MOSCOW -- More than three centuries after he sought to bring Russia closer to Europe, Russians last week marked the 350th birthday of Peter the Great with the country deeply isolated over the Ukraine conflict.
Inspired by time spent abroad, Peter I made huge efforts to modernise his vast and under-developed nation during his rule from 1682 to 1725, most famously building St. Petersburg as Russia's "window to Europe".
With ties between Russia and the West shattered by Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, authorities are downplaying Peter's affinity for Europe, instead focusing on his role in expanding Russian territories and consolidating state power.
In a speech in St. Petersburg on June 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin compared his current actions to Peter the Great's conquest of the Baltic coast during his 18th-century war against Sweden.
The defeat of Sweden in the Great Northern War (1700-1721) made Russia the leading power in the Baltic Sea and an important player in European affairs.
More than a century later, Russian troops brought Central Asia under another tsar's rule.
'Taking back and reinforcing'
"You get the impression that by fighting Sweden he was grabbing something," Putin told a group of young entrepreneurs after visiting an exhibition in Moscow dedicated to the 350th birthday of the tsar. "He wasn't taking anything; he was taking it back."
When Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg and declared it the Russian capital, "none of the countries in Europe recognised this territory as belonging to Russia", Putin said.
"Everyone considered it to be part of Sweden. But from time immemorial, Slavs had lived there alongside Finno-Ugric peoples," he added.
"It is our responsibility also to take back and strengthen," Putin said, in an apparent reference to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which the Kremlin insists is merely a "special military operation".
Putin said the roughly 1,000 international companies that have withdrawn from Russia since the February 24 invasion of Ukraine would "regret it".
"It's impossible -- do you understand -- impossible to build a fence around a country like Russia," he said.
In the run-up to the June 9 anniversary, Russian social media were full of commentary wondering what happened to Peter's vision.
Memes making the rounds show photos of the tsar, sometimes in a montage with Putin, and slogans like "Peter I opened the window to Europe; Putin will close it" or "Close the window to Europe; the view is horrible."
Asked about the anniversary recently, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted the window remained open.
"No one is planning to close anything," he told journalists.
Putin has made it clear that he is "about reliving the Russian imperial dream", Kyle Wilson, who served as an Australian diplomat in the Soviet Union, told the Washington Post.
"And the man who made Russia into an imperial empire was Peter the Great."
Putin, a former KGB agent who turns 70 in October, has managed over the past 20 years to build a system based on impunity and fear, said Mikhail Kasyanov, Russia's prime minister from 2000 to 2004.
"These are the achievements of a system that, with the encouragement of Putin as head of state, has started operating even in a more cynical, cruel manner than in the final stages of the Soviet Union," he told AFP.
"Essentially, this is a KGB system based on complete lawlessness. It is clear that they do not expect any punishment."
Kasyanov said he had left Russia because of the war and was living in Europe, but he declined to disclose his location out of concern for his safety.
After being sacked by Putin, Kasyanov joined Russia's opposition and became one of the Kremlin's most vocal critics.
The 64-year-old, who championed close ties with the West as prime minister, said that, like many other Russians, he did not believe in the weeks ahead of the war that it would actually happen.
Putin 'out of it'
Kasyanov understood that Putin was not bluffing only when he saw him summon the country's top leadership for a theatrical meeting of the security council three days before the invasion on February 24.
"When I saw the meeting of Russia's Security Council, I realised, yes, there will be a war," Kasyanov said.
He added that he felt that Putin was already not thinking properly.
"I just know these people and by looking at them I saw that Putin is already out of it. Not in a medical sense but in political terms," he said.
"I knew a different Putin."
Kasyanov predicted the war could last for up to two years and said it is imperative that Ukraine win.
"If Ukraine falls, the Baltic states will be next," he said.
The outcome of the war will also determine Russia's future, Kasyanov said, adding that Russians will face a huge task rebuilding their country.
"Everything will have to be rebuilt anew. Essentially, an entire set of economic and social reforms should be started all over again," he said.
"These are enormous and difficult tasks, and they will have to be done."