This article outlines a motivation for the Russian Federation's incursion into the Crimea, which concerns the Putin administration's relationship with Russia's citizens, rather than the outside world. I use a case study from Siberia – the Sakha people's revival of their national epic, the Olongkho – to explore the possibility that Putin's behaviour during the Ukrainian crisis serves to legitimate his authority within Russia, by appealing to conceptions of ethnicity that have their roots in Soviet-era social engineering. Rather than deducing the Putin administration's motives from the events and relationships they immediately concern, I explore motivations emerging from the configuration of values, perceptions, and conventions that shapes and reproduces social difference in Russia. The Sakha Olongkho revival shows how the perceptions of ethnicity fostered during the Soviet era have become powerful indexes of morality and authority. Individual Sakha citizens now demonstrate their identities and values through adopting a stance towards a reified conception of Sakha ethnicity expressed in their choices of recreation, fashion and consumption. Sakha ethnicity has become integrated into the process whereby hierarchical social groupings emerge within Sakha society according to their avowal of specific tastes and norms. The relatively small size of the Sakha population – which is nevertheless the dominant ethnic group in their republic, Sakha (Yakutia) – enables us to see trends affecting the rest of Russia in microcosm. Thus, I suggest that former Soviet ethnicity has become so closely woven into Russia's morality that Putin's invasions of foreign states, in the name of the ethnic Russian community, bolster his claim to be a moral person and a legitimate and authoritative national leader.