As a young man, British historian Norman Davies undertook an adventure that would define his six decade academic career. At the age of twenty, the Oxford graduate set off from Manchester, England, behind the wheel of an American Army jeep, across post-war Europe to its outer reaches in the city of Istanbul, Turkey, where East tantalizingly meets West. The year was 1959. Europe was divided into a booming West and a “dark” East. Mile by mile, the Welshman explored the continent’s civilizational identity which he would later chronicle in his classic text, “Europe: A History.”

In Davies’ telling, modern Europe, forged in the aftermath of two world wars, now faces unfamiliar threats. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s disastrous war in Ukraine is quickly unravelling his imperialistic ambitions while immiserating the Ukrainian people. Western strength and solidarity are being tested. Davies, whose deep expertise in Central and Eastern European history has won him international acclaim and a Polish passport, reminds us that the decline of empire is as inevitable as old age. Like the fragile human life over which it seeks dominion, it can suddenly collapse, making way for the next evolutionary, revolutionary, or reactionary cycle.

We reach the 83-year-old scholar at his home in Summertown, Oxford. He reflects on the fallout of Putin’s war on Russia, Ukraine, Europe, and China. “The Chinese have never accepted that parts of the Far East are incorporated into Russia,” Davies points out. “At some point,” he predicts, “the Chinese are simply going to come over the frontier and take what they want.” Davies tells Die Weltwoche that, having exposed Russia as “feeble” and its Red Army “incompetent”: “Irrespective of what happens militarily, Putin has lost.”


Norman Davies

«The decline of empire is as inevitable as old age”: Norman Davies

















Weltwoche: Professor Davies, you recently said that we are witnessing a final ordeal by fire forging the steel of Ukrainian identity. Is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war the last act of Ukrainian nation building?

Davies: The short answer to that is “yes.” I draw a parallel to what happened to Poland in 1920 when Poland was invaded by, in that case, Soviet Russia. The outcome of the Polish-Soviet War in 1920, to everybody's surprise, was a Polish victory. A very clean and complete Polish victory, and the only great defeat of the Red Army. This war, coming only two years after Poland had regained its independence, was the forger of national identity. Something similar has happened in Ukraine. Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, but, for thirty years, the question of identity was very confused. Ukrainian politics were in turmoil. The Ukrainian economy was very badly degraded after the Soviet collapse. Putin began his war against Ukraine with the invasion of 2014 (the annexation of Crimea). The last eight years have done more for Ukrainian identity than 800 years before. Every Ukrainian citizen feels assaulted by this horrible, brutal, violent, murderous invasion.

Weltwoche: There have long been tensions between Ukrainians of Russian origin and the rest of the country. Have these faded into the background?

Davies: It's quite interesting that the Russians have been attacking the Russian speaking areas of Ukraine (which is the east), but they never got anywhere near the main centers of Ukrainian speech and historical culture. At a stroke, Putin has united the Ukrainian people to feel they are a nation victimized. The Ukrainians will never be the same. Irrespective of what happens militarily, Putin has lost.

Weltwoche: When reading your outstanding book “Europe: A History,” we recognize a recurring theme. Europeans have always been at war, slaughtering each other over territory, ethnicity, religion. War has been a constant throughout Europe’s history. Why are we, Europeans, so shocked by the war in Ukraine?

Davies: This means that, unless you're about ninety years old, you can't remember the historical wars of the past.

I'm 83 years old, and I can just remember the Second World War. The last three generations of Europeans have grown up in a peaceful world. I wouldn't say entirely free of anxiety but, nonetheless, unaccustomed to the rules of aggression.

National conflicts — national wars, national quarrels over territory — were the norm in Europe, basically, until 1945. The incidence of invasions, wars, and attacks by one nation on another, however, have not taken place since the Second World War.

Weltwoche: You recently said, “The sanctity of the territory and borders of individual states is the bedrock of the international order established after 1945. By attacking a member of the United Nations, Putin is attacking us all.”

Davies: The last three generations have been cured of the nationalist ideology of ‘sacred egoism’ that claims the right to expand and attack neighbors, with the exception of one nation: namely, the Russians. The big contrast is between Russia and Germany, which was affected by aggressive nationalism worse than anybody else. Germany has been almost completely cured of that ideology, whereas Russia has not. Putin's ideology is a strange, exceptional survival of attitudes that has evaporated elsewhere. I think that's why we're shocked. Nobody in our generation, or the last three generations, has known anything like it.

The wars in Yugoslavia were, if you like, an exception. The wars of Yugoslavia, however, didn't really threaten anybody else, whereas Putin's attack on Ukraine is very threatening for many other nations in Europe — in particular, the Poles , the Baltic states, Romania. Everybody is very shocked.

Weltwoche: Poland and Ukraine were in conflict for a long time. Have those animosities disappeared, in view of Putin's war of aggression?

Davies: Poland was one of the historic enemies of Ukraine, if you read Ukrainian history books. The Ukrainians felt that they were threatened from the west by Poland and from the east by Russia. Until very recently, until this year, there were many Poles and Ukrainians who were deeply offended by memories of former conflicts and atrocities. There were huge genocidal killings of Poles by Ukrainian nationalists during the Second World War. We know of people whose families were wiped out; they've never forgotten it. But, suddenly, Putin's attack on Ukraine seems to have cured most Poles of these inhibitions. It's quite remarkable. The Poles are nearly forty million. Now with nearly four million Ukrainians in Poland, there are more of them than there were Jews before the war, which is a huge, huge change. The Poles are very sympathetic to Ukraine because the Ukrainians are suffering in the way that Poles did in the past.

Weltwoche: Through suffering, both nations have reached a moment of reconciliation. The question is, will it last?

Davies: We're hearing stories of Polish schools where most classes, now, have a group of Ukrainian children who can't understand the teacher. There are Polish parents saying, “Well, wait a minute. This is affecting our children's education.”

We don't know what the answer is going to be in the long term. In a way, that largely depends on what happens in Ukraine. If these refugees begin to return in huge numbers, then the pressure on Poland will abate, and the Poles will have a better memory of this episode. We wait to see what happens on that front.

Weltwoche: One of my favorite books of yours is “Vanished Kingdoms.” In the last chapter, you chronicle the Soviet empire. For decades, this empire seemed entrenched, but then it dissolved almost overnight. Is 21st century Russia — a relic of this old great empire that spans eleven time zones — an anachronism? Could Russia disappear in a wink, like the Soviet Union and many other empires before it?

Davies: I think that is not only possible, it is probable. Even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which saw fourteen republics secede from the Soviet Union, Russia is still the largest state in the world. The rump of Russia is still bigger than anywhere else. It's amazing that it holds together.

In the 1990s, [then-president of the Soviet Union Boris] Yeltsin's Russia was on the point of falling apart. Yeltsin's government was absolutely chaotic. The economic conditions were terrible. Russia began to disintegrate in different regions; it fell into the hands of oligarchs and local bosses who began to ignore the rule of Moscow. Another decade of that and Russia would have broken up, perhaps into a dozen pieces. One of Putin's main achievements is stopping that disintegration. He's done it by promoting this highly nationalistic ideology. Within Russia, he has been quite successful. That's why he has had enough confidence to launch an unprovoked attack on his neighbour.

Weltwoche: How would you describe Putin’s ideology?

Davies: Putin is an ex-KGB officer, but he has not appealed to Soviet ideology (which he knows is totally discredited and has very little support.) He has revived the ideology of tsarist Russia. He's reverted to ideas that were prevalent in the late 19th century before the Bolshevik revolution. There are several elements which are very obvious. One is the religious element. When he got control of Russia, Putin (who was an atheist KGB officer) had himself baptized, and he revived the Russian Orthodox Church, which is headed by an ex-KGB officer [Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev, “Cyril,” patriarch of Russia and primate of the Russian Orthodox Church.] Cyril is a KGB agent.

Weltwoche: You are speaking of Patriarch Cyril I, from Vladimir Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg and formerly an active officer in the KGB.

Davies: One element of the Russian Orthodox Church is a collection of ideas created by Ivan the Terrible, 500 years ago. He declared that all orthodox Slavs should obey the tsar of Russia and the patriarch of Moscow. It's Ivan the Terrible who started this campaign to coerce all orthodox Slavs to obey Moscow. In Ivan's time (the 16th century), the Ukrainians didn't even use the word “Ukrainian.” They called themselves, “Ruthenians.” They were orthodox, but recognized the patriarch of Constantinople, in the old Byzantine tradition of the Greek Orthodox Church. These Slavs, who lived mainly under Polish rule, recognized the patriarch of Constantinople. Suddenly, from Moscow, they hear the threats: “If you don't do as we say and recognize the patriarch of Moscow, we'll come and kill you.” This attitude is part and parcel of what Putin is doing.

Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church have been blessing the troops going into Ukraine. In February, before the Russian tanks set off across the frontier, they were blessed by Russian Orthodox priests, including Patriarch Cyril. These young men are being told that, “You're fighting against fascists and Nazis, but also against heretics.” It is amazing that Putin can do something like that.

Weltwoche: How did Putin underestimate the Ukrainian resistance so badly?

Davies: He's surrounded by what we call “yes” men, people who only tell him what he wants to hear. He didn't realize that even Russian-speaking Ukrainians were not Russians and couldn't be steamrolled within two or three days, and he miscalculated that like everything else. The day after Putin invaded Ukraine, the Japanese reminded the world that the islands off Hokkaido – the so-called ‘Lesser Kuriles’ - which were seized by [general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Joseph] Stalin, are still legally Japanese. The Japanese immediately reminded Moscow that there is still a disputed territory in the Far East. Rather than cede four small islands, the Japanese refused to sign a peace treaty with the USSR for as long as the USSR lasted. This could be a precedent for future Ukrainian attitudes.

Weltwoche: What about the Chinese? Will they reclaim some parts of Russia’s territory, or will they profit in some other way?

Davies: The Chinese play the long game, but have never accepted that parts of the Far East were rightfully incorporated into Russia. In Chinese textbooks, the city of Khabarovsk, if not Vladivostok [situated around the Golden Horn Bay on the Sea of Japan] is part of China taken by Russia. Sooner or later, the Chinese are going to seize their opportunity. The future of Siberia is one of the big questions. Siberia is bigger than the United States. It's full of minerals, timber — all the materials that the Chinese need - yet nearly empty of people. The Russians have never been able to exploit it properly. At some point, the Chinese are simply going to come over the frontier and take what they want.

Weltwoche: Some in the West have warned that Russia will be pushed into China’s arms as consequence of the strict sanction regime. Perhaps, Russia and China might actually be rivals, not partners, after all?

Davies: The Chinese, at present, want to give a kick to the Americans. They thought they would support Putin, thinking that he would conquer Ukraine in a few days. I'm sure that's what was discussed when Putin went to Beijing in February. He would have told [China’s President] Xi Jinping that this was going to be a simple operation; they would conquer Ukraine; and, together, Russia and China would be greatly strengthened. The opposite has happened. Russia has shown how feeble it is, how very incompetent the Russian Armed Forces are. Now, China will say that Russia is not a reliable partner. In fact, they will be beginning to think, “Is the time coming when we will recover parts of Asiatic Russia?”

Weltwoche: Thomas Hobbes declares in "Leviathan" that war is the ultimate factor in the disintegration of states. Indeed, the war in Afghanistan was a key factor that lead to the implosion of the Soviet Union. Might the war Putin is waging, now, in Ukraine be the beginning of the demise of Russia?

Davies: Absolutely. Putin is going pay a price for his failure to conquer Ukraine quickly. Of course, we don't know what's going on in the minds of Russian civilians. Russia is still a secret society. You can't believe opinion polls, but it's undoubtedly true that this nationalistic ideology of Putin will only survive through manifest victory.

The minute the failure of Russia becomes known to the Russian population, Putin is going to pay the price, one way or another. I don't think he'll last very long. I very much doubt that, in two years time, Putin will still be there. He'll either be (if he's lucky) retired, or he'll be replaced by somebody else - possibly by someone even more aggressive. It's more likely, however, to be somebody who is trying to mend the damage of all this war.

Weltwoche: With his failure on the battlefield, Putin's other weaknesses are now coming to light. This also affects his succession. To quote Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage, and all men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances.” Time and again, Shakespeare reminds us that, no matter how great the leader, their tenure is temporary. Yet, too often, leaders fail to ensure a smooth handover of power.

Davies: Quite right again.

Weltwoche: From the outside, there appears to be no plan in place for Putin's succession.

Davies: This is true of all authoritarian or fully totalitarian systems. There is no succession. Adolf Hitler [being one example.] Hereditary monarchies solve that problem: “The king is dead, long live the king.” Putin has set up a personal dictatorship. Once the dictator either dies or begins to fail, the system falls apart because there's nothing else to hold it together.

Weltwoche: States, kingdoms, and empires have perished in different ways throughout history. Some have imploded, like the Soviet Union. Others, like Burgundy or the Byzantine Empire, were destroyed by conquest. There are also divorces, like in 1993 when the Czechs and the Slovaks peacefully separated. Which state do you think will go down next?

Davies: I thought that Belgium was going to fall apart, but it didn't. I now think the United Kingdom is top of the list. One of the effects of Brexit (which, in my view, was a catastrophic decision) is that the Irish problem has been inflamed. Everything I've predicted about Ireland is coming true: the unionists are in deep trouble, they're losing out; the nationalists are now in the majority in Northern Ireland.

It's only a matter of time before there will be a democratic vote in Northern Ireland to join with the Republic of Ireland, and then the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be finished. Very soon after that, the Scots are going to revive their campaign for independence. Then, the United Kingdom will disappear completely. There'll be either the “Kingdom of England” or the “Republic of England.” How about that? That's entirely visible. It's coming over the horizon.

Weltwoche: In your work, you present Europe as a whole. You open Western readers' eyes to the hidden East, namely Poland. In view of the war that Russia is waging on European soil, is there more that unites us than divides us?

Davies: One of Putin's achievements has been to re-inforce the idea of European unity. Finland and Sweden, who've been outside the North Atlantic Treaty Defence system (NATO), are now going to join. Our idea of Europe now excludes Russia completely. Putin is 69-years-old. He's not going to be around for another half century. When he goes, the next regime in Russia may well be one which is trying to restore connections with Europe, or it may go [its own way] completely. Putin may have caused the ultimate schism with Europe.

Weltwoche: What unites us as Europeans?

Davies: All Europeans, with very few exceptions, see that Ukraine is fighting for ideals that we share: the rule of law; free democracies; the right to national identity. The fact that Putin openly decided that a nation of 48 million people doesn't exist arouses in everybody the reaction, “Well, we do exist!” All people who belong to the nations of Europe, who feel happy and satisfied with the present state of affairs, are going to say: “We are Europeans.”

Norman Davies,, 82, is a Welsh-Polish historian, known for his publications on the history of Europe, Poland, the United Kingdom and the decline of European Empires. Davis is professor emeritus at University College London and an honorary fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford. He was granted Polish citizenship in 2014.