History wars: What Putin's attempts to rewrite the past say about Russia's future

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently revealed that he worked as a cab driver after the fall of the Soviet Union. He says Russia "turned into a completely different country" in the years that followed.

(CNN)Russian President Vladimir Putin's past came into sharper focus recently with the admission that, in the tumultuous days following the collapse of the Soviet Union, he earned cash on the side as a taxi driver.

"Sometimes I had to moonlight and drive a taxi," Putin said in an excerpt of an interview for "Russia. New History," a state television documentary. "It is unpleasant to talk about but, unfortunately, this took place."
The disclosure, in fact, tells us very little about the post-Soviet fortunes of the former KGB officer. It was fairly common in the economic free-for-all of the 1990s for Russian drivers to pick up passengers for a few extra rubles. In the days before ride-hailing apps, all you had to do to was flag down a passing car and agree on a fare.
    Putin's taxicab confession, then, was not a moment of candor -- the Kremlin, after all, closely guards the real details of his personal life. But this minor biographical aside does reveal something about Putin's overarching political goal: To rewind the tape to 1991 and compose an alternative script for the decades that followed.
      "We turned into a completely different country. And what had been built up over 1,000 years was largely lost," Russia's longtime leader lamented in the interview.
      In recent months, Putin's pet project has been an attempt to rewrite one of the most significant chapters in recent European history: The appearance, in 1991, of a sovereign and independent Ukraine -- right next door to Russia.
      Back in June, during a nationally televised call-in show, Putin pronounced that Ukrainians and Russians were a "single people." He then elaborated on the subject in a 5,000-word article that lamented the "artificial division of Russians and Ukrainians."
      Stripped to its essence, Putin's argument was that Ukraine and Ukrainians are part of a larger "historical Russia" -- and that modern-day Ukraine, which gained independence in 1991, was merely the by-product of administrative and territorial boundaries cooked up by the Soviet leadership.
      The Russian president made no mention, of course, of the millions of Ukrainians who voted overwhelmingly in support of independence.
      No, in Putin's view, post-Soviet Ukraine became a tool of the West for weakening Russia.
      "Ukraine was dragged into a dangerous geopolitical game aimed at turning Ukraine into a barrier between Europe and Russia, a springboard against Russia," he wrote. "Inevitably, there came a time when the concept of 'Ukraine is not Russia' was no longer an option. There was a need for the 'anti-Russia' concept which we will never accept."
      Put otherwise, Putin seemed to be testing out a historical justification -- should the need arise -- for regime change in Ukraine.