The Russian invasion of Ukraine feels a bit like something out of another century. It’s not just that it’s a land war in Europe, reminiscent of the mechanized industrial era. It’s that Russia’s casus belli is the opposite of strategic; Putin’s war aims seem mythical and weirdly ancient. Beneath the proximate causes, such as NATO expansion (if you’re even willing to believe that’s anything more than an excuse), lies a vision of Russia as a fallen and now resurgent imperial power, and Ukraine as a vassal state gone rogue. And the split identity of Russia as both an eastern outpost of modern Western civilization and a kind of Asiatic suzerain over a vast and wild expanse of steppeland warrior tribes — a national pathology that goes back centuries — is deeply insinuated into its paranoia over Ukrainians’ gravitation toward Europe. The war is being waged with modern technology, but in spirit, the conflict is feudal.
I don’t think you can get a complete picture of Russia’s anxieties and ambitions without considering the country’s pre-modern history. Nobody — and I mean nobody — is better at elucidating those themes than my friend Razib Khan. You’ll know Razib from the last podcast episode I posted (some time ago), which was me as a guest on his show. This time we switched mics.
Razib is a population geneticist and a huge history nerd, and his knowledge of the churn and mixture of human populations globally over the course of millennia is awe-inspiring. Our conversation took us from the Vikings to ancient Japan to colonial America, but I tried to keep us focused on the history of the region that is now serving as the potential prelude to the next world war.
Be sure to sign up for Razib’s excellent Substack.