historical discourse, replete with anachronisms, was equally imaginative.


After the flurry of memes and online jokes that followed the interview, I thought we’d all have a good laugh and leave it at that. Yet, despite the chuckles, some of my conservative friends still saw Putin as a kind of intellectual, a history enthusiast with odd fixations, granting him an unearned gloss of wisdom.

Taking Putin’s historical musings seriously implies viewing Ukraine – home to 44 million people and thousands of years of history – as merely an illusion, a historical glitch, a cartographic mistake in need of ‘fixing’ by Putin. But then we’d be no different from those who turned a blind eye to the Holocaust, dismissing it as a distant issue or even a regrettable means to peace.

It’s deeply troubling that Russia’s nuclear-armed leader places greater weight on a historical soap opera than on the pressing concerns of the living, breathing present.

Before we dive into historical rebuttals, let’s make one thing clear: in this scenario, history isn’t even the main concern.

What’s paramount here is international law and the inviolability of national borders. Yes, borders have been shifting throughout history, but the advent of nuclear arms cemented the principle of national sovereignty. The concept of territorial integrity has been the glue holding the world together for nearly eight decades, stopping us from reducing Earth to a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Toss that rule out, and we’re signing up for a doomsday party, a global free-for-all that might just end humanity’s run.

After all, history’s roller coaster aside, Ukraine has been an independent nation for 33 years, forging its modern identity. A generation has come of age in freedom, now raising their own free-spirited kids. Each jab from Putin only tempers the Ukrainian resolve stronger, bonding them like iron in a fire. Ukraine’s newfound solidarity against challenges overrules any ancient drama in its storied past.

Now, back to Putin’s lecture on history. The gist of his tale is this: Russia began when a Viking named Rurik rode in on a high horse and whipped up a state called Rus. Then the Poles, never ones to miss a party, slice off a piece of Russia and label it ‘Ukraine.’ Russia, ever the benevolent overlord, takes back the land and showers it with gifts. But instead of thank you notes, they got a bunch of Banderites stirring up trouble. Cue the Austro-Hungarian masterminds who persuaded the locals that Ukraine had its own language and culture. Then Lenin comes along and conjures up Ukraine from thin air, planting a ticking time bomb that’s now Putin’s headache to dismantle.

Well, the actual story is quite different. The medieval Rus state, also known as Kievan Rus, thrived in present-day Ukraine, predating the very concept of Russia. Russia later emerged from Muscovy, initially a minor entity at the Slavic world’s fringes. Thirsty for power, Muscovy rulers aligned with the invading Mongol forces to expand its territory, annexing neighboring Slavic lands in the process.


The tide turned only centuries later, with Ivan the Terrible conquering of Golden Horde lands, claiming its throne, and adopting their Mongol-Tatar governance model for his entire domain. Thus, rather than being the successor of Rus, Muscovy was more like the Golden Horde’s heir apparent. And that is the twist that makes Russia the odd one out in the European family portrait.

Muscovy kept expanding its borders by absorbing surrounding Slavic, Finno-Ugric, and Tatar lands. The term “Russians” wasn’t in their lexicon yet; they identified as Muscovites. It wasn’t until the 18th century that Czar Peter the Great, in a move to elevate Muscovy to imperial status, decreed the adoption of “Russians” as their new identity, complete with a sophisticated rebranding. To imbue his empire with a sense of historic depth, Peter harked back to the esteemed Kievan Rus, adopting “Rossiya” – a Greek-inflected rendition of “Rus” – because nothing says “legit” like a classic throwback.

Little did Ukrainians know that their land would become a cornerstone of the Russian imperial narrative. History books were rewritten to cast Russia as the legitimate heir of Rus – a script Putin happily sold to Tucker. To those not well-versed, it might even sound plausible – if not for the minor detail of millions of Ukrainian-speaking souls who don’t feel the slightest bit Russian. This begs the question from anyone paying attention: when did this Ukrainian crowd move in, if there weren’t any grand migrations on record?
 Putin’s claim that ‘Ukraine’ translates to ‘the fringe’ is an outdated and debunked idea, rooted in false etymology. The term ‘Ukraine’ dates back to the 12th century, predating Russia itself – so how could it be ‘the fringe’ of something nonexistent? In reality, ‘Ukraine’ signifies ‘the country, the homeland.’ Initially a colloquial stand-in for ‘Rus,’ the term lingered after Rus declined, with its people continuing their lives, tending their farms and keeping their culture as Ukrainians. The Netherlands is also sometimes called ‘Holland’ or ‘the Dutch Republic’ – different names, same place.

Putin’s spin on more recent history is equally dubious. He recycled his threadbare story of an alleged “CIA coup” in Ukraine, a chapter Ukrainians honor as the Revolution of Dignity. This narrative is as flimsy as the notorious “Russian collusion” tale from the 2016 U.S. election. It’s a head-scratcher how some in America, quick to scoff at the “Russian collusion” fiction, readily accept Putin’s “CIA coup” account, even though both scripts likely originate from the same web in Moscow’s Lubyanka Square.

Likewise, those who rightly dismiss claims of America teeming with racist neo-Nazis appear surprisingly receptive to Putin’s parallel claims about neo-Nazis in Ukraine. The tactic of tarnishing with the Nazi brush is very similar, probably crafted by the same political puppeteers. In this light, there’s little difference between Putin and some Antifa radical in Portland, both eager to stir up Nazi narratives to justify their own violence and seize the moral high ground. There’s a global gaslighting effort that is pitting people worldwide against each other. Wonder who stands to gain from such discord?

A Twitter user suggested Putin’s historical narrative mirrored an argument for Israel. I’d say it’s the other way around: Putin’s line is closer to the Palestinian narrative. Their claim to Israel hinges on Mohammed’s legendary flight to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque on a winged horse, and they are willing to die for this spiritual legacy. Similarly, Putin aims to annex Ukraine’s hallowed grounds, asserting they’re part of Russia’s legacy – a stance just as implausible.

Strikingly, Putin even found ways to justify Hitler’s invasion of Poland, thus aligning with another despot known for spinning historical myths and phantom grievances to validate widespread slaughter, displacements, destruction, and territorial grabs.

That’s why we’ve got to keep an eagle eye on the Kremlin’s history buff-in-chief. His sit-down with Tucker Carlson revealed a concerning image of Putin: not just a leader disconnected from current realities, but a full-blown historical fantasist, playing fast and loose with the fates of millions, guided not by present-day truths but by some dusty, fictional version of yesteryear.